Read at a meeting of the South London Photographic Society, Feb. 12th 1863.
SOME time ago you did me the honour to elect me an honorary member of this Society. I felt it to be an honour, and take this opportunity of returning you my warmest thanks for the distinction.
I have diligently read the reports of the meetings of the South London Photographic Society, and find that there is no branch of photography with which you are not thoroughly conversant. What has pleased me most in your proceedings has been the earnest interest you have shown, and the encouragement you have given, in raising the science we practice to the dignity of a fine art. Such coarse, however, has been much misunderstood by friends and foes, and as I am an old sinner in that direction I have come forward to be the "horrid example," show my complicity, and present AN APOLOGY FOR ART-PHOTOGRAPHY.
In doing so allow me, in the first place, to explain how I first tumbled into photographic art, and how I have been "bobbing around" ever since, without being able to benefit myself in the way I have been preaching to others.
In 1852 I was in Rome, and saw photographs of the Apollo Belvidere, the Laocoon, the Torso, Gibson's Venus, &c., &c., which I bought and studied; and I was delighted to have a fair chance of measuring the relative proportions of the antique on the flat and true copies of the originals. That was my first acquaintance with the fair results of photography. I merely recollected having seen some reddish landscape photographs the year before at Ackermann's, in Regent Street, but these made no impression on me. What I saw in the Exhibitions of 1851 had proved as evanescent as looking at myself in a glass--" out of sight omit of mind." They were all Daguerreotypes. It awakened in me at the moment nothing but curiosity. But in Rome I was fairly taken with the capabilities of the art, so I made up my mind to study photography as soon as I returned to England.
My view at this period, to the best of my recollection, did not extend farther than showing me the usefulness of photography in enabling me to take children's portraits, in aid of painting, and for studies for foregrounds in landscapes.
In 1853, having inquired in London for a good teacher, I was directed to Henneman. We agreed for so much for three or five lessons; but, as I was in a hurry to get back to the country, I took all the lessons during one afternoon--three hours in the calotype and waxed-paper process, and half-an-hour sufficed for the collodion process!! He spoke, I wrote; but I was too clever. It would have saved me a year or more of trouble and expense had I attended carefully to the rudiments of the art for a month.
It is curious to notice how frequently trifles decide some men's actions. What really hurried me forward was my having seen the photograph of a gentleman, and this fold in his coat sleeve was just the very thing I required for a portrait I was then painting at home, and could not please myself in this particular point. My sitter had not time or inclination to sit for it; my lay figure was too thin (I soon sold that); but this was just "like life!" "Now," said I, "I shall get all I want." I could not exercise proper patience. I therefore took all the lessons at ones, to turn out as a ready-made photographer the next day. Alas! for a very long period my attempts at photography resembled those of a young Miss at the piano, looking alternately at the music and the keys. If I had to speak at the time of operation, I very easily went wrong--often drawing up the shutter of the plate-holder with the collodionised plate outside!
I cannot forbear mentioning that some of the earliest portraits that I took, and which I had sensitised with ammonia-nitrate, are as vigorous now as they were then, although they had but three changes of water---ten minutes or a quarter-of-an-hour in each dish after hypo., as my instructor had told me--while others, and later, according to the usual process, have proved as treacherous as a bad memory. At length Maxwell Lyte let his light in on my manipulations by the publication of the alkaline gold-toning process. At that time I was nearly giving up photography. I felt as if I were only writing in sand.
My first attempt at "double printing," as some call it, was exhibited in London in 1855. It was named in the catalogue Groupe Printed from Three Negatives. That plan I hit upon through sheer vexation, because I could not get a gentleman's figure in focus, though he was close behind a sofa on which two ladies were seated. Up to this time I considered postures on the principle of bas-reliefs--it is as few foreshortenings as possible; but now I felt freer.
I will now tell you how I first drifted into making photographic pictures; and it seems to me that any one might excuse me--even Mr. Sutton--after hearing it. I had taken a group of two. They were expressive and composed well. The light was good, and the chemistry of it successful. A very good artist was staying in the neighbourhood, engaged on some commission. He called, saw this picture, was very much delighted with it, and so was I. Before he left my house he looked at the picture again, and said it was "marvellous;" but added:--" Now, if I had drawn that, 1 should have introduced another figure between them, or some light object to keep them together. You see there is where you photographers are at fault. Good morning!" I snapped my fingers after he left--but not at him--and exclaimed aloud, "I can do it !" Two days afterwards I called at my artist-friend's hotel, as proud as----anybody. He looked at my picture and at me, and took snuff twice. He said--" This is another picture." "No," said I, "it is the same, except with the addition you suggested." "Never!" he exclaimed; "and how is it possible ? You should patent that!" * * * Well, our interview ended with another suggestion that if a basket or something else had been on the left side in the foreground it would have given greater depth to the picture and adding that the light dress of the female on the shady side was not shady or dark enough. I agreed fully with my friend's criticism; and, after a week, I sent to him, to London, the picture amended as a present. He wrote some time afterwards and thanked me, saying that it was very successful; but (he wrote), of course, now that that was known, any one who practised photography could do it. * * * This was my first sip at the sweet and bitter cup in my photographic career.* A thought of the share he had in this first effort in composition-photography did not occur to my friend. I should very likely not have done it but for his "you can't!" Now why should this cause all the fuss and abuse for interfering with legitimate art? To me double printing seems most natural. Vignetting is allowed and admired. The manual part of photographic composition is but wholesale vignetting. It has proved most useful in portraiture when a family group was to be taken; for if one figure moved, he or she could be taken over again alone, and put in afterwards; or, what is still better, a sketch of the group may first be made, then take each figure separately--for then each would be more perfect--and print them in agreeably with the sketch.
But please to believe that I did not look upon photography as an ultimate art, or an art depending on itself, or complete in itself, except details; though I can guess of its extended applicability, or rather plasticity. In almost all the art-studies I have made, I have had one object in view--they were for the use of artists; and if I had not done them, how could artists, who are not acquainted with photography, know what could be done? They know now, and they avail themselves of it.
But as there is no mind in the photographic picture, so according to some it cannot contain any new idea, pose, light, or expression capable of representing impressions produced on the human mind, and "not being the work of man" it must be, indirectly, the work of the devil--and, since as "the work of man is indirectly the work of God," as Mr. Sutton has it, where are we to go to?
Still I think highly of photography. It is fair, open, and aboveboard. There is no sham about it--no pretensions to anything that is not desirable. And the world wouldn't be without it, in all its branches--including the one I most practise, art-studies and details from the life. Though to me this branch of the art is unprofitable, yet it gives me pleasure. I live in it, if not by it. As to those dreadful composition photographs, I have only executed one since the "abominable" Two Ways of Live, and that one I meant as a set-off to the other, and called it the Scripture Reader; but that was neither good nor bad enough to attract any notice whatever. I have not exhibited for some years, so I think I might have been let alone.
I have been so ill used and abused about the picture of the Two Ways of Life, I should be glad to once more--not describe it, as I did to the Central Society--but explain that it was dedicated to English artists, which dedication was written under the one exhibited at the Manchester Exhibition;--not as a challenge, for that would have been ridiculous but to show various studies from nature, which at that time were rather novel. And again, as the most difficult drawing is that from the living model, I presumed thereby to point out a handmaid to art--not alone in full light, but in shade--yet transparent. Each figure was meant as a specimen of variety of light and shade. I dislike a mere nude, if it (apart from study) conveys no idea. So I brought all the figures together as well as I could, and gave the resulting picture a name. This composition was also meant to show that there might be a little real sun painting employed when needed, to harmonise or soften harsher light in photographs. These are indeed no afterthoughts.
I will not tire you with further description. Those that objected to the Two Ways of Live being exhibited had a perfect right to their opinion; but they have no night to ask the names or profession or religion of models, still less to use vile epithets in speaking of them, as Mr. Sutton has done in his paper read before the Photographic Society of Scotland. When children are inconveniently inquisitive, we tell them they were "found in a parsley bed;" and a similar answer might be given to those who cannot or will not comprehend the matter. There are many female models whose good name is as dear to them as to any other woman. But I prefer to believe that Mr. Sutton did not use those harsh expressions on mere supposition; but that he may have been misinformed, in his search for the truth, by those who wished to increase their attraction by saying that they had been models for Mr. So and So; for I have been told that that is not an uncommon practice. Of course I need not be ashamed to say I have heard it.
Mr. Sutton is a very hasty writer, and is often wrong in consequence; yet he is always frank enough to admit his error when convinced that he is wrong. This opinion is formed on my long reading of the Notes, to which I have been a subscriber from its first publication, until I removed to London, when I missed it, or it has missed me, owing to say having forgotten to send my new address. I have always found the Notes full of promising information.
It is very hard--but I must confess it--that I positively dare not now make a composition photograph, even if I thought that it might be very perfect. I have brought with me a sketch over which I have thought for a very long time. Up to this moment it is a work of art. Is it not? The same way a painter goes if he means to paint a photographer must go if he wishes to make a composition-photograph. The two go together--part here, and meet again.
Fine art consists of many parts; and a photographic composition commenced in this manner must contain many parts in common with art; and even where they part company photographic art does not stand still, but proceeds and gathers other merits on another road--though a more humble one, yet full of difficulties requiring much thought and skill up to the last moment, when they again converge, in the production of light shade, and reflected lights which have been predetermined--in general keeping and aërial perspective.
There is no valid reason for saying that because you have not seen a good photographic composition, there could not be one. I believe there can be produced--even after all that has been done--wonderful pictures by photography. And why are there no good art-photographs? Because it requires art and long training to execute them, beside encouragement. I do not believe in haphazard excellence. Photography, in my opinion is essentially excellent for details. You may take twenty good figures separately, but they cannot be taken at once. You cannot take even four good ones at once; but then you cannot draw or paint a picture at once.
I believe photography will make painters better artists and more careful draughtsmen. You may test their figures by photography. In Titian's Venus and Adonis, Venus has her head turned inn a manner that no female could turn it and at the same time show so much of her back. Her right leg also is too long. I have proved the correctness of this opinion by photography with variously shaped female models. In Peace and War, by Reubens, the back of the female with the basket is painted from a male, as proved by the same test.
The real good old painters--such as Raffaelle, Leonardo da Vinci, Luini, Velasquez, Teniers, Titian--you often find reflected in photography in apparent finish and effect. I can exemplify presently what I mean by the photographs which are now before you.
There are many ways in which photography can prove useful to artists, although few of them are aware of it. Here is one:--After they have made their sketch, or uncoloured cartoon, they may have a photograph taken from it; and then on the prepared albumen paper they may play with colours as much as they like, until they arrive at what they wish for their painting; for a wet brush removes any colour objected to, just as if it had never been there, yet the outline underneath remains the same.
One of the reasons why painters are troubled in using a photograph to paint from, is that almost in every case (I am now speaking of portraits or figure pictures) the light on the photographs is different to that on the sitter at the artist's studio. Here is a source of confusion and vexation. I have often felt it, and wished that I had not looked at the photograph; yet it saved the time of the sitter. But if a photographic study is taken in a light similar-to that at artists' studios generally, and that be enlarged, if the artist gets the same model or sitter into his own studio, the work is only pleasure.
I think picture-dealers are, or have been, from interested motives, the greatest opponents to photography, and they have great influence. As to art-critics, they vary so much in their opinion from one year to another, and differ so much between themselves, I am induced to conclude that they write generally from the information they have received from persons they trust to; for I believe if they possessed even the data that we have, they would be more Christian like--rather help with their criticism than damn with their sneers. Though individually I must not complain much. I have had praise, and I was silent. Lately the tables have been turned, and from a "successful delineator," &c.,--happy in catching transient expressions,--I had come down to be a "clever operator," when recently I was reduced to the position of a "manipulator" in a notice--and such a notice!--in the Athenaeum of an allegorically-treated photograph of Garibaldi Wounded, Supported by Hope, Pointing to Rome. My intention in this photograph was to show that my opinion of the hero was that he never would give up the idea of possessing Rome. But in the notice in the Athenaeum above alluded to I was rudely taken to task. It was intimated that I had paid my model 1s. 6d. per hour, when I myself was the model, and never realised 6d. per hour! After my many days' trials, and heavy printing expenses, my publisher ceased to order immediately upon that veto being placed upon the picture. I hoped to have secured an adequate return from its publication: I never had a catchpenny yet. But what angered me most was that the critic called the photograph indecent! I cannot guess in what.
A funny thing it is that some people actually prefer the chalkings of a boy on the walls and shutter to the finest photographic pictures! Just think how superior are the mackerel and ship at sea we find drawn on the pavement in coloured chalks! I am ambitious, too--
"I wish I was in Dixie! I do! I do!"
I have here a picture,** in which I have attempted to draw something, like a good boy, and beg the Chairman's acceptance of it. I only wish there had been another sunny day, to have enabled me to have made it more perfect. It is a real sun-painting, or rather it has been painted by me with pencils of light about ninety-three millions of miles long! and the points varying considerably. I exposed it so much to diffused daylight for want of sun, that I have been obliged to take up some lights still that have been done chemically by the cyanide of potassium. When I painted it I almost imagined I heard its notes whistling.--Now, USE PHOTOGRAPHY DON'T ABUSE IT.
* It is not difficult to understand the vague notions of an artist the first time he sees such a thing accomplished--such a result in as short a time--when compared with his own laborious method.
** A donkey's head, drawn by light alone, guided by me.