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Evans, Frederick H. "Art in Monochrome"

From George Eastman House : Notes On Photographs

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Frederick H. Evans. 'Art in Monochrome'. Amateur Photographer, vol. 47, no. 1219 (11 Feb. 1908), p. 129-30.

Take also that power, so precious in photography, and which we so rightly vaunt ourselves on, of perfection in half-tones, of grading, of delicacies of lighting, etc., and compare them—in portraiture—with a Phil May drawing, where he gives a delicacy of soft facial lighting by a series of very soft pencil strokes across the face, suggesting a delicacy of shaded lighting that one not only despairs of doing by the camera, but feels that even if done nearly as well by it, would not convey a tithe of that peculiar impression that comes from the creative sense passed on to us by a great work of a great artist.

Would it not be useful practice—I continually indulge in it myself, to my own despair—in studying art by other graphic methods, to enquire sedulously in each case how far the camera could rival or surpass it? We should thus learn more fully our real limitations, and perhaps see on what true roads our best successes should lie.

'Limited and exhausted.' I wonder if this would hold if those who believe in it could see, as I have, a Japanese artist make a sketch of, say, a bird in flight. A brush full of ink, a few rapid strokes with point or side for fine or broad lines, made with a movement of the hand free from shoulder to finger-tips, unsupported at wrist or by mahl-stick, and there is the bird before you in all its rush of flight, or of poise. If it was flight the artist set out to suggest, all is eliminated that would not instantly aid that suggestion. No miracle among a thousand snap-shots could approach it for truth of observation, for completeness of suggestion; and if it could, it would be by a chance only, not by the definite intention willed and performed, as is the case with the draughtsman. The photographer may desire it as intensely as he likes, but it is chance at last that gives it him; and a chance that must be complete in every way, for direction of the bird's flight, for size, true distance for proportion of parts, of perspective, etc. And supposing all this could be perfectly done, it would but suggest the perfect imitation, the perfect record, never the irresistible feeling of personality, of sharing the creative power of the artist, that a fine brush or pencil drawing always gives.

No, there is no gainsaying it, no photography can ever give us the same sense of absolute personality, as progenitor, as creator, that a drawing, or an etching, or a lithograph, or other monochrome method of graphic art can; true work of art, an evocation as opposed to a statement, though a photograph may often be. One can, of course, recognise, when familiar with them, the various personalities and individualities in our photographic artists, in choice of subjects and manner of treating them; but to one who is not familiar with the works of our leading pictorialists in photography, and could not recognise their works at sight, I will also affirm that he could not get the same peculiar sense of individuality, of definite personality, of creative power, in their producer.

It is curious indeed to find this tacit denial of the creative power to the painter or draughtsman, or implying its possibility to the photographer; especially when one considers the field of book illustration. I have studied and enjoyed the wonderful illustrations produced in what is known as the 'sixties,' ever since I cut them out of Good Words and other magazines as they appeared. Imagine the loss to creative art, had it been supposed that the camera could do these things better than 'the quaint bungling of the human finger and thumb'! Think of the work of A. Boyd Houghton, in his great series to Don Quixote in especial; of Lawless, that extraordinarily fine artist, who made the mistake of dying so young; of Pinwell, of Fred Walker, and of all the others who in that short period covered English black and white art with glory. How utterly impossible to think of any photographer using any camera or any lens in rivalry of such work.


But do I, then, deny any sort of creative power to the camera, or, rather, to the photographer by it? No, for in one field or work I do allow it, and think it will take still higher and higher rank. No; it is not in that one of my two particular fields of work, architecture, that I am nowthinking, though I do think that photography can say truer things as to mood and detail of interiors than almost any other method of graphic art. No, it is of portraiture I am thinking. When one looks at the painted portraits in an exhibition, one admires them for their dramatic presentment, their pictorial placing, their qualities in paint, etc.; one can't criticise them as likenesses or as studies of character, as one but seldom has any knowledge of their originals. But when one has that knowledge, how only too often does the feeling arise, 'But how curiously unlike: it must be meant for So-and-So, but yet—but yet—it isn't he.' It is true that the camera-man can err in the same way, or, rather, to the same effect, suggesting an unlike likeness. He may have the ill-luck to perpetuate an aspect of a head that is so uncharacteristic as to convey no real idea of the original. I was watching a friend recently, and caught an aspect so strangely unfamiliar as to force the thought, 'Now, if I were to photograph him like that, how the camera would get vilified as a bad tool for portraiture!' But that would be an entirely different feeling from the loss of likeness a bad portrait in paint or pencil conveys. One is a perversion, a piece of ill-vision; the other is bad because the uncharacteristic has been chosen. The photograph can't but be a likeness of a sort; but we want a likeness that is also a portrait; a mere likeness may be taken as the 'statement,' the true portrait as the 'evocation.'

But given the advent of a lens that will give good modelling, and whose main virtue is not the insistence on disintegration of image, and I think portraiture by the camera can give a far greater, more intimate sense of identity than any save the work of the very greatest painters; and that, too, without the intrusion between it and us of the presence of the producer. What is wanted in portraiture is the portrait, and nothing more; no obvious intrusion, that is, of the personality of the producer; a true portrait, of course, an evocation, true to the spiritual and mental as well as the physical. And in that lies the potentiality, the individuality of the photographer; that he can arrange a lighting, choose a pose, elicit an expression, which shall say the whole truth of the sitter, inside and out. But a painted or drawn portrait always says, however fine it may be as a portrait of the sitter, 'I am first and chiefly a Sargent, a Watts, a Van Dyck, a Velasquez, a Whistler,' and, in fact, it is valuable chiefly because its paternity is so evident; the art of the producer is more valuable than the sense of likeness and character, or so nearly equal to it as to count for as much in our enjoyment and appraisement. We, who know not the sitter, certainly enjoy it most as a specimen of the painter; while those who look at a fine photographic portrait will have just as full a sense of satisfaction from it as from the great painting, for the character, the personality of the sitter may be so over-whelmingly given, and so singly, so free from other intrusion, as to be creative in its turn.

But we still need the perfect portrait lens to perfectly effect this. The modern attempts by imperfect correction of optical qualities is a poor sort of half-way house. It is but asking us to deliberately use imperfect tools and accept the results as necessarily the finest to be got. Fine indeed as are some of the effects accidentally got by them, they are still but accidents; it is accident, not design, that yields the occasional perfect focussing by a blind movement of the lens's rack and pinion.

The true artist must stand or fall by the quality of image he elects, is content with, on his focussing screen; when that has to be guessed at by a final blind correction of focus to make up for lack of actinic correction, and the effect of which is not visible on the focussing screen—and that is the real drawback to such otherwise fine instruments as the Bergheim and Pulligny lenses—the result can only be termed accidental.

No, the lens we want is one that will give any desired or necessary softness of image at will, visible, for our choice, on the focussing screen. This, in any sufficiency of length of focus and speed, may mean a costly tool; but as lenses, unlike paints or brushes, do not wear out, I am still hoping to own one, and some day produce easily and certainly, instead of accidentally, the type of portrait I prefer: round and soft and full in modelling and lighting, rich in grading and variety of planes, and instinct with revealed character and sense of identity.