The Mentor

The Mentor

Published in the teens and twenties, The Mentor is an interesting little publication. I’ve been reading the August 1, 1918 issue on photography (written by Paul L. Anderson) with great interest. The publication’s mottos “Learn One Thing Every Day” and “Make The Spare Moment Count” should give you a clue to the diversity of things that such a publication might cover. It isn’t strictly a photography publication at all. The feelings about photography awakening at the beginning of the twentieth century are summed up pretty nicely by the editor W.B. Woffat:

For many years photography was largely confined to portraiture and the faithful reproductions of objects and scenes. All that was expected of a camera was to “make a picture” of a thing. Within the last forty years, however, as reproductive processes have been invented, photography has come to be one of the most useful of the arts. Beginning about 1883, the quality and character of the illustrations in our magazines and books changed radically. Where, previously, there had been nothing but hand engravings of one sort or another, photo-engraving appeared, and, with that, the horizon of magazine illustration extended far beyond the reach of the liveliest imagination. Who could have forseen then, in the first photo-engraving processes, such possibilities as photographic printing in full colors, or moving picture films? Today, pictorial illustration depends on photography, and there is apparently little or nothing beyond the reach of photographic art. It discloses the internal arrangements of human anatomy; it makes a record of the affairs of heavenly bodies; it pictures things the human eye cannot see; it is even potent in the realm of mystery, for have we not seen photographs of ghosts (?) reproduced from spirit seances? When objects and situations in life that do not exist are wanted, the camera can, by some trick or device, create them for us. There seems to be no limit to the possibilities. Each wonder displayed in photographic reproduction gives way to some effect more wonderful still.

The illustrations selected by Anderson do not contain any photographs of “ghosts.” There is some overlap with the examples he used in his 1917 book Pictorial Photography (which I have already posted), but for the most part the illustrations in this one are unique. Being the obsessive compulsive I am, I’ve placed the (unique) illustrations online. My copy of this one included six photogravures, and multiple halftones scattered through the text. I’d like to put the text online too, but that will have to wait a while. I don’t have many spare moments just now.

There seems to be a tendency of most writers on photography to consider early attitudes about photography as naive—however, a careful reader might note the question mark after the concept of “ghosts.” It was placed there by Woffat, not me. His embrace of photography as a potentially fictional medium, I feel, was not all that unusual. The distinction between fiction and fact was then, as it has always been, somewhat ambiguous.

However, the stress placed on “scientific” uses of photography is also echoed in Anderson’s text. Photography is a way of seeing things we can’t physically see— both fictional and real.

Motion Pictures

Motion Pictures

There seems no reason why motion picture work should not be fully as meritorious from an artistic standpoint as the ordinary still photography, although it must be admitted that up to the present time this ideal has not been realized, most producers being intent on securing films which will be sufficiently sensational in character to attract large crowds and be financially profitable. Unquestionably they have been tremendously successful in this respect, as is evidenced by the great sums which are spent on the production of photoplay films, such expenditure being without justification unless anticipated and actual receipts were correspondingly large. Still, it is more than probable that at some future date there will arise a producer who will subordinate the sensational to the meritorious, and the reward of such an individual will be large. At least one man is now working along those lines and has produced some wonderfully fine films.

Many persons feel that the photoplay is destined to supplant the legitimate drama, but the writer does no believe that this can ever take place, since the motion picture appeals to the eye alone and is therefore limited to a comparatively low grade of intellectual appeal and to a crude emotional stimulus. The drama, on the other hand, appeals to both the eye and ear, and since it places actual individuals before the spectator an appeal not only through muscular and facial expression but through the ear as well is made, the spoken word being a far more potent factor in stimulating and emotional response than is the case with the eye. Should the writer be inclined to doubt this, let him try to imagine any photoplay which would be capable of arousing the feelings stimulated by the quarrel between Brutus and Cassius in Julius Caesar, or by the Council of Infernal Peers in Paradise Lost, and it will be seen that the photoplay is totally incapable of rising to the emotional heights possible to the spoken word.

Paul L. Anderson, Pictorial Photography, 1917

It is interesting to me that Anderson downgrades the appeal of the eye to the intellect here, whereas he accentuates it when writing of color photography. It is worth noting that several instructors from the Clarence White school went on to illustrious careers in motion picture photography, including Ralph Steiner and Karl Struss. Struss left the school to work with Cecil B. DeMille, among others.


Desirability of Color in Photography

*Chapter 16 of Pictorial Photography by Paul L. Anderson, 1917 (251-255). I feel that the entire chapter is worth reading for any photographer, because it presents an interesting case for photography as an intellectual activity, rather than an exercise in embodiment.

Almost since the first discovery of photography scientists have been working to develop some method which would permit reproducing not only the gradations of natural objects but also the colors, and within the past ten years considerable success has crowned their efforts, in that methods of color photography have become commercially practical. Before that time there had been discovered several methods which permit the accurate reproduction of colors, but color photography remained a laboratory experiment, or at least required laboratory apparatus and very careful work, until the introduction of the autochrome plate by Messrs. Lumiére. Since that time several plates more or less resembling the autochrome in general character have been placed on the market, and Fredrick Ives has standardized an older process in such a manner that any photographer who will follow instructions carefully can at the present time make satisfactory photographs in full color of practically any natural object.

There can be no question as to the scientific value of these processes, since they render possible a perfect record of many objects of the highest interest, scientists hitherto having been obliged to rely on the comparatively laborious and inaccurate method of hand coloring, so that to the botanist, the zoologist, the pathologist, and to many other workers in scientific fields color photography renders inestimable assistance. So far as the artist is concerned, however, the value of color photography is more or less doubtful, and many arguments are advanced against its use in this field. The writer has at various times made a great many color photographs and, like nearly every photographer, was very enthusiastic over the process on his first introduction to it, but after making perhaps two or three hundred color photographs he found that, the novelty wearing off, the results failed to interest him. In a search for the reason for this condition the writer has come to a very definite conclusion, that in the present state of the art the use of color is not desirable.

Continue reading “Color”

Size Matters

Size Matters

Reasons for Enlarging— Many writes say that size has nothing to do with art and that it is possible for a small picture to show as fine artistic quality—that is composition of line and mass and esthetic feeling—as can be found in a large one. This is perfectly true, but the fact remains that pictorial effect depends to a great extent on the size of the picture, and that the larger the print the more likely it is to produce the desired effect on the spectator. This is probably due to the circumstance that the photographer or painter who wishes to produce a psychic impression, that is, to arouse in the spectator some mood or emotion—which is the highest function of art—is necessarily concerned very largely with producing an illusion of reality, the psychic effect being more likely to result if the observer can be deceived into thinking that he is looking at the actual objects instead of their pictorial representation. Since natural objects are usually large compared to the observer, it follows that a picture of a tree or a house is not likely to produce an illusion of reality when it is on a small scale, for the observer is obliged, in looking at the real tree or house, to move his eyes in order to observe the entire object, whereas this does not occur with the small picture. If the picture be 18″ x 22″ or 20″ x 24″ it will be necessary for the observer to move his eyes in order to see the entire picture space, and this motion is unconsciously associated with the idea of magnitude. Hence, it follow that those artists who are concerned merely with esthetic qualities need not work in large sizes, but the ones whose ambition is to produce a pictorial effect should make their prints as large as possible without exceeding the natural limitations of the medium. (115-116)

Paul L. Anderson, Pictorial Photography, 1917

I find it interesting that the “pictorial effect” is not connected with aesthetic considerations, but rather realism. A key consideration of print layout and composition is eye movement—the changes in print layout in the following decade are foreshadowed here, for the net effect of the “double-page spread” is to encourage eye movement. Fixed reading distances in books and magazines also lends itself to greater attention to matters of scale.

This presents a major problem for electronic display design—with variances in screen sizes, it is difficult to gauge how things will appear to viewers. Perhaps the increasing use of 2:1 panoramic displays will represent a similar revolution in web design. The 3:4 ratio of conventional screens is a relatively “stable” compositional space. Panoramic displays force the eye to wander; it isn’t only a matter of size, but of proportion.

In later books, Anderson asserts that the “esthetic response” is an intellectual matter; however the “pictorial effect” is an emotional one. These matters are both rooted in composition. Anderson sees basic composition as a function of logos, but the net effect of a “pictorial” approach is targeted wholly towards pathos. His distinction is subtle, but important when consideration of this bizarre and ill-defined moment in photographic history. It’s an important turn— a turn that I’m not sure has happened yet in most theories of the electronic “composition.”



There are some interesting contradictions regarding “accuracy” in Pictorial Photography. There is an extensive discussion of pinholes in the chapter on lenses, and pinholes are favored for their infinite depth of field and focus, and “a very pleasing quality of definition, the amount of diffusion depending on the size of the hole” (50). Anderson describes his method for making pinholes:

In describing the method for making a pinhole the text-books usually give elaborate instructions for its manufacture, these directions looking towards an accurately gauged, sharp-edged hole. The writer finds, however, that for pictorial work it is sufficiently accurate to punch a hole with a pin or needle in a piece of black paper such as plates are wrapped in, as the purpose of the more accurate method is to approximate lens definition, which is precisely what the artist wishes to avoid. (51-52)

In this case “accuracy” has nothing to do with definition. The precise definition of what is meant by “pictorial” photography is ambiguous, and there are several divergent attributes applied to it throughout the course of the book. What I find most interesting is that the standards of “accuracy” are different between portraits and landscapes. In the chapter on choice of plates, Anderson takes a great deal of space to encourage photographers to use filters which promote “accurate” reproduction rather than false values—values are seen to be the key element of accuracy, rather than definition. Using an illustration comparing the responses of orthochromatic and panchromatic plates, Anderson chastises portraitists for using the inaccurate (and cheaper) ortho plates—though he grants that they are very useful for landscape work:

Continue reading “Accuracy”

Luminiferous Ether

Luminiferous Ether

Wave Theory of Light— If we stand beside a pond of still water and throw a stone into it we shall see a series of waves passing out in concentric circles from the center of the disturbance. If there be a chip or a leaf floating on the surface it will be apparent, on watching this object, that there is no forward motion of the water itself (unless the stone be so large relatively to the pond as to cause a marked displacement of the water) but that the individual molecules simply rise and fall in the vertical direction, each communicating its motion to the next, so that the wave travels forward. The accepted theory regards the propagation of light as being due to a similar wave motion in the luminiferous ether, an invisible, imponderable substance pervading all matter, the wave motion originating in any self-luminous body.*

*One theory regards the propagation of light as consisting of a series of irregular pulses which are transformed into a simple harmonic motion on encountering any material obstacle, but since we are dealing with light only after it has encountered such obstacles the above statement may be taken as correct.

Paul L. Anderson, Pictorial Photography, 1917.

This provides an interesting contrast to the theory advanced by Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1859. Rather than particles that stick, Anderson promotes the idea of harmonic waves. It’s interesting, in retrospect, that both theories can be taken as correct. Except for the luminiferous ether part, of course. Unless you’re talking to a poet.

Liberal Education

Liberal Education and Photography

Anderson was of the primary instructors at the Clarence H. White School of photography (whose alumni include Paul Outerbridge, Laura Gilpin, Doris Ulmann, etc.). The pedagogical methods of this school were at the cutting edge of the early twentieth century. It’s amazing to me how close the clues I’ve found towards the attitudes of this school (heavily influenced by John Dewey) match the current attitudes towards instructional practice. Anderson’s technical lectures were published in 1917, and hidden in this book is an agenda towards learning that seems, well, new and refreshing.

From the forward to Pictorial Photography: Its Principles and Practice:

In preparing the discussion of the technique of pictorial photography which is given in the following pages the author’s purpose has been to produce a book adapted to the needs of those workers, who, without wishing to undertake a study of the abstruse scientific phases of the art, nevertheless have passed beyond the elementary stages and feel a desire for pictorial expression. Every effort has been made to adapt the book to the needs of such photographers, and for that reason the author has endeavored to make clear, not only the actual technical methods, but also the fundamental principles underlying those methods, since a thorough grasp of the principles is of importance in enabling the worker to locate and correct his mistakes and also to study and to grow in power of expression, which is almost impossible when his knowledge is simply a matter of remembering certain arbitrary facts.

The book was one of a series of “practical books,” but Anderson’s foreword makes it clear that he is not talking about strictly theory, but what is labeled in modern educational circles (at least in rhetoric) as praxis—theoretically informed practice. Other books in the series (which I have not examined) include The Practical Book of Early American Arts and Crafts, The Practical Book of Architecture, The Practical Book of Interior Decoration, The Practical Book of Period Furniture— the picture should be fairly clear. Even historical topics are taken as matters of practical importance.

There is much to be said about the contents of the book, but for the time being I have posted a gallery of the “practical” examples contained in the book by leading pictorialist photographers. The conclusion of the book reflects deeply on the state of education and the arts, and provides what seems to me to be fairly sensible advice. Here, Anderson lays the ground work for his 1919 book The Fine Art of Photography, which deals with composition. I will discuss that one at greater length sometime soon, but it may take a few days to process the wonderful nuggets contained in Pictorial Photography. Anderson’s conclusion not only addresses the importance of “design” and the utility of studying reproductions, but also contemplates the nature of “genius” and its relation to the arts:

Continue reading “Liberal Education”