Finding the S-spot

By A.G. Marshall.

For over half a century photography has groped for light. Not actinic rays—they have always been superabundant—but light along her pathway. Longing and striving for recognition as Art, she has mistakingly sought to win the goal through technical perfection—to beat the draughtsmen upon their own ground and claim the laurel for an instantaneous accuracy excelling the skill slowly developed by years of training of eye and hand. Why photography failed to win on this line was because of a wrong idea regarding Art. Perfection in representation is skill or craftsmanship, standing for a certain amount of talent and much more labor in the draughtsman, and a certain amount of mechanical inventiveness and scientific talent in photography. But whether in hand-painting or sun-painting, it is not, in the desired sense of the word, Art.

Art, so far as pictures are concerned, depends upon two things—the way the artist looks at something and the way in which he makes others see with his vision. Excepting as an instrument technical method has nothing to do with it. The ability to play a thousand notes a minute and work the loud and soft pedals does not constitute musical art, whether acquired by manual training or locked up in a mechanical piano player. And the ability to record a thousand facts in an instant does not help photography to become Art. Indeed, if a negative could be secured only by an all day’s effort the chances for progress along art lines would be vastly increased, because the expenditure of a day’s labor on one picture would have to be made worth while.

Fortunately there is a common meeting ground for all the graphic arts, a field for the display of personal feeling towards nature, on which photography may justly stand with the hand-wrought methods in black and white. Furthermore, this field is the foundation for all good pictorial art. This field is Composition, and in a picture it corresponds exactly to composition in oratory or literature. It means stating the vital facts in the best way, and dispensing with the superfluous and trivial. Fine composition lifts a picture above the cmmonplace [sic], although its subject may be something the most common. It is always distinguished by simplicity, either in having few parts or in grouping many parts on a few grand lines and masses. Its results are harmony and distinction. These are attained by the balance between opposing elements—contrast and similarity. Contrast alone is chaos; similarity alone is monotony. How to combine the two is the grammar and rhetoric of Art.

First to be considered is the given form of the picture, rectangle, ellipse, etc. Next is the subdivision of this form, arranging the pictorial elements within it so as to make the finest impression upon the eye, and at the same time best to express the subject. These can all be done with the camera, and on their successful accomplishment depends almost wholly the chance for photography to rank as Art. Space relations are best studied by taking several cards and cutting in them openings the exact form desired for your pictures. If possible make them the size of your ground glass., but shapes might be as shown in Fig 1. One side of each card should be white and the other black. This will be useful in testing the light and shade values. Over each opening fasten a sheet of clear gelatine. Rule with a needle the lines shown in the figure. Select your scenes and perfect the posing of figures, etc., by looking through these cards. Let the principle forms divide the space unequally. Keep the horizon or chief horizontal division above or below the centre. Keep important or striking objects, figures, etc., out of exact centre. See that no distracting details are at the very edges. And let the most prominent feature—high light, telling dark, or focus of interest—fall near the centre of one of the spots marked “S” in Fig. 2, and the next feature in importance fall near the edge of another of these spots. Possibly a third figure might go in some other part of a third “S” spot. One or tow, but not more than three of these spots should be thus occupied. Important features must be kept away from the points marked “W.” This is one of the many ways of securing an interesting and picturesque result, an though it may seem like picture making by formula, it is based upon fundamental laws of contrast and proportion that cannot be fully demonstrated within the limits of this paper. It will be noticed that balance is attained not by equality of opposite masses, but by just and agreeable spacing of the unequal masses, avoiding monotonous repetition. The remaining illustrations owe their effect maily to following these rules, harmony of line (one kind of line predominating) and simplicity are also strong factors. Put the above hints into practice. They will work and may lead to a desire to study the fascinating subject of Composition more fully.

From The American Annual of Photography and Photographic Times-Bulletin Almanac for 1903