THE BRITISH JOURNAL OF PHOTOGRAPHY. July 2, 1860, p. 194
WILL you kindly permit me to add to my previous observations upon the above subject just a few more words, as, from remarks which have reached me from various quarters I fear that my purpose therein runs some risk of being misunderstood. Since the publication of the last number of THE BRITISH JOURNAL OF PHOTOGRAPHY a friend has very kindly called my attention to the paper read by Mr. Rejlander at the Photographic Society, in April, 1858, upon Composition Printing, in which he describes his very beautiful picture, Two Ways of Life. Now there is a very, wide difference between the two papers by Robinson and Rejlander; but, although in my present voluntarily assumed position it is, perhaps, cowardly to shrink from expressing honest convictions cause I respect the individual concerned, or fear misrepresentation, I shall excuse myself with one of our handy old apothegms, "comparisons are odious," and only advise all who have read but one of these papers to read the other, and compare the two.* Both of these gentlemen and myself have at heart the same object, viz., the advancement of photography; and I appeal to that sympathy which community of tastes and pursuits ought to originate to prevent, on their part, any misunderstanding of motives. I might not perhaps think it necessary even to do this had I not; seen a letter signed "Fairplay," in the last number of your Journal, in which a gentleman, whom I have every reason to esteem and respect, has been traduced for speaking his mind in a manly and straightforward--but good humoured--manner. The epistle in question, however, having been written by a lady precludes further criticism.
Mr. Robinson will excuse me, if trust, in. frankly stating that I consider his pictures are not artistic. More or less, all that I have seen lack pictorial excellence; and when 1 read this gentleman's paper I at once understood why they lack this most important element. He describes therein not "composition" printing, but a kind of "patchwork"--the mere mechanical process of "printing photographic pictures from several negatives," and nothing more--a process which, as he frankly enough confesses, "is so simple, that he never before thought it worthy a written description," but which he, nevertheless, appears to esteem highly, and think important.
I look at Mr. Robinson's pictures, and find hard, inelegant outlines, an absence of refinement in their execution, no very studious arrangement of light and shade as elements of breadth, &c., also a neglect of the rules of composition, which, before I read his paper, I was inclined to attribute to downright carelessness; but, having read it, I now perceive that he has given the scissors and paste-pot credit for qualities properly emanating from the study of art-or, in other words, followed the crowd of photographers in perseveringly or obstinately giving to their tools the credit which should have been won by their brains, and making a boast of qualities really and purely mechanical, instead of such as reside in the higher regions of the intellectual, the poetical, and the artistic.
Turning from this gentleman's pictures to his paper, I find the mechanical idea dominant, although disguised, transparently enough, under the name of art. He "cuts out" here, "pastes on" there, compounds artificial landscapes in miniature in his "small back yard," &c.; but he says nothing of "the conception of a picture, the composition thereof, with the various expressions and postures of the figures, the arrangement of draperies and costumes, the distribution of light and shade, and the preserving it in one subordinate whole." Mr. Robinson says encouragement should be given to "any efforts' to advance art," and "to the attempts of the few who try to get out of the beaten track (failures though they may be);" and, if Mr. Robinson humbly considers himself as one of these few making this attempt, will he kindly consider me as a, very unpretending, but bluntly-speaking friend, desirous, to the best of his poor ability, of lending him a hand; or as one fighting shoulder to shoulder with himself and our few good comrades, against the prejudices of photographers, the jealousies of artists, the dogmatism of critics, and the ignorance of the general public.
Rejlander's pictures are eminently artistic, and so was his paper. I have not the means of learning, otherwise than from his paper, his opinion of printing from several negatives to obtain one picture, but I should judge that he looks upon scissors and paste as very disagreeable necessities; and I find that, although he upholds "the right of the photographer to do as he likes with his own," he only does so while "he sails not under false colours." The reading of Rejlander's paper has been a source of much pleasure to me. It was such a luxurious novelty to find a photographer talk about "glazing over some parts with a sunbeam" to destroy the effect of "too much crude light;" of travelling about and going to bed with his darling work, during its progress, ever in his mind; of photographing his figures from a sketch, and popping his studious face under the dark cloth to measure proportionate sizes on the focussing glass; of regulating the pressure in his printing frames; and of that glorious process--which he calls "the sun painting"--by which lie uses "a few rays and pencils of light to just glaze over" this or that figure, and--for he talks a good deal to his "mysterious agents" while at work--having said "' thank you," adding, now please to paint me the background behind them;" and, as the rays do his bidding, again commanding them to "sink one of those figures deeper in the shade," even up here and touch out there; taking care all the time (because such light as he uses works quickly) to move fast and guide it well, lest there should be marks from--"HIS BRUSH." I imagined the anxious and unwearying thoughtfulness, the scheming brain, and the high ambition of this great but really unpretending photographic printer; and thought of the pompous airs assumed by some small ones, whose "high art consists in putting the sensitised paper into a pressure frame, taking a nap, if they please, until the print is dark enough, and then--taking it out, as far as they and the printing are concerned, finish Despite the plasticity of photography in such able hands as Rejlander's, he is evidently perfectly conscious of the real and important difficulties of this mode of composition printing, inasmuch as says: "It is evident that if art were employed to give it finishing touches, it would be more consonant with what art requires, and equally evident that an abler artist, with better means, could do a better thing;" and I therefore opine that his opinion and mine were not so far asunder when, in my last communication I said that a lens commanding a wide angle of view, with clever models, judiciously chosen accessories, and a good enlarging process, were the right tools for photographic composition pieces, and not the scissors and paste-pot.
I remember, when younger than I now am, a fellow-student came to me full of indignation with Turner, who bad looked at drawing that day and praised it highly, until he (the student) began to boast, in a tone of gratified vanity, that he had done it without erasing a solitary line, when the great artist turned on his heel with a curl of his lip, muttering, "Then rub it all out, sir--rub all out, and begin again;" and, said my brother-brush, in conclusion, "What the deuce could the old bear mean?" "Perhaps," said I, "he meant that if you could do it so well without your india-rubber you could do it better with it." Now, I look upon the presence of scissors and paste as Turner did upon the absence india-rubber.
The above would have concluded this communication, but I cannot resist the opportunity of adding some notice of a circumstance which has occurred since it was written. Sitting in my painting-room, there was brought to me a hard, small, slightly magnified, cartridge-looking affair in paper, directed to me, a bearing the following inscription:-"Mr. Rejlander's revenge Mr. Wall's article." Now, if I had been a nervous, timid man might have thought of infernal machines, and hesitated to touch this "revengeful" article sent in reply to my own., As it was opened it, and found--what do you think?--a block of wood to symbolise the material of which my head was "composed," in the opinion of Rejlander the, revengeful! Well, there certainly was a wooden block, but it preserved from injury one of the most beautiful art productions of photography with which these eyes have ever yet been delighted, representing a fine intellectual head, with the calm majesty of martyrdom in its death-like expression, borne in the charger, by which I immediately identified it as being that of John the Baptist. While I possess this gem I shall never want a proof that photography has the power of dealing with the more ambitious efforts of aspiring art. Such "revenge" really "is sweet."
* See Liverpool and Manchester Photographic Journal, 15th April, 1858