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Photography And Art II

( Originally Published 1898 )



THERE was a time when the art world used to sneer at photography. They said it was going to ruin art with its crude stiff facsimiles of objects, like enough to pass for the real thing, but in truth so bald and lifeless, and moreover, in general detail, so distorted and awry as to destroy all beauty, and, in the end, to wither the taste of those who put up with its vapid and soulless mimicry. There was some truth in the charge, of course—enough to weight it, in fact, and almost to drive it home ; but that was in the early days, ere the light-picturer had had time to grow. There are few who would venture to re-peat the denunciation now; for, anathematised as it was by those who suffered from its coming—miniature painters in particular—it was soon found that, like the ugly duckling, it was a thing of power and of potential beauty. It came amid muttered curses and maledictions; it stayed to aid and to bless.

No one will affirm today that photography has not benefited art, that it has not revealed truths of representation that were barely guessed at before, and that, in portraiture especially, it has helped to a lifelikeness which the artist's unaided effort could not have achieved. One may walk through the Academy and pick out the portraits that owe much of their naturalness of pose and permeating fire of expression to the camera's unwearying touch and the light-wielder's trained power of manipulation.

In such cases it is art assisting art. Not all, however, of what is called photographic art is such in truth. Even one who has not the trained hand of the artist, and only takes views by a mechanical process, must possess an educated eye, as well as much natural artistic perception, if he would produce real pictures. It is not sufficient to be able to point his camera at an object, put in his plate, and withdraw the cap. Apart from the fact that there must be choice of subject, and selection of the fittest point of view, the man who has not studied the lighting of his picture, that is, the most suitable light for the subject in hand, has not gone far on the art side of his profession.

Many persons enjoy an inherent perception of the picturesque, and will hit upon the best point of view as by a natural instinct. All the same, not the most gifted in this respect but can learn something from a careful study of the principles and rules of art ; these are few and easily under-stood ; and being as important to the one who endeavours to make a picture by the chemical action of light as to the artist, no photographer should consider himself properly furnished as regards his brain-case until he has made himself familiar with the commoner axioms of the picturesque.

Often enough the seeker after the beautiful may come across a picture perfect to his hand; all he needs is to transfer it to his sensitized plate. But it just as frequently happens that while the view is all that could be desired, there is something wanting—a figure in the foreground or middle distance, a bit of stratified or cumulous cloud—to give a sense of life, or, as we might say, to focus the interest. When the artist feels the need of these, he supplies the deficiency. The photographers, however, cannot with brush or pencil put in such accessories as the painter can; but by combining negatives he is able to make up his picture in much the same way.

His landscape, it may be, shows a forest road ; but without some sort of life he may feel that it is dull and perhaps a little motiveless. He opines that a flock of sheep would improve it, and he goes in search of one; or it may be that he has one in his repertoire of " snap shots" that will just fit the scene. Possibly all that is needed is a little "weather," which has been well called "the expression of landscape." This he adds by means of a suitable cloud-picture which his camera has given him.

On the other hand, if his subject happens to be a little sombre, he may feel that it would add to the mysteriousness of his forest road, his mountain pass, or even his ordinary moorland track, if he dropped in a figure just where the way loses itself in the gloom. By means of it he carries the light, and so the eye, deeper into the picture.

There are of course limits to the building up of a picture in this way ; although at the Art Treasures Exhibition held at Manchester in 1857, a large subject was exhibited which was composed of thirty negatives. It was entitled " The Two Ways of Life," and was the work of a Swedish artist who practised photography at Wolverhampton. The process by which it was put together was described in the Photographic journal of 1858, and showed enormous skill and patience.

Although, as a tour de force, Rejlander's combination picture has never perhaps been approached, yet his effort was shortly after greatly outdone by the beautiful effects in combination printing produced by Mr. H. P. Robinson. The latter's method was to print each negative in turn upon the sensitized paper, the part not intended to be acted upon being obscured by opaque paper, black varnish, or some other like adjunct. The operation is described in " Silver Printing," written by Robinson in collaboration with Captain Abney, and is well worthy of careful perusal.

These way-breakers were soon followed by others, and now the making of pictures from different negatives is almost an everyday matter, the artistic results being visible at all the photographic exhibitions. Many are very beautiful and effective; but here and there one is conscious of over-elaboration, of a departure from the simplicity of nature, which is not always thinking of making a picture, and so of a tendency to incongruity. Better have a picture less "composed," and with something of the fortuitousness of the field, so to speak, in preference to anything like an approach to the incongruous.

Nature is so subtle in her poses," if one may use the term in such a connection, as well as so simple, that it is always best, if possible, to get your picture without making up. There is no lack of material. Nature is a very prodigal in the heaping up of her riches in this respect; and to the true artist she is ever inciting to fresh endeavour by the mystery of her chiaroscuro and the inimitable richness and subtle gradation of her tones.

If composition must be resorted to, it should be done sparingly and with the greatest care to keep the added figures or what-not in strict subserviency to the main point of interest. In other words, the figures must be subordinate to the landscape, or else the landscape must be sunk into subordination to the figures. Wherever portraiture of figures is attempted, the landscape must needs become of secondary importance, and fall to the level of a background merely; nothing can be allowed in it of chief interest to carry the eye away from the group.

In his " Pictorial Photography "—a book which every photographer would do well to read—Robinson says : " The figure must be of the subject as well as in it, in order that unity may be preserved," while, above all, a thing to be avoided "is the indiscriminate dragging in of figures into scenes in which they have no business, and where they do nothing but mischief."

This "dragging in " is too often done on the ground that without figures there is a lack of human interest. This is a superficial view. It does not follow that because a landscape or sea-view is destitute of figures it is therefore deprived of human interest. Sometimes the deepest human interest may lie in the picture's subtle appeal to the feeling of solitude, or to that sense of helplessness and dependence which is so pathetically human. A picture is made for the one who looks upon it, and he must bring something to the contemplation if he would truly enjoy it. In other words, something must be left to the imagination. Hence the need of not telling too much, of not filling up every available inch of space, like the fable with its laboured moral. The lonest hut will stand for human occupation ; a windmill will give life to a figureless scene. So a sail tenants with a sense of human endeavour the immeasurable deep while a lighthouse, bidding adieu to the sun, tells of men that contend with the elements and ships that go forth or come home in the night.

The feeling for composition is a gradual acquisition ; it cannot be learned all at once; to some even though this is not often the case—it may be for ever a sealed book. The kernel of the thing must be in the mind ; and if not there it is hopeless to try to cultivate it. For those who have it in them the method of development is to look continually at nature, and to compare its effects with those produced on canvas by the best painters. At first, perhaps, a feeling of despair may take possession of the tyro : he will see beauties the most striking obtained by methods the most varied, and often apparently quite contradictory ; sometimes the principles applied may even appear to set nature at defiance ; but gradually out of seeming diversity and confusion system and order arise, and out of apparent chance the strictest rule and reason. By this method of training the eye and feeling, much is in time perceived by one of real faculty which cannot be expressed in so many words. Sir Joshua Reynolds puts the matter very aptly in his Sixth Discourse :

" It must of necessity be," says he, " that even works of genius, like every other effect, as they must have their cause, must likewise have their rules; it cannot be by chance that excellences are produced with any constancy or any certainty, for this is not the nature of chance ; but the rules, by which men of extraordinary parts, and such as are called men of genius work, are either such as they discover by their own peculiar observations, or of such a nice texture as not easily to admit of being expressed in words ; especially as artists are not very frequently skilful in that mode of communicating ideas. Unsubstantial, however, as these rules may seem, and difficult as it may be to convey them in writing, they are still seen and felt in the mind of the artist ; and he works from them with as much certainty as if they were embodied, as I may say, upon paper. It is true these refined principles cannot be always palpable, like the more gross rules of art ; yet always does not follow but that the mind may be put in such a train that it shall perceive, by a kind of scientific sense, that propriety which words, particularly words of unpractised writers such as we are, can but very feebly suggest."

Nor need the student, making himself familiar with the power and compass of art in this way, lose courage because he works with a circumscribed medium. Until he begins to work in light and shade, he has but little idea what powerful effects are at his command. Perhaps, in order to show him something of the power of monochrome, I cannot do better than quote a few sentences from John Burnet * (whom every photographer should study).

" Breadth of effect," says he, " is only to be produced by a great extent of light or shade pervading the picture. If an open daylight appearance is intended, such as we see in Cuyp, etc., it will be best produced by leaving out part of the middle tint, and allowing a greater spread of light and half-light ; this will also give the darks the relative force which they possess in nature. If a breadth of shadow is required, such as we find in Rembrandt, etc., the picture ought to be made up of middle tint and half dark. In the one treatment the darks ought to tell sharp and cutting, which is the characteristic of strong daylight; in the other the lights ought to appear powerful and brilliant, enveloped in masses of obscurity.

" The influence of shadow upon any composition, when carried beyond the necessary depth for the relief, or distinct marking of the several parts, is breadth, from its absorbing many of the half tints and rendering the darks less cutting ; and repose, from there being fewer of the outlines visible ; hence arises a certain grandeur attendant upon space, and an agreeable sensation from the spectator being allowed to exercise his own fancy in embodying indistinct forms.

"Thus the gloomy solitude of a wood is in-creased by the absence of the twittering light through the trees, the absence of their harsh col-our, and the distinct form and crisp marking of the leaves. Rembrandt has carried this property of shadow beyond the hope of any improvement, and by this means has clothed the most trifling subject with a portion of sublimity. If we allow ourselves to be influenced by the association of ideas, it is capable of imparting a greater degree of horror to any subject of terror; as imaginary dangers appear greater than real, being augmented by the operations of the mind. Milton has made use of this quality in describing the situation of the fallen angels:

"From those flames No light, but rather darkness visible, Served only to discover sights of woe,'

and Titian in his picture of the Martyrdom of St. Laurence, which otherwise is disagreeable from its being cold and black."

A very little study, in short, will convince the thoughtful, that notwithstanding its deprivation of colour, all nature's manifold moods are at the command of the photographer, and in a way that neither pencil nor brush can emulate. Handicapped though he is in the respect that the rich gamut of colour with which nature dazzles the eye and entrances the sense is withheld from him, and that all the varied enchantments she thus produces have to be translated into monochrome, yet the light-wielder, notwithstanding these disadvantages, has a range of tonality within his grasp, and an intimacy and depth of touch that almost compensate him for the lack of a prismatic palette.

The prismatic palette may come in time ; meanwhile it is for the wise worker not to quarrel with his tools, but, remembering, in the words of Shakespeare, that for him " The glorious sun stays in his course and plays the alchemist," determine to produce the best he can within the limitations of his art. No doubt those limitations are at times very provoking. Every photographer has felt them. He sees a glorious bit of nature before him, and sets his sun-magic to work. The result is perhaps a really exquisite monochrome presentment of the scene ; but, alas, when he compares it in his mind's eye with the works of a Turner or a Linnell, how far it falls short of the almost indescribable charm of landscapes by those artists or others of similar rank and genius !

The witchery of Turner's and Linnell's landscapes, and, indeed, of those of all great artists, is their feeling of warmth, serenity, and soul. But looking at most landscape photographs, we feel a total lack of warmth, there is little serenity, while as for soul—" We start, for soul is wanting there." Not a few landscapes, however, have been produced which satisfy the eye that real and even high art is not beyond the reach of photography. As regards figure photography we must speak with less assurance. The number of figure photo-graphs that have been produced comparable with the products of the painter's hand is few; still such works have been produced, and what has been done once can of course be done again.

These exceptions are the things which the light-wielder should set before him as a source of inspiration and stimulus, and not allow himself to be discouraged by the numberless failures he sees, and his own shortcomings. It is disheartening to see a beautiful sunlit meadow come out nearly black in his picture, and an entrancing sky full of fleecy cloud and atmospheric life show as a mere bald patch of staring white. We know that a sunlit meadow is not black, and we have it on the authority of Ruskin that " white paper is not the least like air." But though these perplexing things will occur, the adept in photography knows the remedy, and all, that he has acquired is at the command of the willing learner. Hence the motto of the one who takes up this combined science and art should be, "All that there is in it or nothing." He who does that will find but little cause to complain of the limitations, in view of the almost boundless possibilities of photography. Something has been said on the subject in a preceding chapter; but I cannot do better than close my little treatise by quoting the remarks of Mr. F. H. Robinson, one of the fathers in photography, on this question of the scope of the science.

"At a first glance," said Mr. Robinson, " it may be supposed that the subjects of the photographer would have no limit. The range of the art is from the infinitely little to the infinitely remote; from the most microscopic atom to the nebulae in unimaginable space—nay, it has gone beyond the microscope, and depicted the invisible. Shakespeare ' exhausted worlds, and then imagined new'; but even his vast realms were not wider than those open to the camera; for the photographer claims the whole universe of fact, and calls for recognition in the regions of the imagination. The unthinking goose-quill of the poet was no more, in itself, able to write than the unthinking camera of the photographer is to make pictures; but both are mighty instruments in the hands of mighty men."

That photography has not "gone as far as it can go " is shown by the large number of uses to which it has recently been put, including its employment in the examination of Rontgen rays in surgical practice, as a military adjunct in connection with flying machines, as an aid in astronomical research, as the foundation of "moving pictures," and as a means for reproducing natural colors.



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