By Lawrence Grant
ASC Magazine February 1931
Mr.Grant is one of Hollywood’s best known character actors. Photoghraphy is his hobby, and his portrait work is considered among the finest. As a pictoralist he also claims distinction. In the future issues of this magazine Mr.Grant will contribute a series of interesting articles, with his own illustrations. Editor’s Note.
TRADITION has it that, many years ago, an aspiring young photographer asked Edward Steichen, then, as now, the dean of American camerists, what was the secret of making artistic pictures. And to this question, tradition tells us that Mr. Steichen responded, “Simply make them easy to look at.“
There is a great deal of truth in that definition. Photography, whether professional or amateur, is primarily a means of making accurate and pleasing representations of whatever may lie before the lens of the camera. In its ability to do this lies both its commercial value, and its claim to artistic standing. Being a basically mechanical process, its accuracy is unquestionable, while the fact that it can, in a great measure, be controlled by the individual photographer indicates that it can be made to make pleasing pictures of almost any subject —which gives it a place among the arts.
Unfortunately, however, this matter of individual control can be gravely exaggerated. Furthermore, it is being exaggerated, in too many instances, to the point where individual artistry is giving place to affectation. Now, this development is quite permissible in the purely amateur field, but in the professional field—particularly in the case of portraiture—it becomes definitely bad. In my own personal opinion, as one who has striven and suffered on both sides of the camera, it seems very clear that the sole object of a professional portrait should be to give the best and simplest representation of the sitter; in other words, Mr. Steichen’s picture which is “easy to look at.” It should be a tribute to the appearance and character of the sitter, and not—as is so frequently the case today—a tribute to the “cleverness” of the photographer.
During the course of my many years in the motion picture industry, I have had the opportunity of discussing photography with most of the outstanding directors, cinematographers, and critics of the day; and the consensus of their opinions has been that the most perfect and artistic photography is that which is invariably simple and unobtrusive. If this is so in the matter of cinematography, why should it not be equally applicable to portrait photography? In the language of the industry, why should a personal portrait serve to publicize the photographer, rather than the sitter? In painting and sculpture we find great artistry invariably characterized by simplicity and concentration upon the subject, letting the attention be focused upon the subject, rather than the artistry of the maker. In cinematography we find the same thing. But in photographic portraiture, we all too often find ourselves lost in a maze of trick lightings, bizarre compositions, and bewildering camera-angles, all of which may increase our esteem for the ingenuity of the photographer, but which certainly do not bring the picture any nearer to Mr. Steichen’s ideal of one that is easy to look at.
Probably the greatest offenses are committed in the name of composition. Now, obviously some attention must be given the arrangement of the component parts of a picture, but it has always seemed to me that to go about it with the idea of making a perfect S-composition, or a perfect triangle-composition, or anything of the sort, was rather putting the cart before the horse. If you can arrange your subject so that it makes a pleasing picture, why not let it go at that, instead of worrying whether or not it is according to the accepted forms, or delving into higher mathematics to check the balance of the areas of light and shade? In my own photographic experience, and that of my friends who operate cameras in the various studios and portrait galleries, composition is predominantly a matter of an instinctive appreciation of beauty, rather than of a conscious striving for effect. If there is anything to be striven for, it should be that natural simplicity which, in the completed print, gives one the impression that the picture was quite un-posed. In my own work, I make it a definite rule never to lay a finger on my subject during a sitting. I find that it puts the average person vastly more at ease if you merely tell him the general position you wish him to take, and then, after the inevitable firing of lights, focusing, and so forth, chat with him until he unconsciously assumes the proper expression and pose. This, naturally enough, will enable you to capture those fleeting, natural mannerisms and expressions which really characterize a person, and which are so rare in most portraits.
But to be thoroughly satisfactory, this simple, direct naturalness must be observed in every detail of the photographic technique. If you use this method of posing your subject, your lighting should be equally simple. Obviously studied backlightings and catch-lights would be as thoroughly out of place as a full-dress suit on the golf links. But lighting should not only be simple, it shou!d be used sparingly. The paramount thought in the photographer’s mind should be not “how much light do I need?” but “how little can I manage with”? Of course, the temptation, when we are working by artificial light, is to be sure that we have plenty of illumination, and to use as many units as we have available, as if to show our mastery of lighting technique. This fallacy is as deeply rooted in the minds of many professional cinematographers and portraitists as it is in the minds of the amateurs; yet if you visit the sets presided over by the really great cinematographic artists, you will at once notice that they invariably use an absolute minimum of light and of lighting units. Perhaps the most outstanding exponent of this technique is that great artist, Hal Mohr, A.S.C. It has been my good fortune to play in several pictures which Mr. Mohr has photographed, and each time I have been amazed anew at his ability to coax the maximum effectiveness out of the minimum number of lighting units—I almost said, his uncanny ability of not using unnecessary lighting equipment!
This same technique can be used with even better results in portrait photography. Without using either extremely fast lenses or super-sensitized emulsions, I have found that two ordinary incandescent units are all that one needs for any purpose. And both of them are ordinary broadside units; I have never owned a spotlight, for I have yet to encounter a situation in which one is really necessary. In fact, there are many times when a single unit is sufficient. Normally, I simply place one light fairly close in on what a cinematographer would call the “hot” side, and move the other quite far out on the other side, adjusting these distances until the correct balance is reached. This is vastly simpler, naturally, than having to bother with a larger number of units, playing around with tricky catch-lights, and so on; and, which is more important, it gives a more natural effect—a picture that is “easier to look at.”
Another pitfall into which the portraitist is all too apt to tumble is the matter of diffusion. Now, a mild degree of diffusion is infinitely desirable in a portrait. It gives a far more natural presentation of a person than a wiry-sharp picture would, for we do not see thing with the same exaggerated sharpness that a Cooke or Tessar lens does. On the other hand, however, we do not normally see things in the fuzzy way that diffusing discs and gauzes portray them. Therefore, if we are striving after naturalness in our portraits, we cannot secure; a natural diffused effect by the use of an anastigmat with discs or gauzes intersposed to break up the image. The only satisfactory method is to use a true soft-focus lens—of which there are many on the market—which sees things with the same natural softness (a thing quite distinct from fuzziness or out-of-focus blur) that our eyes do. In that way we can get an image which is really in correct focus, and yet has the diffuse softness which makes our picture natural, and “easy to look at.”