Vanity Fair, March 1916
ON BEING PHOTOGRAPHED
Ode Written in Dejection
By P. Brooke-Haven
IT is not women on whom the hardships of photography fall most heavily. Women as a sex enjoy being photographed. It is second nature for them, on catching sight of a long-haired man in spectacles diving underneath a velvet nose-bag, to assume an expression in which sweetness, dignity, kittenishness, soul, and spontaneity are so nicely blended that broken sentences of admiration and esteem filter through the velvet in an excited torrent. Débutantes who have not undergone the ordeal since they were taken sitting on a cushion in the nude at the age of two need as little coaching as actresses who have played in every failure in the last sixteen seasons.
How different with Man! For some reason, never properly explained, the average man is overcome in the presence of a camera with an embarrassment which would be excessive if he were being arrested for forgery while eloping with another man’s wife. He tries to cover it with a brooding gloom, which the photographer, who, being a man who makes a lot of money without doing any work for it, is an optimist, will not endure for a moment. The photographer advocates more sweetness and light, and suggests as a means toward achieving these things the moistening of the lips with the tip of the tongue.
TO a thoughtful man like myself, it is one of the most moving phenomena in our daily life, this pathetic faith of the photographer in the moistening of the lips with the tip of the tongue as a panacea for all human ills. He seems to think that no mundane sorrow can stand up against it. I often wonder if he carries the hallucination into his private life. I seem to see him trying to cheer up some friend whom Fate has smitten with a half-brick in a tender spot. “Your wife, Cuthbert, has run away, you say, and, what is worse, in the automobile on which you are still paying instalments? What of it? Moisten the lips with the tip of the tongue and be your old merry self once more.” He cannot admit that Hamlet and King Lear are to be pitied for their misfortunes. They wilfully omitted to moisten the lips with the tip of the tongue.
The introduction of high art into the photographic studio has done much to reduce the lasting unpleasantness of the operation. In the old days of crude and direct posing, there was no escape for the sitter. He had to stand up, backed by a rustic stile and a flabby canvas sheet covered with exotic trees, glaring straight into the camera, full face. To prevent any eleventh hour retreat, a sort of spiky thing was shoved firmly into the back of his head,—leaving him with the choice of being taken as he stood or having three inches of steel jabbed into his cerebellum. What with the natural discomfort of being photographed and the acute apprehension caused by the presence of this piece of metal, the patient, despite the hoarse cries of encouragement that proceeded from the nose-bag, almost invariably came out looking like a sheep which has just caught sight of Mr. Armour. But now High Art has come along and changed all that.
There are no photographs nowadays. Only “camera portraits” and “lens impressions.” The full face has been abolished. The ideal of the modern photographer is to eliminate the sitter as much as possible and concentrate his energies on an artistic background. I have in my possession two studies of my uncle Theodore, the well-known importer of Swiss cheese holes,—one taken in 1890, the other in the present year. The first shows my uncle, evidently in pain, staring before him with the fixed expression of one about to burst. In his right hand he grasps a scroll; his left rests heavily on a moss-covered wall. Behind him is the ocean. Two sea-gulls are flying against a stormy sky. As a likeness, it is almost brutally exact. My uncle stands condemned forever on its evidence as the wearer of a made-up tie.
The second is different in every respect. Not only has the sitter been taken in the popular modern “one-twentieth face,” showing only the back of his head, the left ear, and what is either the tip of his nose or a flaw in the print, but the whole thing is plunged in the deepest shadow. It is as if my uncle had been surprised by the camera while chasing a black cat in his coal-cellar on a moonless night. There is no question as to which of the two makes the more attractive picture. Indeed, I have reason to believe that it was my somewhat injudiciously expressed enthusiasm for the superiority in beauty of the more recent production that led to my exclusion from my uncle’s will in favor of certain charities. In spite of this, however, I have always remained a warm advocate of the deep shadows of the present type of camera portrait, in which so much that is unsightly is enabled to lie hid.
WHAT might be described as the frontal attack in photography—that merciless onslaught which gives the victim no chance of escape, is confined to-day principally to the amateur bulb-squeezer. I have only come across one instance of an amateur photographer who gave any evidence of having bowels of compassion, and that was in a work of fiction. I allude to the principal character in a sensational novel entitled “The Camera Fiend” whose habit it was to point what appeared to be a camera at his acquaintances and who then, instead of taking their photographs, shot them—his weapon being in reality a disguised pistol. One can readily imagine the delight of the party of the second part on receiving a bullet between the eyes and realizing that he was not having an amateur photograph of himself taken after all.
It has always seemed to me a pity that, in the matter of the discovery of photography and its infliction on a world that had already troubles enough of its own, it is almost impossible to fix the responsibility. That is the worst of the encyclopædia. You go to it to be informed on some such important point, and it comes back at you with this: “K. W. Scheele was the first to investigate the darkening action of sunlight on silver chloride. He found that when silver chloride was exposed to the action of light beneath water there was dissolved in the fluid a substance which, on the addition of lunar caustic, caused the precipitation of new silver chloride, and that on applying a solution of ammonia to the blackened chloride an insoluble residue of metallic silver was left behind.”
YOU cannot possibly condemn a man for a serious offence like the invention of photography on rambling evidence like that. There is nothing to show whether Mr. Scheele was or was not the man who started the train of events which ended last week in our facing a forty-two centimeter camera with a frozen smile on our lips and having to pay fifteen dollars to Jesse James’s younger brother for mailing us some perfectly repulsive things which he tried to persuade us were faithful representations of ourself, though they had every indication of having been borrowed or stolen from the police headquarters rogues’ gallery. For all we know, the late Scheele, when fooling about with the blackened chloride and the residue of metallic silver, had not a notion of what was going to come of it. He may not have had even a suspicion that many years later his investigations were to be responsible for causing Mrs. Vernon Castle to rise at four-thirty in the mornings and reduce her mid-day meal to a mere five-minute snack in order to crowd her daily dealings with the camera into the space of twenty-four hours. It is, I believe, the case that on one occasion this devoted woman, on learning that there was some danger of a shortage of her photographs owing to the growing demand, sat before the lens without a pause for a period of two days and a night, sustained only by her indomitable spirit and hourly injections of clear soup from a hypodermic syringe.
It is the custom with many unthinking persons to extol the blessings of what are erroneously called the good old days. One has only to reflect that in those old days it was the almost universal practice of hosts to deposit their guests in a chair after dinner and, having done so, to produce two or three bulky albums filled with photographs of the family and his connections to experience a lively sense of gratitude to Providence for having sent one into the world in a more civilized epoch.
Little more remains to be said on this absorbing subject. If I have seemed to write in a jaundiced and condemnatory spirit of photographs, let me end on a note of kindliness and praise. Say what we may against photographs, they remain—I speak now of the cabinet size—the best paper-cutters in existence. And let us never forget that, if there were no photographs, there would be no photograph-frames, and where would we turn then for an adequate yet inexpensive birthday, wedding or Christmas present for our wide circle of friends?
Note: The essay “Photographs and Photographers,” in Nash’s Magazine, September 1929, and in Louder and Funnier (1932), is adapted from this article.