“DE-PERSONALIZE” YOUR PICTURES by William Mortensen

I’ve scanned and converted the following from Popular Photography, Feb. 1941.

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DE-PERSONALIZE YOUR PICTURES

You can improve your pictures by showing less in them. Fig. 1 (right) is cluttered up with personal detail. Fig. 2 (above), which the author titled "Nemesis of Childhood," is a "de-personalized" version of the same subject. Note how much more interesting it is.

WE all realize that there is an im­portant difference between good photographs and good pictures.
A fine photograph wins our admiration as a piece of work well done. But, having admired it, we are anxious to get on to something else.

A real picture, however, is just as in­teresting a week from now as it is today—even more interesting. A picture brings us satisfaction that is far deeper than the superficial admiration that we ex­tend to mere technical excellence.

In this series of articles we are discuss­ing some of the qualities that contribute to good pictures. Pictorial excellence is not altogether a matter of composition—although sometimes we are assured that it is. Much of pictorial excellence is in­herent in the subject matter itself. In finding a picture, at least 75 per cent of the job is finding your subject and the best way of approaching it with your camera.

Last month I indicated the four qual­ities that subject matter should possess in order to lend itself to the making of good pictures. It must be

  1. unified
  2. impersonal
  3. timeless
  4. essential

Last month we discussed how best to find unity in subject matter. We will now consider ways to steer clear of its purely personal aspects.

fi3. 3 (left) shows the result of too much "expression." To avoid extremes like this, catch your subjects face in repose, as shown in Fig. 4 (above). Fig. 5 (right) is an ordinary picture of an individual. Note how the subject has been "de-personalized" by distortion, used to make his face longer in Fig. 6 (above).

To be of lasting interest, pictures must have universal appeal. This expert tells you how to avoid the personal elements that are not important to anyone but yourself.

First—a warning. It is important to understand that at this time we are not concerned with portraiture. Photographic portraiture, by its very intent, is limited in its appeal. Conventional portraits are made to conform to the subject’s vanity and for the indulgent admiration of friends and relatives. The usual portrait, there­fore, speaks in the most restricted of per­sonal terms. Insofar as a portrait be­comes a picture, it must transcend the limits of personality. It must have some broad appeal that will make it of interest to others beside the subject’s friends and relatives. No matter how good a tech­nical job it is, it must have something more than mere photographic accuracy to make it a real picture.

To illustrate this point, let us consider the case of a man you’ve undoubtedly met; we’ll call him “Joe.”
He corners you on the 8:15 local, at the office, in the locker room, or even on the street. With a fanatical gleam in his eye, he pulls forth a little bundle of prints.

“Hiya, Bill,” he says eagerly. “Want to see some swell pictures? I took them of Junior, on his birthday.”

Interpreting your expression of resig­nation as consent, he plunges ahead. “Now, this one shows him on the front steps. He moved a little, but you can see how big he is getting. Here he is with his birthday cake. It’s a little underex­posed of course, but that’s Junior right there. Now, here’s a really good shot of him riding his tricycle—`tike,’ he calls it. By the way, did I tell you the cute thing he said the other day when I was giving him his bath? . . . Oh, I did? . . . Well, this picture—Oh Boy!—wait till you see this one! It shows him when. . . .”

And so on and on—as long as you can stand to listen to it. Now, Joe is really a nice guy, and a fairly good amateur pho­tographer as well. But when he is in one of his “did-I-show-you-these” moods, people carefully sidestep him. The prints are really not so bad, and Junior is obvi­ously well fortified with vitamins and destined to grow up to be a good citizen and a leading light in his community—but there is not a picture in the lot.. Pa­rental pride and pictorial discrimination rarely go hand-in-hand. It is obvious that Joe is interested in Junior only for Junior’s sake—not as subject matter for real pictures.

Junior’s parents are primarily inter­ested in his personal aspects—matters of profound indifference to the general pub­lic. But—it is important to note—Ju­nior also can be pictorially presented. Note, for example, Roy Pinney’s first-prize print, “Hunger Strike,” which ap­peared in the December issue of POPULAR PHOTOGRAPHY.

Of course, the camera does the personal and particular with great ease. When it is well done, we like this sort of thing, just as we enjoy a bit of gossip—what he said, and what she said, and what I heard about her first husband. But mere gos­sip, however amusing, will not make lit­erature—nor will the photographic equiv­alent of gossip ever produce a picture. Nevertheless, we like this photographic gossip. We like it so well, in fact, that the biggest publishing bonanza of the century has been found in various picture magazines that tell us, in thousands of undistinguished photographs, just what he said, and what she said, and give us the very specific low-down on her first husband.

We like these gossipy photographs—but we don’t like them for very long. We must have fresh, more intimate, and more personal items if our interest is to be kept up. To find any sort of perma­nent pictorial interest, we must abandon our quest for the merely personal. We must seek a more detached viewpoint and learn to evaluate subject matter in other than personal terms. In order to make pictures, we must “de-personalize”—if I may coin a word—our subject matter.

Here, I want to outline four ways in which this “de-personalization” may take place. There are numerous other possi­bilities, of course, but the discussion of these four should bring out the general procedure.

The first of these methods consists of avoiding or eliminating personal elements in the environment or background. En­vironment tells us a great deal about the personality of the person who creates it or lives in it—but the things it tells us be­long largely to the category of gossip, which we described above. Life, for ex­ample, is very fond of showing us people —people of all ages and conditions of life, in their completely detailed, native en­vironment. There is no gainsaying the vividness of these photographs as social records, but they should not be taken as pictorial standards. The very complete­ness of their backgrounds destroys their value as pictures.

Fig. 1 might be taken as typical of this sort of fully-realized background. If it appeared in a picture magazine, it might have some such caption as this: “Miss Grace Willoughby, teacher of the third grade in the Avenue A Elementary School.” Here is plenty of environment and background, but it is all particular and peculiar to Grace Willoughby of Avenue A. If there is a picture any­where about, we cannot see it because there is too much Grace.

How shall we go about dealing with this too-personal environment? One way would be to eliminate it completely and photograph the figure in front of a plain black or white background. This solu­tion is sometimes useful, but it is too simplified and too drastic for most occa­sions. Backgrounds are very valuable pictorial elements, but they must be re­duced to their most simple and important elements.

Fig. 2 shows us one solution of the school-teacher problem. Here we have some of the same elements of environ­ment as those that appear in Fig. 1—the desk, the ruler, the book—but in Fig. 2 they are used as symbols of the “Nemesis of Childhood” rather than as part of the personalized clutter of Miss Grace Wil­loughby.

The personal element has been elim­inated from Fig. 2. It is not any particu­lar teacher in any particular school on any particular day. It is simply an alarmed child’s impression of the “Peda­gogical Presence.” Fig. 2 is, in a word, a picture; Fig. 1 certainly is not.

This, then, is our first suggestion for the “de-personalization” of subject matter:

Reduce personal detail of back‑ground or environment to symbolic elements.

The second method of escaping from the purely personal limits of subject mat­ter has to do with the expression of the model. An excess of expression always limits a picture, because it brings the model’s personality to the fore. A good picture is impossible when the model in­sists on throwing her personality at the camera through her eyes and teeth. There is much more likelihood of getting a pic­ture from a face in repose than from one that is the parade ground for all sorts of emotions. Such transitory expressions are likely to assume a violent or hyster­ical aspect when fixed in glassy perma­nence by the camera.

Even a somewhat standardized theatri­cal expression such as that displayed in Fig. 3 is a bar to pictorial representation. Personality is again insisted upon, even though it is “phony.”

How much better pictorially is Fig. 4, in which the model does not throw her­self at you.

Here we have the second suggestion for the “de-personalization” of subject mat­ter:

Avoid too much “expression” in your model.

The third method of reducing the per­sonal implications of subject matter is the use of distortion by projection control.

Any sort of graphic representation in­volves some degree of distortion. Even a straightforward photograph like Fig. 5 is distorted, for the colors of the original have been reduced to a scale of grays, and the three dimensions have been reduced to two. But a distortion of form, such as the elongation shown in Fig. 6, helps us to attain a much greater degree of de­tachment. Fig. 5 is a very indifferent sort of portrait. Fig. 6, however, is effec­tive as a picture. And it does not owe its effectiveness to the fact that it represents any particular person.

Note that such distortion is effective only when it stresses inclinations already inherent in the subject. In this respect it follows the technique of selective exag­geration practiced by the cartoonist. The length of face noticeable in Fig. 5, for ex­ample, is given pictorial exaggeration in Fig. 6.

Thus, the third suggestion for the “de­personalization” of subject matter is the following:

Make occasional use of distortion as a means of effective emphasis of the qualities of the subject.

A fourth valuable method of reducing the personal implications of the subject is afforded by the choice of the angle from which the subject is photographed.

A child, when he first attempts to draw the human countenance, tries his hand at a full-face representation—an irregular oval with squiggles for eyes, nose, and mouth. A little later he tries a profile—an arrogantly jutting nose, with dashes to indicate mouth and eye. He isn’t con­cerned with ideas of personality; he sim­ply draws faces. It is considerably later in his career, if ever, that he essays the complications of the three-quarter angle.

In like manner, the maker of pictures who is interested in faces rather than personality will do well to cultivate these two primitive angles—the full face and the profile. The faces about us are most familiar when seen in some variant of the three-quarter angle. This is the angle usually favored by conventional portrai­ture, and is most clearly bound up with ideas of personality. On the other hand, the purely pictorial values of a face are most frequently realized in profile or full-face representation.

Another use of angle is shown in Fig. 2. The low viewpoint enhances the impres­sion of detachment, so that the figure of the school teacher looms implacable and as impersonal as the multiplication table.

The fourth suggestion, therefore, is:

Reduce the personal implication of subject matter by careful choice of the angle of presentation.

Wise application of these four sugges­tions is certain to improve your pictures. When you get to working with them, they undoubtedly will bring to light other means toward the same ends. For­get about them when you are taking por­traits, but use them to best advantage when you are after real pictures.

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