Probably the first problem on which the proud owner of a new camera tries his hand is a group. His family - and any chance friends who may be calling - are marshalled upon the doorstep, exhorted to look pleasant, and snapshotted to the accompaniment of facetious comments from passers-by.
Photographically nobody would deny that groups are, in most cases, a melancholy failure. As a source of amusement they will, however, never cease to be a success. Wherefore it is fitting that a few notes should be devoted to the subject. Folks will go on group-taking - notwithstanding the sneers of professionals and the weary protests of the victims - to all eternity; and the craze may as well be catered for.
Groups are generally taken under a misapprehension. The photographer seems to imagine that the aim of his labor is to provide likenesses of the "groupees" ; and that, by taking half a dozen people on one plate he proposes to produce half a dozen portraits.
This theory is a fallacy. The object of taking a given set of half a dozen people at once is not primarily that of portraiture, but (though this at first seems a trifle exaggerated) that of historical record. The camera is utilized for the purpose of making a note of the fact that on a certain date certain friends were gathered together in a certain place. The proof and memorial of this occurrence is the photographic group. Of course, if the individual faces of the group are satisfactory likenesses, all the better. But they never are, for the simple reason that they appear too small, and therefore almost impossible to retouch. And there are so many of them that some are almost sure to be bad.
No; groups are not wholesale portraits. The photographer who gets this idea out of his head will have gone a long way towards improvement. Why? Because once you realize that groups are records of the presence of given people in a given spot, you cease the atrocious habit of posing them unnaturally. You be gin to perceive that the real reason why your groups were a subject of merriment was because they were so artificial looking. When friends meet, they don't squash shoulder to shoulder upon the cold, hard doorstep, nor do they habitually mass themselves in a clump of humanity under the back-garden laburnum tree. They stroll about, chat, read, shake hands. Why then not photograph them in the act of doing so? Instantaneous shutters and rapid plates have made this quite possible. Why then shirk the experiment?
The most sensational picture at the 1903 photographic Salon was a group. Never before had a group been accepted at the premier exhibition of the metropolis. Then what was the special distinction which singled out this especial effort ? Wherefore was Mr. Reginald Craigie, its author, honored above all the other aspirants to fame who doubtless had submitted groups to the critical judgment of the Hanging Committee ?
Simply because Mr. Craigie's group was true to life. It represented the members of the Court of Directors of the Bank of England - an august body, who by the bye, had never before recognized the existence of photography as a historical recorder. Mr. Craigie might conceivably have taken them on benches in the bank's quiet little central courtyard, or he might have induced them to cab down in a body to the Camera Club and pose in front of a painted background in its studio. He was too good an artist to commit such an eggregious error. He let them sit around their board-room table exactly as they were accustomed to do at ordinary meetings. They were apparently caught in the act of deliberating some weighty question of finance. Not one of them is "conscious." The result is a triumphant proof that the mere fact that a photograph is a group does not necessarily condemn it as a work of art. There is no jarring note in Mr. Craigie's photograph, there is nothing unreal about it; it doesn't make you smile. And the group which doesn't make you smile is sadly rare.
Mr. Craigie, too, has taught the photographic world that the composition of a group need not necessarily be wooden. The lines of his group are excellent, and so is the massing; and the light is soft yet natural.
Now reflect for a moment what the average snap-shotter's group looks like. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred it consists of three straight tiers of bodies topped by three rows of heads. The faces from a treble row of white blobs, hideous in their mechanical symmetry. A lower series of black blobs, In the shape of feet, repeat and accentuate this melancholy and irritating pattern.
This, I think will be admitted, is a fair description of the usual family group, as perpetrated by the amateur. The professional's is a little better. Papa and mamma are seated in armchairs. The youngest olive-branch nestles between papa's knees or lounges in undisguised comfort upon his feet. Sons and daughters lean over their parents' chairs or turn the leaves of old-fashioned albums. Not one of the whole group is at ease.
As portraits the result is negligible, owing to the smallness of the faces. Historically the thing is nothing more nor less than a lie; for never in heaven or earth did a family exist who honestly enjoyed such close proximity to each other's persons, or who from preference spent their time examining albums or leaning over the backs of their parent's chairs. Wherein then, lies the merit of the group at all ?
As I have said above, groups if they are defensible on any score, are defensible as mementoes. That is to say, they stand or fall on the question of their truth to the actual state of affairs when they were taken.
Is it picnic you wish to record? Then catch your company while they are boiling the kettle or pouring out the tea. What does it matter if a few of the picnickers have their backs to you or if one of them is caught in the ungraceful act of eating bread and jam ? The photo will recall that jolly holiday far better than a posed affair on an uncomfortable rock. Do you want to make a note of a garden party? Snap them in the middle of a game of croquet. Is it a cycling tour which you are immortalizing? Take them mounting at the inn door, or repairing a punctured tire by the roadside.
What a delightful history of the trifling events which go to make up one's life a series of such un-posed groups would be. Let every camera owner make it his duty and pleasure to start compiling such a series at once. I warrant his little black box will cease to be a terror to relatives and friends if he adopts this scheme.-" Focus."