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