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.
179. Many photographers lose sight of the part played by the background in successful portraiture. They seem to be content to use what happens to be behind the sitter at the time, without further effort to secure a background that will help the composition. The backgrounds we will describe are not drawings with fictitious details of scenery supposed to be behind the sitter. Our idea is rather to offer suggestions that will aid in suppressing unsuitable wall paper, which so frequently spoils good pictures. The following instruction should greatly assist you in making a cheap, serviceable background, and also thoroughly train you as to the best methods of using it.
180. Of all At-home portraits that have been brought to our attention, fully three-fourths were practically ruined on account of the inconsistent use of the background. You can possibly recall cases where the amateur photographer, anxious to take a portrait, has placed the subject against the wall, indoors or out, making the exposure without any further background preparation. It may be thoughtlessness ; it may be a desire to avoid trouble; or, the fact that the character of the wall-paper or brick wall in the final photograph is not so marked on the ground-glass. Whatever the reason, the thing is done, and the following instruction is intended to suggest something better.
Let The Background Be Simple. It is almost as great a mistake to have an elaborate arrangement of things intentionally placed behind the sitter for effect, as it is to have the unsightly figures of the wall-paper. In a previous chapter we said that "a portrait is the likeness of a person, especially the face." Now, introduce the wrong accessories and you weaken and diminish the part played by the sitter. This is the mistake so many of the old style professional photographers made. Their studios were crowded with tables, cushions, "rock-work," and other devices, which were not only make-believe and offensive in themselves, but, even had they not been so, they interfered greatly with the effectiveness of the portrait as a likeness.
Selection Of Accessories. It requires the utmost skill and keen artistic sensibility to use accessories successfully, and the At-home portrait photographer will find that it is much better to abandon accessories and background details altogether. Make up your mind that the portrait shall just show the subject against a plain tinted ground - light or dark - that, and nothing more. It is not only an easy way out of the difficulty, but also an effective one. By examining salon work, and photographs that have captured prizes in leading competitions, or secured medals at the various state and national conventions, you will observe that in the majority of the pictures the backgrounds are extremely plain and simple.
Value Of Plain Background. Where the plain background is used in making the negative, it allows for special dodging and altering in the printing. Light spots may be worked in the background, on the glass side of the negative, in order to break the monotony of plainness. This provides a means for the display of one's own individuality, as by such means one may place these spots wherever he likes, and upon the accuracy of the placing depends their value as to the improvement of the picture.