This section is from the book "Complete Self-Instructing Library Of Practical Photography", by J. B. Schriever. Also available from Amazon: Complete Self-Instructing Library Of Practical Photography.
By "Sidney Allan" (Sadakichi Hartmann).
Composition is synonymous with artistic invention, the ability to delineate objects in such a way that we are impressed with the fidelity of representation, and at the same time derive an esthetic satisfaction from the manner and style in which it is accomplished.
This faculty seems to be with most photographers a result of experience rather than of a serious and prolonged study of the laws of composition. They acquire it by hard work and constant application. It is with them in most cases a matter of unconscious self-education, of keeping their eyes open, of learning wherever they can in the daily routine of the studio, of continually enriching their store of former knowledge, and of reasoning out for themselves why they like one art expression and dislike another. All that is necessary to possess at the the start (besides technical proficiency) is good taste, or an instinctive feeling for what is correct or best. It is a natural gift, just as the gift of poetry or song in others, and can easily be cultivated and improved upon by the study of a large variety of good pictorial work, by analyzing each picture and trying to discover the reason why and how such work impresses one as being beautiful.
Gradually as the mind becomes more and more conscious of those laws that underlie judgment and selection, a mastery of composition will be attained, but this cannot be acquired, in my opinion, without a clear knowledge of the fundamental principles of composition. It is not the question how it may be acquired, whether by perseverance and adaptability or by analytical study. The argument is solely, that a thorough knowledge of composition is indispensable for the production of beautiful and convincing results.
My object, in this chapter, is largely to apply the fundamental principles to a series of prints, by a few well-known American professionals, that accompany this article; to point out their merits and shortcomings; to analyze the laws that underlie their pictorial arrangement, and to discover their note of individuality.
To begin with, no matter what the medium, a portrait should be a likeness first of all, and when the artist fails in this, you may be sure that he has not the right conception of the vocation of portraiture. All great portrait painters have striven with all their energy and dexterity to accomplish that end. Tizian's "Man With the Glove," or Rembrandt's "Saskia" (only to mention a few examples) Raphael's "Pope Julius II," Holbein's "Henry the VIII," are at the first glance convincing; their sincerity is unmistakable; though the originals are dead for centuries, yet one would swear to the accuracy of their likeness. Among contemporary painters Lenbach's "Bismarck" and Whistler's portrait of his mother are masterpieces in the delineation of character; John Sargent's portrait of Wertheimer is the very man himself; and the many canvases of Watts, Bonnat, Zorn, Blanche, etc., are full of individuality. It is not necessary to see the originals, so plainly do most of them convey the natural aspect of the sitters.
Professional photography in its endeavor to please its clientele has frequently neglected to make the most artistic use of personality. The public is too easily carried away by the flattery of smoothing wrinkles, of softening irregularities of anatomical construction, and subduing disagreeable facts of nature. And there will always be fashionable photographers who will cater to these weaknesses and idiosyncracies of the public and ignore the more truthful efforts of those craftsmen of the camera that aspire to higher ideals.
Simplicity in pose, expression and accessories is always desirable. The photographer should represent the personality of the sitter and endeavor to lose as little from his individuality as possible. In objectivity lies the greatness of all portraiture. The accessories should be aids to the composition, not hindrances. Everything should be subservient to the character and type, and all details of dress and furniture should lead up to the face, the "point of interest." As Arthur Hoeber has so aptly said, "we are accustomed to seeing our friends in the quiet refinement of private houses; they should not, when photographed, appear in uncomfortable finery or be surrounded by unfamiliar objects, with which they could not, under any ordinary circumstances, have any possible association."
The portraits of Plate I are all four noteworthy examples of simple and unaffected treatment. They show the sitter from a characteristic viewpoint, and convey all the necessary minutiae of detail with subtle deliberation. There are, broadly speaking, two phases of representation possible, one that shows the face, or the face and the figure as directly as possible against a simple background without any accessories, excepting, perhaps, a chair or a piece of wearing apparel (this style is represented in Figures 2, 3 and 4); or second, home portraiture, where the figure is shown in natural environment as in Figure 5. The latter style opens up a wider scope for composition. It is, of course, easily possible to render such pictures confused and inartistic by an indiscriminate use of the overcrowded furn-ings of our interiors. But if well arranged and typical of the subject of the painting, it is a great advance from the dio effect with rank background, curtains, stucco relief-work and over-ornamented chairs. It enables the photographer, not less than the painter, to accentuate the personality of the sitter by a characteristic natural atmosphere. me portraiture has come to stay, but unfortunately it is frequently subject to over-arrangement.
The home portraitists are apt to think that no picture can be artistic unless his models are dressed in the costumes of some by-gone periods, and he creates an alien and totally artificial atmosphere.