PROFESSIONAL photographers may be dis-couraged when confronted with the necessity of creating backgrounds on the negative instead of buying them as hitherto in the form of screens to be placed behind the sitter. There is no occasion for alarm, however. The principles of art as compiled in a textbook may seem formidable, but the usual problems of the studio are not often complex and after a little practice it is therefore easy in photographic portrait work to make the simple changes that give the greater satisfaction.
The average person rejects the scenic background; practically all people of good taste decline to have themselves pictured with too great realism. A small photo-likeness receives preference over a larger one, because in the smaller work the physical presence is less obtrusive and the picture as a whole is capable of more technical refinement. Members of the profession have tried to lessen the people's grievance by trimming the prints only to find a second evil confronting them, - the figure crowded and unduly cramped. The plain black or light background with its dry dead tone is proving itself an affliction. The over-ornamented chair, stucco relief-work, simple or strongly designed draperies, are discovered to be obstacles because they enter into competition with the head or figure in seeking our attention. In studio language, we refer to them as "loud" backgrounds, and in the use of the term we give evidence of their harmful nature, for a background should recede, produce quiet, and allow prominence to a main interest.
No one will now question the statement that in Fig. 1 the assertive, restless, worrying forms of the rococo ornament are "noisy," without sense or value, and in every conceivable way destructive to the figure. There is absolutely no portrait or picture quality. The photographer doubtless reasoned thus: This woman has an elaborate gown of very rich material. I must seek to make her unusual and my only means of doing so is to employ one of a number of backgrounds that I have in stock. The one with the rococo ornament that I produce on special occasions like this I will employ again. It is the height of my powers of expression, in fact the background is my expression. The woman shall stand before it as a hundred others have done, the only difference will be in her pose and possibly in the angle of light under the skylight.
The barrenness of such thought is fully disclosed.
The real artist would have tried to reveal the woman's character, to make her what he conceived her to be, while this photographer had no conception of her; he allowed his background to testify to his lack of resources. Only a background fully thought out can make the true portrait; any other method will destroy what good there may be in the sitter. Landscape should be introduced not for its intrinsic beauty but because its series of movements and masses are an aid and support to the figure. Architectural features may play a part if the lines they offer are of service in the picture-upbuilding; no other merit can justify their introduction.
Figure 114 is a photograph having all the refinements that excellent workmanship, good lighting, the clean plate and superior printing can give. The realism is not so oppressive as in Fig. 1, yet the photographer was unable to free himself from mere fact rendering. The face, dress, floor, hat, curtain, are all equally literal. Compare it with Fig. 115. A transformation has taken place that makes this example a portrait while the other is the posed child. Here we have enveloped the child with feeling, with loving lines and tones, we have treated her in the picture as we would treat her in life, with the same lavish care. In the good straight photograph the child seems abandoned and forgotten.
Do we not become more and more conscious of the nakedness of the plain photographs when we compare them with those that have been pictorially developed ?
In the Van Dyck, Fig. 51, the rock, foliage, clouds have grown out of the purely abstract in arrangement, assuming in their development semblance to natural forms, yet this is not realism for its own sake. To test this truth we have but to add one realistic form, one leaf, rock or grass blade, or to shift the shapes that exist, and we destroy that balance so necessary to the portrait quality. In Figures 30, 31, and 83 architectural forms are used with the figure, but in each the attempt made is not to depict a realistic window or wall, but only to obtain lines that produce certain results.
In Fig. 66 the flowers are placed, not as nature would have them grow, but according to the needs of the figure and its surroundings. These flowers are impossible if we demand realism, and yet they are satisfactory as space-fillers, while realistic blossoms would be totally out of place.
The created background in photography is a civilizing agent.