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.
Arnold Genthe in the portrait of "Peter Robertson" (Fig. 12) shows us the method of diffusion in a more marked degree. As may be easily understood, there is in this sort of pictorialism not much scope for clear, well defined character interpretations (at least as we generally understand it), yet there is something in it that is perhaps equally eloquent. As I look at his "Peter Robertson," all washy and blurred, and yet distinct enough to reveal the genial disposition of the sitter, I do not merely see the face, but something beyond, something of his temperament, of his individuality as a man, and the fleeting mood of the moment. Is it merely because I am familiar with the work of these men, and does my imagination add this intangible something? Very likely; but is it not rather curious that a photograph can set your imagination going in such a direction? It seems so to me.
Technically, this is easy enough to explain. Of course I do not refer now to the photographic technique, but that higher technique of conception. Every painter who thinks (sorry to say there are many who do not, just as there are such photographers) knows that mystery is produced by vagueness. Form ordinarily is something very tangible, but as soon as its outlines are blurred and its texture diffused, it will begin to mystify us. This is - if not the aim - at least the final result of such work.
The photographing of groups is undoubtedly the most ambitious and most pictorial branch of portraiture. The difficulty lies in bringing the two or three figures together in such a way that their shapes do not conflict with each other, and to surround them with an adequate atmosphere.
There are various ways - the conventional studio effect as represented by "Mrs. C. Vanderbilt and Children," by A. F. Bradley (Fig. 14); the home portraiture method exploited by H. H. Pierce in his "Portrait of Mother and
Child" (Fig. 16); the genre idea as shown in "Doris and Her Mother." by Elizabeth Flint Wade and Rose Clark (Fig. 16); and finally the unconventional way of which we have a specimen in Paul Fournier's "Listening to a Lecture
Fig. 14 is a good specimen of its kind. Society folks are apt to have their own way and ideas about how they would like to look in a portrait. They still prefer elaborate settings. They have traveled abroad and perhaps become infatuated with some portraiture of Romney, Reynolds, Gainsborough - or it may be some modern master like Sargent - and wish to be portrayed in that fashion. The photographer must be prepared for any such emergency and often goes to the trouble, for a single client, of having a special background painted or a special balustrade, staircase or gateway constructed. A. F. Bradley is a master of these pictorial arrangements. He is an artist in feeling and knowledge, and Bradley prints are known for the elegance and good taste they display. The management of tone in most of his prints is superb and quite up to the best accomplishment in that line. They prove that one can please the public and yet remain artistic. But they represent, after all, a curious phase of photography, these portraits of Bradley. Do these elaborate compositions not look a trifle old-fashioned, built up as they are with accessories and backgrounds to veritable tableaux vivants.
The portrait of "Mother and Child," by H. H. Pierce, represents a variation of home portraiture that comes more and more into vogue. It has been taken in a home with the light which was available in that particular interior, but it has, notwithstanding, all the character of a studio production. This is accomplished by the painted-in-background. The great shortcoming of this innovation is that the background is frequently in no relation whatever to the light of the rest of the picture. This is, however, not the case in the Pierce portrait. In this particular instance it is merely used to give a more picturesque setting to the figure. It is in no
Examples in Portrait Composition.
Fig. 14. "Mrs. C. Vanderbilt and Children" A. F. Bradley
Fig. 15. " Portrait of Mother and Child " Henry H. Pierce
Fig. 16. "Doris and Her Mother "Elizabeth Flint Wade and Rose Clark
Fig. 17. "Listening to a Lecture "Paul Fournier
Portrait Composition xxxv way obtrusive and its vague gradations help the figure. The hands of the girl are a trifle dark, but the two figures pull well together, and this is accomplished by the A-shaped inclination of the two heads, and the rectangular line of the arm which forms the connecting link and produces a sort of quadrilateral shape that dominates the entire composition.
More sympathetic than either of these groups is Fig. 16. This portrait is strictly pictorial. It is a finely conceived combination of tone and chiaroscural composition, and the pictorial quality is largely due to the contrast of a few small light planes that are opposed to large masses of dark tonality. The genre idea is produced by the introduction of the emotional element. The artist thoughs as much of the depiction of sentiment as of likeness and detail. It would be extremely difficult to make a similar composition with the detail of Fig. 15. One or the other quality has to be sacrificed. The mother looks indifferent enough to be a fairly good likeness, but the child is more expressive of affection than its own individuality.
Paul Fournier has chosen a simpler method in his Fig. 17. I have stated elsewhere that "A group is nothing but a combination of two, three or more single portraits." This is what many of the old masters did, and what young Fournier has done. Every one of his figures would furnish a satisfactory portrait in itself; they become a harmonious entity solely by the diagonal arrangement, and the way in which the faces and hands are placed and related to each other.
My discourse is nearing its conclusion. I hope I have succeeded in suggesting a method of analysis by which we can enlarge our knowledge of composition. Every print can teach us something. We must see the beauties as well as the shortcomings, and always remain conscious and sufficiently impartial to appreciate that portrait photography, although a specialty, is capable of infinite variety.
Do not limit your ideas of beauty in a picture to the technicalities of the craft, but also recognize the value and beauty of the personality. Make the photographic print a real valuable possession - not merely a record, but a keepsake, a memento that contains something of the real person who is portrayed
And whatever you do, do not represent objects indiscriminately. Do not take paintings as infallible models for your composition, or imitate by all sorts of trickery black and white processes and the technical side of painting. You must possess the gift to find something of interest in every person, and to represent it in as artistic a manner as possible. There is something vital, something lovable, something characteristic, something beautiful in every person - no matter how insignificant and plain - which at times flares up and is worthy of an original pictorial record.
To have the power to comprehend all types of humanity, to grow enthusiastic about them, and to depict them faithfully, subordinating one's flights of fancy to the neces-y of the moment, and yet making the most of them, would take a man of keen intelligence and a deep love for humanity. And that is, first of all, necessary to produce a good portrait photographer.
The practical application of these principals is readily apparent in the chapters which follow.