fig. 24: Portrait Study
c. 1902
by Laura Adams Armer

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Picture Possibilities · Waterless Mountain

The Picture Possibilities of Photography
by Laura M. Adams, 1900

© Peter E. Palmquist

California-based photographer, film director, artist and author, Laura Adams Armer (1874-1963), opened her first studio little more than a year before this article was published. She later went on to become deeply involved in photographing the Navaho and Hopi Indians, including a motion picture, The Mountain Chant (1928), which was narrated in the native Indian tongue. She also wrote a number of children's books, including Waterless Mountain (1931) which received both the Newberry Award and the Longman, Green & Company's prize for juvenile fiction.

The Picture Possibilities of Photography
by Laura M. Adams, 1900

Any one of ordinary intelligence can manufacture a photograph. So many ordinary intelligences have discovered this fact that our highways and byways are littered with distorted reflections of nature. The camera has become the symbol of degenerate art. The unthinking photographer presses the button and leaves the rest to fate; and fate was ever a poor manager. Thought is an unknown quantity among the great majority, which rushes with fever excitement toward the newest diversion, forgetful of the fact that to attain without concentration is out of the natural order of things, and not realizing that he who hopes for a result unearned only drifts at the mercy of the tide. No machine can be a substitute for mind, and there are no short cuts to success. The way is long and tedious. However, there is always a minority, possessing sober discretion, which toils perseveringly, and in photography as among other arts and crafts, we find the faithful few striving for the truth. And this truth is a universal law which commands things artistic as well as natural.

Nothing can be gained through superficial effort, but analysis will solve many problems. While recognizing the limitations of photography as compared with painting, one can still see its advantages. The camera as a means toward an end plays a more important part than the tools of an artist, as the latter must spend years in learning to copy nature with mechanical fidelity before his equipment is parallel with that of the man with the camera. Not until one is master of technique can he produce a work of art. Thus, viewed in the light of a labor-saving machine, the camera scores its greatest victory. Still it is but a means to an end, and the picture possibilities are in the photographer.

His choice of subjects is necessarily limited, for imaginary fancies must be dispelled. The chimerical is dispensed with, proving photography a true child of our century. This age does not chase elusive shadows, but it chains the sunbeams, using them as a medium for soul expression; for what we call soul in a picture is but another name for symmetry, harmony - the perfect blending of idea and expression. The painter may attain it; why not the photographer? He knows that a desire to give form to his thoughts and dreams is not sufficient in itself, however intense the desire, however beautiful the thought. But if the incentive be strong enough, he will enter the prosaic land of why and wherefore and dig for himself in the hard, unyielding rock the reasons and laws which must support the castle he would rear. He learns that the camera not only reflects what is before it, but that it also reflects the intelligence back of it, - the intelligence that knows why simplicity in composition is pleasing and knows how to accentuate the important parts by repressing the superfluous, - that understands the affinity between certain lines and emotions and controls the innumerable subtle influences that exist in composition. It is the same intelligence that gives quality to a painting, recognizing natural laws as the basis of so-called inspiration. Assuredly the camera can idealize.

In portraiture especially the photographer has a wide field. He can approach the painter on almost common ground. Each should be in sympathy with his model, and each should be a keen observer of character, and by using the artistic intelligence each may produce pictures that will live. The characteristics peculiar to the model are noted. If beautiful, they are accented; if not, they are modified in the lighting and posing of the subject. How few of the portraits we ordinarily see show any attempt at composition! The aim has been, not realism - far from it! - but elaboration of meaningless detail in costume and surroundings, and elimination of characteristic detail in the face. The ordinary portrait-photographer seems consumed by an inordinate desire to make things round and smooth. The furrows of age, those telltale signs of one's journey through life, are carefully molded and rounded in the retouching of a negative until the subject and the twenty other victims on the shelf are as alike as peas in a pod - and about as much like peas as human beings. But these are the picture impossibilities of photography, and have little to do with our subject, simply serving by comparison to strengthen true art.

The costumes of today are not particularly picturesque, and present a difficult problem in the composing of a picture. And the matter of dress is an important one, for the reason that a true portrait should be typical of the epoch as well as of the individual. It is oftentimes a great temptation to ignore the claims of realism in that direction, in spite of Herr Teufelsdrockh's assertion of "the omnipotent virtue of clothes." At any rate, the less conspicuous the drapery, the more satisfactory the portrait.

Portraiture affords the student more freedom in the exercise of his individuality than does the study of landscape. Nature is unruly and refuses to be governed by the photographer. She is like a child, and must be taken unawares. She arranges the light to suit herself, and oftentimes spoils a good effect by introducing some useless detail. A painter could leave out what would be detrimental to his picture, but the photographer must accept the inevitable and look for subjects with unity. Ready-made compositions are scarce; so the really good landscapes are few. We see many attractive bits of light and shade-things that catch the attention but do not hold it. We feel that Ruskin was right when he said that contrast heightens the splendor of beauty, but lessens its influence.

It must be confessed that happy accident has produced many of the good out-of-door pictures, and especially among those subjects that combine figures and landscapes. Snap-shots in a crowded street are apt to have a charm of candor sufficient to compensate for the lack of more conventional virtues. It is the same with studies of children; for it being simply impossible to do more than arrange the light and background for these restless subjects, one must again accept the inevitable and trust to the artlessness of the child to supply the whole value of the picture.

Conscientious study being limited, owing to the inability of the camera to compose, we find, then, that the greatest picture possibilities lie in the field of portraiture; and there is great hope, judging from the signs of the times, that these possibilities may be fulfilled, and that our grandchildren will number among their art treasures, truly beautiful photographs of their friends - photographs so far removed from apparent mechanical process that they will rank with the handiwork of the masters...

100 Years of California Photography by Women

Women Photographers and the American Indian

All text compiled by Peter E. Palmquist
Camera Fiends & Kodak Girls II: 60 Selections By and About Women in Photography, 1855-1965.
New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1995