Frederick H. Evans. "Pros and Cons. II. Critic Versus Critic". Camera Work, no. 8 (Oct. 1904), p. 23-26.
From this same seven-year-old Contemporary Review I get another text for a short discussion, and this I can supplement by a text or two from the very recent pronouncements of Professor Herkomer on the same subject in The Magazine of Art.
Mr. Pennell, in his article, says that he can not agree with another art-critic (whose initials as given, D. S. M., cover the name of D. S. MacColl, the very eminent art- critic of The Saturday Review), when he says that 'a photograph will give a better idea of an ancient building than a drawing by an architectural draughtsman.' A very acceptable verdict, especially from so penetrating a critic.
Our adverse critic goes on to say: 'The senseless lens of the camera will never record the vital characteristic qualities of great architecture. For two reasons: First, because it is mechanically impossible in the majority of cases for the lens to take in the subject that is wanted; and, secondly, even if it does, there is always in the best of photographs a hopeless confusion of detail and light and shade.'
The reader will surmise how this interests me and how gleefully I try to disprove it. As my own chief love and belief in photography is known to be architectural picture- making, and as the critic himself is almost wholly an architectural draughtsman, he is an opponent one is glad to encounter, as his opinion would be taken by most to be an instructed one and therefore authoritative.
We may dismiss 'the senseless lens' as merely another loose expression, with the reminder to our critic that we have yet to learn that even his tools, his pencils and brushes are other than 'senseless.' Tools are but tools in any art, and it would be a sad day for one's individuality were we to find that any of our tools were other than the dead, inanimate, 'senseless' things they now are and ought to be, waiting on us, their masters, to breathe through them the breath of life into our creations.
For a moment we will leave the 'mechanically impossible' case to go on to the 'hopeless confusion of light and shade.' Just here we may most helpfully make our quotations from Prof. Herkomer: 'In photography, light is the great mischief-maker.' This is just about as luminous as saying, 'in painting, pigments are the great mischief-makers!' Again: 'Yet, through the accident of favorable lighting, an extraordinary truth may be brought out in a photograph.' As though photographic lighting was always, and necessarily, accidental and not as deliberately brought about and controlled as the Professor's pigments are seleted and mixed! Once more: 'By a combination of mechanical circumstances, over which no man can have control, a camera may bring out a beautiful and remarkable effect,' etc., etc. How extremely interesting it is to learn that our cameras work by themselves, that our tripods stalk about by their own volition till satisfied, etc., etc.!
If either of our sapient critics really knew (or chose to know) what a good, sympathetic, learned, well-studied photographic portrait or picture of a cathedral interior could be, they would know that they are simply judging an art by its worst record, the base travesties too often produced, barren of anything beyond untrue mechanicalness. It is well that we in our turn do not risk our reputations for sweet reasonableness or sanity by judging the possibilities of painting as an art by even the mediocrities that their own vaunted Royal Academy yearly hangs up as 'works of art,' to the dismay of even the sensitive artist-photographer! No; we prefer to think of Rembrandt, of Velasquez, of Van Dyck, of Van Eyck, of Dürer, of Canaletto, of Hogarth, of Millais, of Rossetti, of Whistler, of Corot, of Matthew Maris, and of the host of other names that crowd to one's mind.
If Photography is capable of anything at all, it is just here, in the adequate rendering of light and shade in all their relative subtleties. The 'hopeless confusion' (if it ever exists) comes from the inexperienced worker, just as does the 'hopeless confusion' of color-contrasts and relations in a bad painting, or the 'hopeless confusion' of false perspective or bad drawing. And when our draughtsman-critic says it is even so in 'the best of photographs,' what are we to think? Is it merely a bad case of mendacious mis-statement or a bad case of incompetent observation or mal-observation? He means, of course, the best he has seen, and as he has for years had the London exhibitions before him it is curious to imagine how he can justify such a statement.
It may possibly be judged as slightly unfair to rake up for cheap and easy slaughter so stale an article as this of 1897, since which time history-making in Pictorial Photography has taken such strides, but this same critic indulges in the same game to this day and the same empty opinions are still given forth as art-dicta of final importance.
Our critic seems to score a point when he says 'it is mechanically impossible in the majority of cases for the lens to take in the subject wanted.' The lens is certainly continually being limited, brought up standing, rendered useless by a too close proximity of walls which prevent the use of that point of view which alone will give the desired picture perfectly. But here again the argument is an empty one, superficial only; for the critic is but condemning something that does not exist; the helpful critic does not spend his time or paper in merely saying that Mr. So-and- So has not done other things he might have done.
Surely it is absurd to condemn Photography because it can not do everything; it should be sufficient to condemn it when it does not do well what it sets out to do. What folly, for instance, it would be for us to condemn an otherwise delightful pencil-drawing of a cathedral interior by this artist-critic because he does not give in it a knowledge of the color-effect of the glorious stained-glass window he includes in his picture!
But this 'mechanically impossible' leads our critic on to another condemnation: 'An architectural draughtsman uses his brain and his hands to give the best possible rendering of a building, and to do this he is frequently compelled to compose his effects and to alter his point of view.' Now, though I know that even great artists have done this thing also, I would seek to condemn it, as not only an untruthful procedure but also an essentially inartistic one.
It is untruthful because, whatever be the mental effect the picture is meant to have on us as a picture merely (that is, when we are unacquainted with the original subject and have to get our only impression of the building from this picture of it), it fails of all genuine effect when we try to recognize it in the building itself. Then we see that the composite structure we have had imposed on us is far inferior to the effect the real building has; it seems but a theatrical statement when compared with the simplicity and quiet grandeur of the real thing.
Our progressive realization of it, as we pursue its aisles, enter its dim chapels, look aloft into its dark roofs, dwell on the mystery of its lights and linger in the deeps of its glorious shadows, gives us so much fuller an impression of mediæval imagination and work than any 'bovrilised'version, secured by combining together a half-dozen points of view into one spectacular effect. For an after-delight and memorizing of it pictorially, I would, personally, far rather have a series of isolated instances of its grandeurs and beauties than any 'composed effect from altering the point of view'; a thing, moreover, we are unable to realize, because we are unable from any single point of view to get the draughtsman's effect.
A drawing, or painting, or photograph of a cathedral interior should be at least true enough, in reproducing the building in any of its various effects, to enable the beholder to recognize it and to have the joy, when next visiting the building, of having its beauties heightened for him by this new acquaintance with it through pictures. One should always find in the artist's picture a revelation of beauty and grandeur beyond what the untrained eye would discover for itself; but this must never be in the way of inventing effects which the layman will be unable to 'place' when proving his enjoyment of the pictures in the building itself.
There is no joy of recognition from these composite things, for there is no seeing them; they have no real existence, because the single gaze, the stable point of view, can not and does not embrace them.
And when I so condemn this type of work, it is mainly from the poetical, the sympathetic, the impressionistic aspect. When one seeks in one's pictures to embody a mood, a feeling, a joy, an experience that some particular aspect, some particular isolated grouping has conveyed to one, then it is not by such a mere 'statement' of a building as the composite study, but by the faithful translation of the isolated grouping, the rare effect of lighting, the subtle depth of shadow. If more than this is given to the eye and mind, simplicity and concreteness of effect and impression vanish and the theatrical statement takes its place. It may be magnificent, but it is not picture-making in its highest and truest sense.
No, I think the critics who so cheerfully rule Photography out of court in architectural picture-making are all in the wrong. With modern tools—lenses perfect in equality of illumination, films perfect (in the double form I have before advocated) in recording power (and that in an easily printable fashion)—whatever be the complexity of cross- lightings, etc.— we can nowadays hope and expect to record the subtle beauties, the ennobling grandeurs of our great cathedral interiors in a way not to be despised nor even perhaps excelled by any other monochrome method of art-expression.
For, added to the beauty of rendering and the successful conveying of atmosphere, there is always the subtle sense of inevitable truth to subject, intimacy of knowledge of it. It is the place, a truthful vision of it, and not merely one to be taken on trust, depending whether the name of the artist be more or less celebrated and acceptable.