The recruit who as yet has hardly realised that a picture can be aught but a simple copy of a well-chosen scene in Nature may, if he like, leave this section for the present and pass to the next; but anon I will ask him to return to this and give it a little patient study, assuring him that the imaginative quality of his picture is as essential as the very plates and paper he uses to make it with.
We have already spoken of the desirability of the scene possessing but one more or less central chief object, the subordination of other objects, lights, and shades thereto, the convergence and balance of lines and masses, the absence of excess of irritating detail, the differentiation of planes by intervening atmosphere—all equally important, indeed essential qualities for the picture ; but it will occur to the reader to say how rarely indeed will all these things happen in the same scene. Precisely, that is why it is consoling to remember that the picture is not necessarily a replica of the natural scene; that is, we may, if we can, omit or add if by so doing we can the more convincingly convey our idea. But what of this idea ? Well, probably it will be simplest to say that the idea is in most cases the scene as we imagine it to be rather than as it actually is.
In photography it is not so difficult as might be supposed to produce imaginative work if only the photographer possess and will exercise his imagination. Looking at the natural scene, let him, after having chosen the point of view which seems most satisfactory, think how and in what way it might have been better, more attractive in its arrangement, softer in its grey distance, bolder in its near contrasts. To the naturally artistic temperament this glorification of the scene which, for some reason, attracts it is instructive.
Notice that composition is but the rearrangement of parts within or up'to the limitations of the process, circumstances, or individual ability ; the representation of the imagined scene is but the truthful rendering of the individual impression, the scene as the individual thought he saw it; for it must be remembered that an imaginative work must not be confused with a mere fancy picture, which may be an extravaganza. But a good imaginative work is always indistinguishable from a transcript from Nature—that is to say, on looking at it it appears so reasonable, so like Nature, so true to what Nature ought to be, that none without positive knowledge could assert that it is not true to incident and fact.
The finest pictures in the world only pretend to copy Nature; reminding us of Nature by certain artifices which make us see and feel the original more vividly than would an actual copy. Fine selection or composition, accurate delineation, are but the dry bones of the noble picture which, when we confront it, thrills us by reason of something which is apart from the actual objects portrayed. This thrill, this stirring of our emotions, is, I think it may be shown, due to the imagination of the producer, who takes in the whole beauty of a scene at once ; and because the lighting, the form, or some character is of a kind to which his imagination is at the time attuned, he sees in his heart and mind a more beautiful, a more perfect scene than is actually before him ; and if he is successful in conveying by means of a picture this glorified impression, then he is but fulfilling the proper function of the artist, which is to interpret Nature for others, and make others see beauties and receive ideas which they would never find in Nature for themselves.
This, I think, accounts for the selection of some particular subject which to another person may seem to have nothing especially to recommend it. Some detail, some form, some light or shadow or contrast, attracts, and instantly and quite unconsciously the person attracted weaves as it were a halo of glory around it; imagines it much fairer than it actually is to another person, and, as he studies it, all surrounding factors in the scene are subordinated to it and are robbed by imagination in order to emphasise and enhance it. So the painter might depict it and give us Nature as seen through his temperament. But what of the photographer ? Unconscious that the dry facts are much less beautiful than he is thinking them to be, he goes through his process of reproducing, and then anon, when the print is made, how disappointing !—he is rudely awakened from his dream, or more likely blames the process for its inefficiency. Is not this the story of thousands of photographs? How often has it been said that the photograph is but a dead representation with the soul of Nature left out ? But there is no more soul in the trees and flowers and swelling hills than in that sun-made image; the "soul" was that which the man's imagination created and which he has taken no care to imprison. Hence these remarks on imagination to warn the photographer that unless he take such steps, or so control his process, all unsympathetic and unimaginative as it is, how can he hope t/iat his picture will contain what was not actually there ?
I warned the reader that he might pass over this chapter and go to the next, for I am not prepared to say just how this imaginative quality can be imparted, nor, I think, is anyone. It is not a thing of grains and ounces, but in the next section, after giving with the brevity which circumstances compel such outline of means and methods as I think the beginner may find useful, I shall leave him to apply them as best he may; but means and methods are of little use unless he is also awakened as to what end he is to apply them. The photographer must realise that the essence of a picture is the personal interpretation of Nature, and, having certain means placed at his disposal, he is at least more likely to be successful in their use than if he did not know to what end to employ them.