A L “Whitey” Schafer was a leading stills photographer in Hollywood during the 1930s and ’40s. In 1941 he published Portraiture Simplified, a book in which he argues that “…portraiture’s purpose is the realization of character realistically.” It provides an insight into his approach and techniques.
To help promote the book, he wrote wrote an article for amateur photographers in the February 1943 issue of Popular Science. It makes a nice counterpoint to some of his studio shots. A transcript follows, but it’s worth taking a look at the original (there’s a link to it at the end of this article), both for the photos that illustrate it and for his advice on equipment, which do not appear here.
Explore your home for pictures in pattern
By A. L. (WHITEY) SCHAFER Portrait Photographer, Paramount Studios “Whitey” Schafer is a pioneer among Hollywood’s still photographers. Starting 22 years ago as a laboratory worker at Paramount, he was for ten years in charge of portrait, publicity, advertising and production still photography for Columbia Pictures. Now he is back at Paramount, in charge of all still photography and directing the work of the same laboratory where he started as a boy. He specializes in “pattern pictures” such as the accompanying ones of Ann Rooney and Lynda Gray.
The man behind the lens, whether he be a professional or an amateur, sees life in terms of pictures. Since many of us are going to spend more time at home from now on, more of our pictures will have home settings. Why not make the best of the situation by getting interesting home patterns into your photographs? If you follow the suggestions I’ve found valuable in my studio work, you can build a collection of pictures that will not only portray your family and friends more interestingly, but will, in their settings, afford intimate glimpses of your home as well.
Any background other than a blank wall resolves itself into a pattern of lines or masses. Where in the home will you find interesting patterns? In the woodwork of a door, and its framework; in the brick sidewalk and the flagstones of your patio; in floor coverings, particularly rugs with strong markings; in chairs and lamp standards and iron grill work; in the grape arbor, a shade tree, the picket fence. Two simple rules will serve as your guide:
1. Look for interesting line.
2. Do not shoot into “open” background, such as a plain wall.
Both rhythm and contradiction will provide interest. For example, lower the camera and you elongate a full-length figure. Have your subject lean away from the perpendicular when the design is rectangular to break up parallel lines, and so get a contradictory line between the center of attraction and the background. These points are well illustrated in the accompanying pictures.
There is one important exception to the second rule. You may safely photograph a girl in a pretty costume against a plain wall, for here interest centers in the girl and her garb. In general, though, it is the background that makes your pictures.
Any feminine wardrobe will include more than one costume with interesting pattern – a peasant dress, for example. Have your subject stand against the wall, hold or pin the dress up by the hem so as to frame her head and shoulders like a fan, turn one shoulder toward the camera, and you’ll get a picture to be cherished. Unless you have a portrait attachment, you must be content with a waist figure. In enlarging, though, bleed the dress off the edges of the print, thus creating a feeling of endless design.
How should you shoot for close-ups, medium figures or long shots? Does a door call for a medium figure and the mantel a full figure? Which odd corner holds promise of a beautiful composition?
Suppose we examine some concrete cases. The ideas they suggest undoubtedly will point the way to parallel possibilities in your own home.
Consider the front door, or perhaps the dining-room door. It may be paneled, or perfectly plain with handsomely grained wood. You’ll agree, I am sure, that the form and pattern of the door are interesting; they’re doubly so when sister or mother consents to pose. Again let us ask your subject to stand with one shoulder turned toward the camera. (If she stands straight on, her head will appear disproportionately small.) Place the camera at shoulder level – certainly no lower than the bust line.
“Four walls do not a prison make,” but four sides of the door casing certainly will imprison your subject. So, either on the negative or when enlarging, crop so that the casing does not frame the picture. Let the panel bleed off the edges.
That’s not an inflexible rule, of course. Some doors have interesting moldings or casings. When including this framework, to avoid the feeling of imprisonment, tip the camera opposite to the line of your subject’s figure. If she leans to the right, tilt the camera to the left. By this means, the normally horizontal and perpendicular lines of the doorway will both frame the center of interest at an interesting angle and enhance the line of the figure.
Have you ever thought of a wall, a simple, unadorned expanse of plaster, as part of your home worth photographing? It can be, if you add interesting shadows. Some of the most effective portraits I have taken are medium shots photographed against such a background. Place your subject directly against the wall, turn one shoulder toward the camera and arrange a single key light high enough to cast a butterfly shadow under the nose so long as almost to reach the lip. No matter which way he or she faces, to avoid the illusion of a crooked nose the light must be cast to run the shadow directly down, and not even a trifle side-ways. The single-source light will cast shadows along the wall, bringing out the relief that makes the picture. No back light is needed here.
Rugs, particularly those bearing a single predominant figure against an open or lightly figured field, offer interesting opportunities. They may be hung against a wall or left on the floor. In the first case, be sure to place the figure high enough so it doesn’t conflict with the head of your subject. It’s a good plan to make this a medium shot, placing the subject in one lower corner, with the figure running out of the opposite upper corner. If you wish to avoid an unsightly shadow and focus attention upon the subject, place her about three feet in front of the rug. Thus, the background will be slightly out of focus.
A slightly different procedure applies when the rug is left on the floor. Now you’ll shoot down from an elevation of about 5’, tilting the camera so that the figure comes diagonally across the plate. Make sure your subject’s head is closer to the camera than her feet.
Remember my warning not to shoot into open background. That means, simply, that with such exceptions as costumes against bare walls, the background pattern and foreground objects should balance the picture both as to width and depth. Virtually any piece of furniture may be used in the foreground, such as a sofa or an upended chair. These natural props not only solve the problem of the straying hand by giving it a resting place; they also keep the resulting picture out of the stereo-typed class.
Lean an occasional table on its side, for example, and frame a head in the center of the top. Use a low setup, shooting up to get a feeling of distance. The possibilities with furniture are limitless. A few trials will show you the way.
What may you find of interest outdoors? Lattice work, vines, tree branches … pictures are everywhere. Let’s make them different. The latticed arbor, for instance. Don’t simply take a straight shot, but angle the lattice to the boundaries of the negative. If the sun is shining directly through the lattice, try for a silhouette, making sure none of the rays strike the lens.
A human figure will improve the picture, and yet preserve the pattern. In this case, while the lattice will give you a bolder pattern as a result of contrast, you should expose for the subject rather than for the background.
I have left until last the most prized and usually the most poorly conceived picture of all. That’s the family portrait. Don’t stand all your subjects in a single row, some in shadow and some in the sun, say “look at the camera,” and shoot. Do take time to arrange them against an interesting background, perhaps the climbing rose against the living room. Break the straight line by having some sit and others stand, one turned right and another left, some slightly farther from the camera than others. Get them to talk until they relax, and when they seem to be interested in each other rather than in that box at your finger, press the trigger.
These days, the likes of George Hurrell and Clarence Sinclair Bull garner most of the attention. A L “Whitey” Schafer, by contrast, is a name unfamiliar to all but the cognoscenti. He barely gets a mention in John Kobal’s book The Art of the Great Hollywood Photographers. One reason for the neglect could be the relative brevity of his career, curtailed by his early death.
Looking at the images on this page, his most distinctive trait seems to be the tilt at which he regularly puts his camera. Even when he’s not employing that technique, there’s often a strong diagonal element to the composition achieved via the lighting or the pose of his sitter. And as his article suggests, he’s not afraid to use backgrounds to add drama and interest, whether via props or projection.
Does he succeed in realistically capturing his sitters’ characters? Well, that was probably a tall order, given the studios’ requirement for glamour rather than personality. The closest he comes here is probably the portrait of Doris Nolan – the hint of a smile that plays around her eyes and lips suggests a mischievous sense of humour.
At his best, as in the photos of Rita Hayworth, Mary Lou Dix, Janet Blair, Dolly Haas, Joan Perry, Fay Wray and Ann Miller, A L “Whitey” Schafer proved a master of his profession, well up to the task of helping his employers turn aspiring actresses into movie icons.
1902. Born in Salt Lake City.
Around 1917. Moves with his family to Hollywood.
1921. Joins Famous Players-Lasky to work in the stills laboratory, processing prints.
1923. Joins the Thomas Ince Studio, where he shoots stills and occasionally appears in movies. In a 1948 Popular Photography article he recalls, “That was in the days when everybody on the lot was called on to act at times. When we weren’t shooting pictures, we were doing “walk-ons.”
1932. Moves to Columbia.
1935. Succeeds William Fraker (father of “Bud” Fraker) as head of Columbia’s stills photography department.
1941. Replaces Eugene Robert Richee as head of Paramount’s stills photography department.
1951. Dies, age 49, when a stove aboard a yacht explodes as he tries to help the owner light it.
Want to know more?
The best source of information I’ve found is Mary Mallory / Hollywood Heights — A. L. “Whitey” Schafer Simplifies Portraits. For more photos by A L “Whitey” Schafer, take a look at The Red List. The full article in Popular Science is available via Google Books (you’ll find it on pages 144f).