Friday, June 13, 2008

The Value Of Expression In Portraiture.

           A matter to which many portrait photographers do not give the consideration that it merits, is the expression of the sitter's countenance at the moment of the exposure. In my experience and observation the one thing more, perhaps, than any other single quality, which secures approval or disapproval of a portrait, is the sitter's expression. I was speaking in this sense recently to an old photographer, now a director of a firm having several studios of good class, and he replied that he would undertake to build up a business by attention to the matter of the sitter's expression, when on technique he could not do so. It is not to be supposed that the speaker thinks slightingly of the importance of good sound photography. He recognizes, as I do, that that should be the foundation on which our work should be based, but that for securing the satisfaction of our patrons he considered the presentation of a pleasing expression to be the most important factor.
           To some extent the desirability of securing an agreeable expression in a portrait has been recognized from the early days of professional photography. A stock wheeze of the "comic" papers has been to represent the photographer as telling the sitter to "look pleasant." There may be photographers who use this formula; I don't remember that I ever did so. A sitter, unless in the case of a skilful actor, does not look pleasant to order. I have often known a fond mother say to her baby or young child when ready for the sitting, or even before that, "Now laugh, laugh." I have never known this to succeed. The child is too young either to understand the injunction, or to be able to take the part of an actor and assume an expression not actually in accordance with its feelings. Some playful antic on the part of the photographer is much more likely to produce the desired effect. I have often found a little game of Peep-bo to succeed in attracting baby's attention and in securing an interested expression. With sitters other than infants, conversation will naturally be the means employed. With boys a little discussion as to the relative appreciation of trigonometry and football or cricket will often induce an amused expression, but here some tact is desirable. An opening sentence or two will generally show the direction into which to guide the conversation. The leading principle is not to tell the sitter to assume any particular expression, but to say or do something likely to evoke it.
           With adult sitters, tact and the avoidance of anything like taking a liberty are of the highest importance. I have known a photographer, thinking to chase away a mournful expression, tell a lady not to look as if she were in a consumption, only to be crushed by the reply, "Perhaps I am."
           A photographer ready to turn to advantage any little incident that may occur may often succeed in obtaining a happy expression that will secure a good order from the negative. One such case that occurs to me is that of a young lady of German parentage, born or long domiciled here (this occurred long before the war). The young lady had good features, but when posed for the photograph assumed a stern, almost forbidding, expression which ordinary conversation failed to remove. Presently, however, her mother said something to her in German, on which I joined in with "Ach! Wenn ich nur Deutsch verstehen konnte!" (Oh! if only I could understand German!), which, being spoken in the language of which ignorance was assumed, so tickled the lady that she burst out laughing. When the ripples of laughter had subsided but an amused expression still hung about the features, a very successful portrait was secured. With French sitters, of whom there hare been a good many this year, I have found that a little conversation in their own language generally induces an interested expression even if they speak English well, and particularly if they do not do so.
           Since commencing to write this article I happened to be in the studio of a photographer who does a high-class business at good prices - he refuses altogether to take negatives for postcards when a lady came in bringing with her a friend for a sitting. The lady complimented the photographer on her own portrait, which she said was the only one that she had with a satisfactory expression, and that she was really rather ashamed of having given away such a large number of her own portraits. Depend upon it, there is more in the value of the expression in portraiture than most photographers realise.


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