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Albert S. Southworth, "Comments at the National Photographic Association," 1873
Philadelphia Photographer, September 1873

Mr. Southworth: Mr. President and gentlemen, you will excuse me for any remarks controversial in this matter. I had intended, before I came here, to make a few remarks upon lighting the face. I have arranged in my own mind a little of my habits and practice, and I will tell you what I do and what I should do in the first place.

I understand perfectly well that instead of our being able to control our lights, that nine-tenths of the photographers before me have not such a light as they want, that nine-tenths of them are between high brick buildings—wide, high buildings on one side and high buildings on the other side, sometimes on three sides—and with a little means they have adapted themselves to the position in which they are placed; they have cut such a hole in the roof as they could, paid for it, and have gone to work to make money, and that we have had any control of our lights I deny in toto, and if I were to ask for a vote, nine-tenths would rise and assent to my statement. I built the first skylight in America. I went into a room—it was an attic room—that had a passably steep roof with 12 feet flat on the top covered with metal. It was 45 feet long and 21 feet wide. I went in, got the privilege of doing what I chose in the room, swept the room out; overhead the rafters and everything else were left exposed. I put in, 18 feet above the floor, a 12-feet square light, about the centre of that roof. I did the best I could do. That was in 1842. I was not satisfied with it, but did the best I could. I went to work with it, and under it I made my pictures. It was a hard light to work in, but I could make just as good pictures in it as in any light I ever saw.

What is the philosophy of arranging a face under the light? What is the first thing to be done? The first thing is to admit as much diffused light over the whole face as you can; I will say pretty near as much as the eye will open and shut comfortably in, as will not affect the eye at all, or oblige you to close it. So that you can open the eye naturally; so that it shall not make you blink or want to look down. You want a light that will be diffused over the whole face and figure.

The next thing to be done. In the next place a diffused light will not give you shadows; it will not give you roundness; it will not give you any relief; it will not give you form, because if you could light everything here in this room, all exactly of the same strength, it would be just like a piece of white paper, there would not be anything like form to be seen here. If you light the form of the column on the wall just as light on this side as on the other there will be no shadow there. If you light the centre of it as much as the edge you will not see any form at all. Remember I am not speaking of the face particularly, but it is for the sake of illustrating the chemical effect, making the light diffused in the room natural and comfortable to the eye.

Now we come to the next step, which is to light the face; I increase the light so as to make the shadows fall. You see as I stand here the shadows, somewhere here; the light is not quite uniform; as I turn around it goes away again; you see the diffused light.

Now a remark has been made about the light falling at an angle of 45 degrees, and as to the pitch of the room. The pitch of the room I do not care for. You may erect a skylight just as you please, make it flat or pitched like a roof, you cannot tell the difference in the operation for the world, and there is no difference. So we will not talk about that. When a gentleman wants to do something else, and exclude the sunlight, then it becomes a matter of difference. He should have ground-glass in his skylight, no matter where it comes from, north, south, east, or west, and then he can work it. It is diffused by this ground-glass in every possible direction, except the ground-glass has a semi-transparency.

Now I come to my light after placing the sitter so the light is diffused. I open the light for forty-five degrees usually. Why use that angle? Why not straight up overhead? The reason is, that I want to show these lines of the brow; these lines of the nostrils. I want to show the shadow falling off to this direction so as to give the shape of the nostrils. I do not want to show it as if I were standing under you and looking up into your nose. I do not want to throw a shadow on the noblest part of the human countenance. What is that made for? What is the difference between the lion's head and the snake's?

Now I want to show these forms, this brow and these nostrils, or I want to show that from the corner of the mouth. I want to show that beautiful eye. I want to show the lines just as nicely as they can be shown, and give as much better picture as we can give. I want to arrange my lines. Here the light comes down and strikes; here on one side it is a little stronger. It throws light enough to make this shadow appear a little. Here it shows the same strength of light, and here the shadows going off gradually, not charcoaly, not inky, not muddy and dirty, like your shadow pictures; the most hateful things that were ever met with. There is no such thing in nature. You may take it from the darkest place, or the darkest place you can make—not building out into the broad sunlight. There is not a face you can make appear like one of these pictures, because the moment you see that face the light goes up from the shadow part, all warm and light. I know that is the clear part of it, but shadow must be represented and color also; if it does not represent it, it is like a piece of sheet-iron which has not been worked, and to give this effect in shadow pictures it is smoothed over, and there is no light there.

Now I have arranged my light. I have got all the light necessary, but then I don't keep it always forty-five degrees. How shall I change it? By changing the sitter. If sitting here does not suit, I get a sharper angle here, and further off a less one.

Now if it happens that the light is not proper for the face, I have my room so large as to go to the other side, instead of placing my camera in that direction to take the shadowy side. And what shall I call one of those shadow pictures that we see advertised "shadow pictures?" Rembrandt style? I would like to know what the Rembrandt style is. Have we ever had a good copy of a Rembrandt? Did he make such pictures as these? Not a bit of it. Now the idea of the time is to place your sitter in a position where you can get all around him with the camera, and if on the wrong side, and you want a certain light, and you want to take some pictures in the shadow, and get other lines, move your camera; go around him, almost entirely around him.

It was hard work to make pictures in our room; we never knew where our camera was going to stand, or where the sitter was going to sit, when the sitter came into the room. We arranged the sitter as well as we could, according to our judgment, the way the face ought to be represented in the picture, and when we had got the place to sit ourselves there it had to go.

That, then, to sum it up in a very few words is my philosophy. My reading and my observation is simply this: Have a room where you can control your light thoroughly and perfectly. Have a room where you can give as much diffused light on the face, without making it one particle more on one side than on the other, than the eye can bear comfortably, then grade it. Then open your high-light just as you want it. Open your high-light wide enough to make it like the light here, to give this light on the nose and forehead, giving the shadows as they ought to come, just as open as that (indicating), and you have your light right for the subject; and for the different lights change your subject around the room, and if the nose happens to be a short one you have got to manage it, or if it is very long, and if there are wrinkles, your diffused light lights them up, you can see that your highlight places the person further off. It will not be quite as high, and they will not show at all. The most wrinkled-up face I ever saw, I had to make a picture of. It took me four days to do it. You may take any ten persons there are here, and there are not as many wrinkles in them all as there was in that one. I learned little by little, and I learned the littles in the hardest possible way. That is the reason I know so little now. It took so long to learn the few littles all the way along.

Now about the way that you should build. You will still have to do as you have done. Probably by and by, if everybody who goes into the business lays out as much as he pleases in it, they can be sure that if they lay out much they never will get it back. If you want to make good pictures, control the light.

Now I want to say another word or two upon rather a serious matter. A few weeks ago I saw in one of the publications a reference to the taking of pictures of deceased persons. This was both important and interesting.

When I begun to take pictures, twenty or thirty years ago, I had to make pictures of the dead. We had to go out then more than we do now, and this is a matter that is not easy to manage; but if you work carefully over the various difficulties you will learn very soon how to take pictures of dead bodies, arranging them just as you please. When you have done that the way is clear, and your task easy. The way I did was just to have them dressed and laid on the sofa. Just lay them down as if they were in a sleep. That was my first effort. It was with a little boy, a dozen years old. It took a great while to get them to let me do it, still they did let me do it. I will say on this point, because it is a very important one, that you may do just as you please so far as the handling and bending of corpses is concerned. You can bend them till the joints are pliable, and make them assume a natural and easy position. If a person has died, and the friends are afraid that there will be a liquid ejected from the mouth, you can carefully turn them over just as though they were under the operation of an emetic. You can do that in less than one single minute, and every single thing will pass out, and you can wipe out the mouth and wash off the face, and handle them just as well as though they were well persons. Arrange them in this position (indicating), or bend them into this position. Then place your camera and take your picture just as they would look in life if standing up before you. You don't go down to the foot of the sofa and shoot up in this way (indicating). Go up to the side of the head and take the picture so that part of the picture that comes off from you will come off above the horizontal line. So it would be as if in a natural position, as if standing or sitting before you. There is another thing which will be useful to you in carrying out your operation, and that is a French plate mirror about four feet long and not very wide. This will suit some cameras, arranging the mirror so the reflection of the party will be thrown upon it in an easy, graceful, natural way, and then take your picture from the mirror. You can do it with the mirror without much trouble. I make these remarks because I think that they may be very valuable to somebody.

Without occupying too much of your time, I would say I had hoped that from the light of this room in the middle of the day we could just come in here and pose heads, getting the effect of the light by opening and closing the blinds. We can produce effects in that way that will be quite amusing and entertaining. We could do this for hours, watching the effect of the light on the face.

Before the President came in a gentleman was sitting here in as beautiful a light as his face could ever be placed in. It is easy enough to get it again. He changed around and went out there, and I observed his face as he came here. I observed it with a great deal of interest.

The President's picture could not be taken where he is, because the light strikes by-

A Voice: You could get the shadow! (Applause.)

Mr. Southworth (resuming): Now I want to say a word as to the taking of pictures. I am growing old, but I do not want my hair taken gray. I want it represented just as it is. I am a little proud of it. (Mr. Southworth has a head of fine black hair.) The first thing you would do would be to light it up. Some of the ladies' heads are lighted up as if powdered all over. It is an old saying and a true one, that it is a long road to travel before you do good work. (Applause.) Now I tell you, you must cover the top of the head in such a way that the screen will not cast shadows. Make the hair up with as much care as you do the face, on the shady side. Make the eye perfectly round and clear, not as if reflected from the screen. Make the eye natural, comfortable; make it round; define every part of it. When you have fully secured this, don't light it with a paint as if a gimlet were bored in it. Let it be that which has the reflection in itself, which shows of its own reflection. Do not make it as if it were done with a gimlet; don't let it be done as if scratched with the point of a cambric needle by a small child that did not know anything about it.

It still comes back to that one point which I have held up to you in one or two short addresses. Learn to look and see the difference under different lights in the same faces. Learn to see the fine points in every face, for the plainest faces in the world are human faces, belonging to human beings. There are some lines that are preferable to others, for they are not all bad. I have often made a picture, and have the person say, "It looks handsomer than the original." I would say to them, "You never saw that." I would go ten miles, and live on bread and water for three years to see a face that was ever flattered at all. There is not a single face ever made up to nature. There never was a painting ever made up to the original, made up to give you all that you ought to feel by looking at the original face. There is a soul and feeling in the natural face, or we should feel that it might be there, even if the person is dead; if they were alive, that it might have been there, for the Almighty made it for the very purpose that you must see it, and you can see it. You must feel that the human face is handsomer than the finest artist ever painted. I say it, I believe I am right. Excuse me for so much feeling.


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