January 2005:
Photography as Drawing

Photographing People I: Specificity and The Human Figure

When photographing people we know, as in family pictures. or strangers in public places, the task always is to create images of unique, knowable and memorable human beings who move us as do people we know and/or encounter in life. One reason our pictures fail to move people who don’t know or who didn’t see our subjects is that the people in our photographs, considered as characters in pictures, are indistinguishable from untold numbers of other people represented by untold numbers of other photographs.

Here is a professional, competent anonymous 1845 American daguerreotype from the collection of the Minnesota State Historical Society. It shows three young men identified by the caption only as "The Kenyon College Boys".

Are they just undergraduates? Or Minnesotans having their undergraduate friendship commemorated by a Minnesota portraitist and the title they gave the picture? Or traveling entertainers, singers, perhaps, photographed on their Minnesota tour? Unknowable in factual terms, these young men nonetheless strike us as distinct individuals with distinct personalities. Each seems full of himself as only youth can be. With their wine glasses raised, their formal wear proudly worn, they affect adulthood as only youth can. And so the picture captures a certain charm of young manhood and so charms us. True, this is due to our knowledge of human nature. But it is also due in part to the way the lens, from its specific vantage point, has drawn each young man in the light of the anonymous photographer’s studio. Lens, light and vantage point, together with the men’s poses, give each figure his visual specificity – a specificity of form – analogous to the specificity of character we refer to when we say that a person has this or that personality.

Consider only the angles of the heads. The left vertical, the middle tilted to the right, the right one to the left. Consider also the shapes of the heads. Only the middle one refers to the oval shape of the human head--but only refers to it: the curve along the right side and the straight right jaw-line strongly alter the oval form. The other two heads are strong irregular shapes, each one different. It is the same for the faces, from which light and shadow create three distinct visual forms. The same, although harder to see, is true of the shapes of the hands and shirt fronts and the lines of the neckties.

Each element – in technical terms, each motif – is rendered with the clarity and the fidelity to appearances we associate with photography. This fidelity is being employed in untold numbers of interchangeable family snapshots being made as I write these words. The difference between these snapshots and the Kenyon College Boys is that in the latter each motif, albeit the product of the photographer’s eye and lens, is -- considered as a form -- also as specific to itself as if it were also the creation of the photographer’s hand holding a pencil or a piece of charcoal. Because of this variation of the motifs, each time the eye moves from one head, or hand, to another it encounters a new thing, hence the picture’s illusion of life in its richness and movement, and of three distinct characters, each one fully and uniquely himself.

A short poem by Gertrude Stein comes to mind. It appeared on posters in New York subway cars in the 1990s, thanks to an MTA program that brought poetry into the transit system.

I am Rose, my eyes are blue.
I am Rose, and who are you?
I am Rose, and when I sing
I am Rose like everything.

In a photograph, it is the drawing of the person in it that makes that person appear “himself like everything” and able to affect our feelings.

When photography emerged in 1839 no one knew what to call it but all photographers and observers saw that the revolutionary new medium was a form of drawing. For months after they came into the world camera pictures were called “drawings”—from which soon came our term, “photograph”, i.e., “a drawing with light”. As late as 1853, the French writer Francis Wey, recalling the first photographs he saw – July, 1839 -- said that they struck him as a radical critique of drawing rigidly based on the outline. When Wey wrote this he was making his own negative critique of drawing with prominent, rigorous outlines. But the implications of his statement go beyond historical arguments about art and are important to photographers today with respect to style. Therfore, Wey's statement will be the springboard for a future Making Pictures column.

The early analogy to drawing is not only accurate but also perpetually relevant, for all pictures that represent appearances are based in part on the drawing of the appearances they represent. And in photography, the lens, light and the negative or digital sensor are to the photograph what the pencil, graphite and the paper are to pencil drawings: the instrument, the medium and the support.

I began with the an anonymous photograph so that no reputation might affect our appreciation of it, and with only a competent one because the skills required to make such a picture are well within the range of even the occasional family photographer. But now it’s time we look at some masterful drawings to give examples of the above-mentioned terms, then to look at equally masterful photographs to make the connection between drawing and photography concrete. (Pre-20th-century drawings with their greater allegiance to appearances are more useful here than modern drawings with their distortions of appearances.)

Consider, in the drawings below, the specificity in the shapes of the heads (all the way out to the edge of the hair: how many heads are ovals?), and in the eyes, limbs, the structures of the faces (how many drawn faces have bi-lateral symmetry?), the shapes of bodies (as affected by poses) and of various parts of articles of clothing. In drawings showing more than one hand, eye, limb, etc. consider the variation on the form of these body parts. In drawings with more than one figure, consider the variations among all motifs from figure to figure. In drawings in which a person or an object is in front of another person, look at the person behind -- at the body or body part -- ie. the fragmented body -- created by the over-lapping. You will see a contention between the body or body part as a description of the human figure and as a shape in a picture: a contention between content and form.

I have reproduced many drawings and photographs so as to concentrate our attention on form. It is my hope that after a number of examples, the first thing you will see is not a drawing's subject but, rather, its forms -- and so, eventually, with photographs. Also, it is my experience that once one sees these aspects of drawing in a number of pictures one sees them immediately in all subsequent pictures and, as experience accumulates, one comes to recognize great, or strong, or mediocre, or weak drawing almost as soon as one sees it, even though the differences among them are difficult to articulate in words.

Here are, a Rembrandt etching... and a drawing by Peter Paul Rubens...

a sketch by Pontormo... and a study by Renoir.

In this print by Peter Brueghel the Elder there are thirteen human figures, male and female, old, middle-aged and young; some in action, some still. Not one resembles any of the others and there is not a generalized figure in the entire lot.
Finally, a lion by Rembrandt. Since most photographs of animals are among the most poorly drawn and therefore the dullest photographs made every day, I thought it would be instructive to see Rembrandt's lion followed immediately by...
...this nineteenth century picture of a cow. Both Rembrandt and the anonymous 1850s photographer of this picture obviously drew their respective subjects so to be at once a representation of the animal in question and a strong, surprising, singular form in a picture.
Similarly, this 1840s photograph by the Edinburgh team of David Octavious Hill and Robert Adamson has the same kind (albeit not the same degree) of specificity, figure to figure, as the Brueghel print...
...as do these pictures by the mid-twentieth-century photographers Tim Gidal...

...and Ilsa Bing.

Bing’s picture is remarkable by virtue of the fact that all the dancers are performing the same step at the same time yet as Bing drew them each is highly specific to herself. (Recalling pictures of marching bands at parades can help put the specificity of Bing’s picture into focus.)

Considered in terms of form, the Brueghel, Hill and Adamson, Gidal and Bing pictures are four versions of the pictorial task of motif and variation in many figures arranged and composed across the entire picture space.

As we began with portraits it seems fitting to end this series of photographs with portraits and pictures showing a single human figure. Here are two portraits by Edward Weston taken in Mexico in 1924...

...four Paul Strand portraits made in Italy in the 1950s. For the Strand pictures, consider, first, the shapes he has given to – the way he has drawn -- the four necks, that is, the area between the jaw-and-chin line and the top edge of the uppermost article of clothing. Next, consider the relationship between the top of each subject's head and the top edge of the picture's frame (or of a doorway or some other horizontal element in the picture) and how this assists in the drawing of the curve at the crown of the head (or of a hat). In the picture of the young girl in a jumper and a striped top, consider how her hair creates the shape of her head and how the subtle variations in the shadows beneath her eyes creates the structure of her face.

Here are two men with similar bodies and striking the same pose as depicted in the 1850s by the Parisian portrait photographer Nadar. Note how Nadar’s handling of the pose (affected by where he put his camera) and his placement of the picture’s bottom edge assists in the unique drawing of each body and, therefore, in the creation of a unique human being in each picture.

Finally, and for the sheer pleasure of looking, here is a strongly drawn photograph of a seated human figure by the 1840s French amateur photographer Humbert de Molard. The woman is doing one of the most commonplace things in the modern world: reading a newspaper. Yet thanks to de Molard’s drawing of the seated figure, we have the impression that nobody in or out of pictures has read, reads or will read a newspaper quite as intensely and urgently as this woman reads hers.

Since drawing in photography is a matter first, of seeing and then of putting the lens in the right relation to the subject, its principles are easily observable by looking at pictures. It is just as easily practiced by looking more carefully and deliberately at our human subject and, once the camera is at our eye, considering the image of him or her in the viewfinder as forms and taking that small step forward or back, to the right or left (a matter of a fraction of an inch, sometimes) so that the person whose surfaces are is rendered so clearly, whose likeness is so exact, becomes, also, a distinct form in the picture, expressive of a unique human being. Given the obviousness of the principle, the wealth of examples to learn from, the economy of means and the fact that it is the lens, guided by the hand and the eye, that does work that, in traditional drawing, it takes years for the hand and eye to learn, concentrating on drawing seems a logical and productive place to start for anyone desirous of making better pictures.

But lest we leave Francis Wey dangling there in 1853, here is a drawing by the great French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) that typifies the highly linear style of drawing Wey objected to:

And here is a nude by Edward Weston in the same style as it appears in photography, which just goes to show that Wey’s antipathy to this style was a matter of taste and that there’s no way a photograph or a drawing has to look. But as this raises questions of style we shall have to return to Wey’s statement in a later column.

Ben Lifson also conducts private photography tutorials with photographers on three continents.
For information please visit his website, www.benlifson.com

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