MODERN artists the world over, in defining art in the simplest words, agree that "Art is arrangement." We may add that its study is not a matter of asking for recipes from this or that school, this or that national or racial art, this or that period, classical, renaissance, or modern. On the contrary it is the acquiring of certain simple principles that underly all art of all times. By applying these principles growth comes, insuring insight into more complex methods of reasoning and bringing the power to execute difficult problems.
Photography enters the field of art guided by the pictorial principle. Photo-portraiture should strive to attain the depths, the tactile quality, the logic and the completeness of balance that delight us in masterpieces of drawing or painting in monochrome. Compared with the free art of painting, photography will always have limitations, one of which is to be found in the temperamental differences of the workers in each profession. Art in photography would be undeservedly exalted were we to maintain that the mental and emotional expenditure in its production rivals or even approaches the output that is attendant upon picture painting. The more mechanical our tool, the more calculating do we find ourselves when working out the problem; the more unhampered and direct our touch in its record of the seen or unseen world, the higher is the form of expression.
Composition in photography is the easiest study found in any art, because it does not require several years to gain a power over the medium and because colors are eliminated. When the chemical and technical sides are under control, experiments are made with rapidity and results are gained in hours that in any other art require days, weeks, or months; experiences crowd and insight is rapid. If early experiments prove failures, new efforts can quickly follow until the mind and heart are satisfied. Is there such a thing as complete mastery owing to this rapid growth? Possibly not, because photography has difficulties to meet that painting does not know. The lens overwhelms us with detail and every photographer finds himself confronted with the question, "How may I suppress unessential and disturbing accessories?' With the introduction of new processes comes the further demand, "How may I supplement and balance the chief interest in my representation?' The field is large and the rules expand with the growing insight of the artist. He can never say all that he would; he cannot work long enough or live long enough for that. But he can do superior and individual work during his lifetime.
Art being a growth, we must consider whether with the young it is not a natural growth, while in the case of the mature photographer it may mean that he should throw aside his preconceived ideas and his prejudices against the phases and possibilities into which he has not yet penetrated. Certain views held by a portion of the profession are harmful to development. For instance, this paragraph occurred in a photographic magazine some time ago:
"What is the difference between a good photograph and an artistic photograph? It is commonly understood that a good photograph is merely a print from a good negative, whilst an artistic photograph must have been carefully selected as to subject, composition, and lighting."
In reality there is no difference between a good and an artistic photograph. Artistic in itself embodies
"good"; artistic as a quality is above the question of means or method, it deals only with result. The word is derived from art, and art is arrangement to produce beauty and logic, or "truth' as we more often express it. Subject and lighting, lens and paper, are only means to an end. The profession must seek to avoid weakening its forward movement by controversies of this kind. It must strike at the foundation of the whole question, and this is and always will be art. When pursuing it, we are "space-fillers," men who control lines and light and dark to convey the meaning we have within us. We cannot transcribe all nature that is about us, because nature has innumerable truths called phases. The camera as well as the brush can treat only certain of these truths to which the mind is open or sensitive. And the more we practise the more we see to interpret; in the same ratio do we learn to make our tool — the camera or the brush — record the newly grasped truths and newly felt sentiments. The only limit to progress in the artist and his art, either in photography or painting, is in the limit of his mental and soulful range.
The greatest obstacle the modern photographer encounters is his adherence to an idea that the camera "holds a mirror up to nature," that it is "true to nature." If that were so, photography would be for all times contained among the sciences and debarred from art. For nature is never art, nor does nature as a whole ever affect us as art. In art we are dealing strictly with the mental and emotional faculties more or less developed in each individual. These faculties respond when, on a flat surface such as paper, we find certain emotional and intellectual records of things we have seen or experienced in nature. And it is the manner in which these records are made that affects us as art. Every stroke, touch, spot, and patch of light and dark governed by the mind and hand of the artist interprets first an emotion, second a meaning. In this lies the province of art. The "mirror of nature," as expressed by photography, is a cold, impersonal, undesirable tracing of certain facts reproduced by pure science — heartless, uninteresting. Its value is wholly scientific, and it deals with only one kind of truth. There is nothing impressionable or impressive about it. Pictorial art is strongly emotional. It exists to give pleasure and at the same time knowledge; not such knowledge as the dissecting sciences impart, but the kind inherent in music, poetry, literature, religion.
Nature in itself has nothing to do with art; it is only the quarry, the reservoir out of which material for art can be taken. It is plain, then, that "true to nature" cannot refer to the comprehensive truth, but that of necessity selection of truths must be resorted to in any event. This being so, the phrase "holding a mirror up to nature" is evidently meaningless from the standpoint of art, and "true to nature" must be understood as referring to a phase of nature of which we have become conscious.
When photography aims at art and not at science the personality of the photographer becomes at once a factor. His mental state will record itself in his work. If he boasts acquaintance with nature only, it will be seen; if he shows inclination to penetrate into the laws of art his first steps will reveal themselves, being evident in this, that his new efforts will betray a control of his camera results, an elimination of a certain undesirable truth and the setting forth of one that in his judgment is worthy of attention. The process of removing a stifling mass of "truths' will have taken place. Next it will be found that in thus selecting he has unconsciously developed a "motive.' A motive is something felt; it differs from a subject in that a subject is anything in nature deemed desirable to reproduce; its definition begins and ends here. A motive grows in this wise, - it presupposes a subject analyzed and is the conception of the artistic possibilities contained in that subject. It embodies a study of the inherent beauty and the harmonious meaning offered by the subject. With this the artist-photographer begins his career and separates himself forever from the purely scientific worker.
Having discovered his motive, his further advance toward art is manifest in his struggles to express it. He feels rather than reasons that 'beauty' is always a matter of arrangement, that "meaning' comes only with a certain use of lines and light and dark placed to define form or indicate action. He will discover that certain rules will help him on his way, but that every rule is expansive and wonderfully adaptable to his personality, his needs and his ideas. He finds himself not one of a multitude enlisted in a scientific process, but a free individual, growing freer as he advances in knowledge gained by study and practice. A new life opens, unclosed to him by the treasures of art. Where he was able only to see nature and to experience a vague longing to interpret her, he now gains a fuller understanding as he succeeds more and more in picturing her phases in the true art spirit. Here lies for him an unbounded source of study and inspiration; he learns to aim at being an individuality as each of the masters was and is, and his art life has truly begun.
We quote again from a photographic magazine: "If mere fidelity to nature be the qualification for acknowledgment as art, then the merest photographic tyro of but one week's experience would be greater than all the artists of any time. For in no art of any kind has detail been obtained in the overwhelming way the camera gives it. At no time has there been recorded in picture form so much truth to physical fact."
Verily so full of detail is the literal photograph that unless we look for it the very detail is lost. We find ourselves gazing at the photograph, not feeling strongly a large truth, receiving a large impression, but growing coldly critical, examining the given detail and hunting for more. Our interest in such work is soon exhausted, while a photograph of real pictorial quality holds us increasingly the longer we look at it. It is food for a lifetime because it continues to suggest to us and it may do the same for generations to come, even as the true art works of the past speak to us to-day.
The great basic principles and truths remain ever the same, although each new generation demands a mode of expression consistent with its cravings, thoughts, strivings. Art must keep abreast of its time, and must not only reflect our age for the future but must at this time project itself into the future with helpful resourcefulness. We have a wide horizon, the arts of many centuries are open to our gaze and we feel increasingly their influence. Growth continues; we must all aid in promoting, not retarding, the advance.