Good Pictures

Good Pictures

Chapter IX from The Science and Practice of Photography by John R. Roebuck, Ph.D. (1918).

124. A picture is a representation of a three-dimensional on a two-dimensional plane. It is a representation, not the thing itself, and as such it is necessarily a counterfeit or an imitation. Truth or untruth in a picture has therefore a very special meaning, in fact truth is determined by how far the picture fills the purpose of the worker. A photographic surveyor desires pictures which shall be accurate geometric projections of the subject showing every detail near and far. For him the truth is determined by how far his pictures fulfill these requirements. On the other hand a portrait of a familiar person has to represent for us a variety of changing attitudes and expressions, and a detailed delineation of one momentary condition may satisfy this desire to some extent, but the probabilities are very much against it serving well as a picture in which the rendering is less complete because the delineation is then not so sharply one mood and because we do not remember the fine details as a rule so well as the general effect. There is hardly a professional portrait made which is not retouched. That is a portrait is to be judged on the basis of suggestion of the person pictured. (195-196)

I am becoming increasingly attracted to comparing the structures asserted in the writing on photographic composition with language. This is a very unpopular stance, critically. But it just seems a more productive approach than insisting that language and visual materials are inherently incompatible in structure and function. While the match is far from perfect, I think there are more congruencies than significant differences, especially if the definition of language is broadened to encompass non-verbal structures. Following Saussure, the distinction asserted by Roebuck can be mapped on the axis of relative motivation and arbitrariness. It seems pertinent to me, though somewhat tricky. According to Saussure, to match these aspects to general characteristics in language is sound in principle:

In one sense—this must not be pressed too far, but it brings out one aspect of the contrast—a distinction could be drawn between lexicological languages, in which the absence of motivation reaches a maximum, and grammatical languages, in which it falls to a minimum. This is not to imply that “lexical” and “arbitrary” are always synonymous, or “grammar” and “relative motivation” either. But they go together in principle. There are, one might say, two opposite poles towards which the whole system is drawn, or two contrary currents sweeping through it. On the one hand there is a tendency to use lexicological means which favors the unmotivated sign. On the other hand, there is a tendency to use grammatical means, which favors regular construction. (Course in General Linguistics 183)

Though it may seem counterintuitive, it seems to me that the “geometric rendering” alluded to by Roebuck is arbitrary in nature. Though they are concrete, photographic “elements” constructed through purely optical correspondences (resemblances) are founded on a complex series of chemical and optical responses which have been arbitrarily designated as “accurate” within the parameters of a system. They are perhaps best compared with “lexical” elements of a photographic “language.” The second type of photograph is relatively motivated in that it seeks to promote a similitude with psychological and social components. To say that this aspect of photographic language is “grammatical” in nature assumes that the individual and social character it plays upon has a structure. Relatively motivated signs, according to Saussure, are derivative of other components in language. Saussure uses the example of etymologically derived words whose meanings can be traced to prior meanings within the language system. Languages are never completely arbitrary, for they have derivational elements. But derived elements always reference a necessarily arbitrary sign structure.

Roebuck’s “two classes of pictures” seems to effectively describe the relationship between arbitrary and relatively motivated signs— between resemblance and similitude:

125. In a general way pictures may be divided into two classes:

(a) Record Pictures, where the aim is a geometrical rendering of the subject. Pictures of this class are of the very greatest importance, particularly in all scientific work. The purpose makes this class include the great majority of amateur photographs taken as records of persons and places, and also the great majority of portraits. There is no doubt that this purpose is the predominant one in the vast majority of pictures, and the world could much better afford to lose the second class than this one.

(b) Pictorial Pictures, where the essential purpose is to attract, arouse, and generally please the beholder, not so much by the particular scene pictured as by the idea suggested. As such they appeal to the imagination, and to attain their purpose it is not at all necessary that the object forming the actual subject be suggested by the finished picture. In this class are to be placed many paintings and a small proportion of photographs. Any liberties with geometry, with the lighting, with the color, are justified by aiding toward the object sought. It must be noted however that such liberties must be handled in a masterly way or they have an effect very different from that intended.

While these two purposes should be clearly distinguished and acknowledged in their extreme examples, there are relatively few pictures which come only in one class. The first ideal of the young photographer, and also of the early school of photography, is the record photograph, and so well understood is this ideal and so useful that only a few unbalanced “Art” workers try to belittle it. But the worker soon observes that while equally good records, some of his photographs are more pleasing, are turned to oftener, and are exhibited to his friends. He begins to work for these effects as well as for the original record purpose, and he hence begins to include the ideas of the second class. The great majority of workers never give-up precedence of their first purpose, and a study of the mass of pictures of those who have makes it seem well that it should be so. Very few of us have the temperament or time to be artists, but we can often recognize and appreciate good imaginative work; while botched work of this kind is an even more serious offense to the ordinary man than to the artist who sympathizes more readily with its aim and who understands its difficulty. This chapter is written for the ordinary worker who is progressing sufficiently with the straight record work that he desires to include as far as possible more of the somewhat more intangible features which make some pictures more pleasing than others. (196-198)

The progression marked by Roebuck is a progression from the concrete to the abstract, from resemblance to similitude. However, it is also a move from the arbitrary rendering of a scene to the more grammatical social construction of “Art.” In a sense, it is a move from a basic language to a more sophisticated one. The language model seems to match the pattern of photographic instruction in the early twentieth century quite well.