Monday, June 13, 2011

"The False Photographer"

ON THE LIMITS of photography:
This weakness in civilisation is best expressed by saying that it cares more for science than for truth. It prides itself on its "methods" more than its results; it is satisfied with precision, discipline, good communications, rather than with the sense of reality. But there are precise falsehoods as well as precise facts. Discipline may only mean a hundred men making the same mistake at the same minute. And good communications may in practice be very like those evil communications which are said to corrupt good manners. Broadly, we have reached a “scientific age,” which wants to know whether the train is in the timetable, but not whether the train is in the station. I take one instance in our police inquiries that I happen to have come across: the case of photography.

Some years ago a poet of considerable genius tragically disappeared, and the authorities or the newspapers circulated a photograph of him, so that he might be identified. The photograph, as I remember it, depicted or suggested a handsome, haughty, and somewhat pallid man with his head thrown back, with long distinguished features, colourless thin hair and slight moustache, and though conveyed merely by the head and shoulders, a definite impression of height. If I had gone by that photograph I should have gone about looking for a long soldierly but listless man, with a profile rather like the Duke of Connaught's.

Only, as it happened, I knew the poet personally; I had seen him a great many times, and he had an appearance that nobody could possibly forget, if seen only once. He had the mark of those dark and passionate Westland Scotch, who before Burns and after have given many such dark eyes and dark emotions to the world. But in him the unmistakable strain, Gaelic or whatever it is, was accentuated almost to oddity; and he looked like some swarthy elf. He was small, with a big head and a crescent of coal-black hair round the back of a vast dome of baldness. Immediately under his eyes his cheekbones had so high a colour that they might have been painted scarlet; three black tufts, two on the upper lip and one under the lower, seemed to touch up the face with the fierce moustaches of Mephistopheles. His eyes had that "dancing madness" in them which Stevenson saw in the Gaelic eyes of Alan Breck; but he sometimes distorted the expression by screwing a monstrous monocle into one of them. A man more unmistakable would have been hard to find. You could have picked him out in any crowd—so long as you had not seen his photograph.

But in this scientific picture of him twenty causes, accidental and conventional, had combined to obliterate him altogether. The limits of photography forbade the strong and almost melodramatic colouring of cheek and eyebrow. The accident of the lighting took nearly all the darkness out of the hair and made him look almost like a fair man. The framing and limitation of the shoulders made him look like a big man; and the devastating bore of being photographed when you want to write poetry made him look like a lazy man. Holding his head back, as people do when they are being photographed (or shot), but as he certainly never held it normally, accidentally concealed the bald dome that dominated his slight figure. Here we have a clockwork picture, begun and finished by a button and a box of chemicals, from which every projecting feature has been more delicately and dexterously omitted than they could have been by the most namby-pamby flatterer, painting in the weakest water-colours, on the smoothest ivory.

I happen to possess a book of Mr. Max Beerbohm's caricatures, one of which depicts the unfortunate poet in question. To say it represents an utterly incredible hobgoblin is to express in faint and inadequate language the license of its sprawling lines. The authorities thought it strictly safe and scientific to circulate the poet's photograph. They would have clapped me in an asylum if I had asked them to circulate Max's caricature. But the caricature would have been far more likely to find the man.
— G.K. Chesterton, “The False Photographer”, from A Miscellany of Men.

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