I’ve scanned and converted the following from Popular Photography, Feb. 1941.
WE all realize that there is an imÂportant 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 inÂteresting a week from now as it is todayâ€”even more interesting. A picture brings us satisfaction that is far deeper than the superficial admiration that we exÂtend to mere technical excellence.
In this series of articles we are discussÂing some of the qualities that contribute to good pictures. Pictorial excellence is not altogether a matter of compositionâ€”although sometimes we are assured that it is. Much of pictorial excellence is inÂherent 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 qualÂities that subject matter should possess in order to lend itself to the making of good pictures. It must be
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.
Firstâ€”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, thereÂfore, speaks in the most restricted of perÂsonal terms. Insofar as a portrait beÂcomes 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 techÂnical 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 resigÂnation 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 underexÂposed of course, but that’s Junior right there. Now, here’s a really good shot of him riding his tricycleâ€”`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 pictureâ€”Oh Boy!â€”wait till you see this one! It shows him when. . . .”
And so on and onâ€”as long as you can stand to listen to it. Now, Joe is really a nice guy, and a fairly good amateur phoÂtographer 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 obviÂously well fortified with vitamins and destined to grow up to be a good citizen and a leading light in his communityâ€”but there is not a picture in the lot.. PaÂrental pride and pictorial discrimination rarely go hand-in-hand. It is obvious that Joe is interested in Junior only for Junior’s sakeâ€”not as subject matter for real pictures.
Junior’s parents are primarily interÂested in his personal aspectsâ€”matters of profound indifference to the general pubÂlic. Butâ€”it is important to noteâ€”JuÂnior also can be pictorially presented. Note, for example, Roy Pinney’s first-prize print, “Hunger Strike,” which apÂpeared 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 gossipâ€”what he said, and what she said, and what I heard about her first husband. But mere gosÂsip, however amusing, will not make litÂeratureâ€”nor will the photographic equivÂalent 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 photographsâ€”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 permaÂnent 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”â€”if I may coin a wordâ€”our subject matter.
Here, I want to outline four ways in which this “de-personalization” may take place. There are numerous other possiÂbilities, 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. EnÂvironment tells us a great deal about the personality of the person who creates it or lives in itâ€”but the things it tells us beÂlong largely to the category of gossip, which we described above. Life, for exÂample, is very fond of showing us people â€”people of all ages and conditions of life, in their completely detailed, native enÂvironment. There is no gainsaying the vividness of these photographs as social records, but they should not be taken as pictorial standards. The very completeÂness 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 anyÂwhere 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 soluÂtion is sometimes useful, but it is too simplified and too drastic for most occaÂsions. Backgrounds are very valuable pictorial elements, but they must be reÂduced 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 environÂment as those that appear in Fig. 1â€”the desk, the ruler, the bookâ€”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 WilÂloughby.
The personal element has been elimÂinated from Fig. 2. It is not any particuÂlar teacher in any particular school on any particular day. It is simply an alarmed child’s impression of the “PedaÂgogical 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 backâ€‘ground or environment to symbolic elements.
The second method of escaping from the purely personal limits of subject matÂter 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 inÂsists on throwing her personality at the camera through her eyes and teeth. There is much more likelihood of getting a picÂture 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 hysterÂical aspect when fixed in glassy permaÂnence by the camera.
Even a somewhat standardized theatriÂcal 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 herÂself at you.
Here we have the second suggestion for the “de-personalization” of subject matÂter:
Avoid too much “expression” in your model.
The third method of reducing the perÂsonal implications of subject matter is the use of distortion by projection control.
Any sort of graphic representation inÂvolves 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 deÂtachment. Fig. 5 is a very indifferent sort of portrait. Fig. 6, however, is effecÂtive 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 exagÂgeration practiced by the cartoonist. The length of face noticeable in Fig. 5, for exÂample, is given pictorial exaggeration in Fig. 6.
Thus, the third suggestion for the “deÂpersonalization” 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 representationâ€”an irregular oval with squiggles for eyes, nose, and mouth. A little later he tries a profileâ€”an arrogantly jutting nose, with dashes to indicate mouth and eye. He isn’t conÂcerned with ideas of personality; he simÂply 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 anglesâ€”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 portraiÂture, 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 impresÂsion 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 suggesÂtions 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. ForÂget about them when you are taking porÂtraits, but use them to best advantage when you are after real pictures.