Those Who Live in Glass Houses by Charles Dickens
HOUSEHOLD WORDS, VOLUME XII
"THOSE WHO LIVE IN GLASS HOUSES
— SHOULD not throw stones," says the adage. But who ever did live in glass-houses before the days of Sir Joseph Paxton or the invention of photography? And why were they expected to be constantly pelting their neighbours? Has the sun necessarily a combative effect upon dwellers in those traps to catch sunbeams?
I, who live in a glass-house all day, am inclined to answer the last question in the affirmative, when aggravated by ugly or capricious sitters. May I therefore, a humble photographer, venture one or two hints to the owners of countenances who desire them to be gracefully and accurately copied, and to those who try to copy them?
In turning over the leaves of an album, we frequently pass our acquaintances without even a nod. How is this? The photograph may be irreproachable as a work of art, and it is impossible to be other than a transcript of what, was presented to the camera. How comes it, then, that it is not a likeness? Simply because the original was, at the critical moment, unlike himself. When about to be photographed, one is apt to feel that, like Marshal Ney, the eyes of Europe are upon him — that, according to the position which he assumes, judgment will be passed on his good or bad figure, awkwardness or grace. He wishes to present himself on paper to an admiring, not to a critical, public. A nervous consciousness, moreover, that perhaps a guinea or two is involved in the operation, tends materially to add to his discomfiture. Trivial as this consideration may appear, it exerts a far greater influence on the expression than most persons are willing to acknowledge, even to themselves. Placed in a position always chosen by the operator (being, to save himself the trouble of rearranging accessories, precisely the same as that which the last sitter occupied), his head screwed into a vice behind, he is told to look at an indicated spot on the wall, and keep still. Thus posed, he regards further operations with much the same feelings of distrust as he would those of a dentist. In imagination, he hears the sharp rattle of the forceps, or the punch. His breathing becomes thicker and quicker as the critical moment arrives, his heartbeats audibly against his waistcoat, and a hazy film falls over his eyes. In this delightful condition of mind and body, he is enjoined to"keep quite still, and put on a natural expression;"as if expressions were as easy to put on as gloves. The inevitable consequence is, that he "grins horribly a ghastly smile," the like of which never passed over his features before.Yet both operator and sitter wonder why the portrait is so very unlike.
"I should like to have a landscape background for my portrait, if you please," is a frequent, but most inconsistent request. What can be more preposterous than to see a lady in full evening costume, quietly seated in a luxurious easy-chair, in the middle of a mountain pass, with a roaring cataract rushing madly down within a couple of inches of her immaculate book-muslin? The rugged pinnacle to which she is supposed to have flown (in her easy-chair) being carefully adapted to her satin shoes by a Brussels carpet, from which a tree is vigorously springing. An actor wishing to be represented in some particular character, may, with propriety, require a painted background to assist in the illusion that he is on the stage, before his own painted scenes. Addison remarks, in the Spectator, "a little skill in criticism would inform us that shadows and realities ought not to be mixed together in the same piece. If one would represent a wide champaign country filled with flocks and herds, it would be ridiculous to draw the country only upon the scenes, and to crowd several parts of the stage with sheep and oxen. This is joining together inconsistencies, and making the decorations partly real and partly imaginary."
There are as much individuality and character in the human figure, as in the human face. Every one has some slight peculiarity of gesture and carriage of body, as he has idiosyncrasy of mind. Assuming this to be so, with how much more character is a portrait in some accustomed position endowed than if represented in one to which he was unaccustomed. A right reverend prelate, engaged in the manipulation of three little thimbles and a small pea, or a blindman looking through a stereoscope, would scarcely be in harmony; yet photographs are frequently perpetrated in which ladies and gentlemen are represented in positions, and engaged in employments, equally as foreign to those in which their friends usually see them.The conventional pillar and curtain are becoming intolerable. The conventional Smith or representative Jones, attired in his habit as he lives(say the guinea paletot and the sixteen shilling trousers), seldom has the opportunity of resting his elbow on the base of a fluted column; neither is he often interrupted in the study of his favourite author (one finger between the leaves of the book), seated in a lady's boudoir, radiant with bouquets and toilet bottles, nor with a mass of unmeaning drapery mixed up with his hair, like the hood of an excited cobra.
When two or more persons are taken in one picture, it is no uncommon thing to see them standing without any connexion whatever with each other, as isolated and independent as the statuettes on the board of an Italian imageman; or else, as if desirous of emulating the silver bells and cockle-shells of perverse Mary, celebrated in the nursery ballad—all in a row.
A lady or gentleman, having made up her or his mind to be photographed, naturally considers, in the first place, how to be dressed so as to show off to the best advantage. This is by no means such an unimportant matter as many might imagine. Let me offer a few words of advice touching dress. Orange colour, for certain optical reasons, is, photographically, black. Blue is white; other shades or tones of colour are proportionately darker or lighter, as they contain more or less of these colours. The progressive scale of photographic colour commences with the lightest. The order stands thus: white, light-blue, violet, pink, mauve, dark-blue, lemon, blue-green, leather-brown, drab, cerise, magenta, yellow-green, dark-brown, purple, red, amber, morone, orange, dead-black. Complexion has to be much considered in connexion with dress. Blondes can wear much lighter colours than brunettes; the latter always present better pictures in dark dresses, but neither look well in positive white. Violent contrasts of colour should be especially guarded against.
In photography, brunettes possess a great advantage over their fairer sisters. The lovely golden tresses lose all their transparent brilliancy, and are represented black; whilst the "bonnie blue e'e," theme of rapture to the poet, is misery to the photographer; for it is put entirely out. The simplest and most effective way of removing the yellow colour from the hair, is to powder it nearly white; it is thus brought to about the same photographic tint as in nature. The same rule, of course, applies to complexions. A freckle quite invisible at a short distance, is, on account of its yellow colour, rendered most painfully distinct when photographed. The puff-box must be called in to the assistance of art. Here let me intrude one word of general advice. Blue, as we have seen, is the most readily affected by light, and yellow the least; if, therefore, you would keep your complexion clear, and free from tan and freckles whilst taking your delightful rambles at the sea-side, discard by all meansthe blue veil, and substitute a dark green oryellow one in its stead. Blue tulle offers nomore obstruction to the actinic rays of the sunthan white. Half a yard of yellow net, though, perhaps, not very becoming, will be found more efficacious and considerably cheaper than a quart of Kalydor. The cause of freckles is simple enough. It is nothing more than a darkening of the salts of iron contained in the blood, by the action of light. A freckled face is, therefore, an animated photograph.
Still another reason why photographs are not always pleasing, either as likenesses or pictures, is that the time occupied in posing the sitter and securing the negative is not sufficient to allow much thought or care to be devoted to it.It was recorded in a photographic journal, sometime since, as a wonderful feat, and lauded accordingly, that one operator had taken ninety-seven negatives in eight hours, just five minutes apiece. Now, as no two individuals ought to be subjected to precisely the same treatment, that is, placed in the same position, or in the same lights, it is certain that fifty at least of those, measured by this modern Procustes, would be capable of much improvement. Sometimes, for days together, when the atmosphere is foggy, they can do nothing; and, therefore, it behoves them to make their hay while the sun shines.
Now for my trials: "How frightfully stout you have made me," remonstrates a lady weighing, probably, about a couple of hundred-weights; "I have had my portrait painted in oil and pastelle, but neither make me look so stout as you have. I declare I look like some fat, dumpy old woman. I wouldn't let any one see this for worlds. You really must do another."This lady is succeeded by another, of uncertain age, who wants a carte de visite taken of her pet dog (it is presumed, for him to distribute amongst his acquaintances). "I should like it taken very nicely, if you please. How do you think he would look best? In profile, three-quarters, or full face?" "I think in profile," replies the artist. "Will you please make him lie down on the table." "Oh dear, he won't be still, I know, on the hard table; he must have a cushion to lie on." A cushion is accordingly procured, and Beauty is deposited thereon."I think," remarks the young lady, after he is focussed and light arranged, "the other is the prettiest side of his face. Yes," turning him round, "he looks far more intelligent in this position." This, of course, necessitates re-focussing and rearrangement of the light. Just at the moment of exposure, Beauty jumps off the table. No amount of whistling or coaxing, no startling announcement of "rats"or even "cats" will induce him to keep still for one second. Half a dozen plates in succession are spoiled, until he takes it into his intelligent head to go to sleep, when a good photograph is at last secured, and the lady, with many apologies for having given so much trouble, bows herself out. She is succeeded by two young gentlemen just returned from school, who, beyond making each other laugh, putting themselves into absurdly grotesque positions while the operator is attempting to focus, and asserting that "it's no end of fun being photographed"(which the obtuse operator doesn't seem to see), conduct themselves tolerably well, and in a few minutes are dismissed. The next visitor is a young mamma with her infant. "Do you think you can take a good likeness of this child?"she inquires; "she has just learned to walk, and I should like her to be taken standing."
"But if she has only just learned to walk,"suggests the artist, "I don't think she will beable to stand still."
"Oh yes, I am sure she will," returns mamma. "Do, please try; I should so like to have it."
The artist cannot withstand this appeal, and, against his better judgment, attempts and fails; for the sweet little cherub is unsteady on its "pins," and is much given to "flopping" at unseasonable times. Mamma is at length compelled to do what the artist recommended in the first place—to take the baby on her lap.
Then there is the deaf old gentleman, who can't hear when he is told to keep still; and the communicative young lady; and the funny person, who wants to be taken with his fiancee, and when he has moved talks about missing his face, and facing his miss, and tells the operator he may fire away again, he has lots of time.
It is now about four o'clock, and the artist, who has in the course of the day travelled about twenty miles, in rushing in and out of the developing-room, arranging sitters' dresses and accessories, regulating the light, &c., with the thermometer standing up amongst the nineties, has not had an opportunity of taking any refreshment, or sitting down for one minute. Yet he is expected to be polite and conciliatory to all, never to lose his temper, and must attempt, at least, to strike up a cheerful conversation with each sitter, so as to get an "expression."
Can you understand, then, that some of us who live in glass houses do occasionally desire to express our impatience by some strong demonstration?