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    The False Photographer

    by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
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    When, as lately, events have happened that seem (to the fancy, at least)
    to test if not stagger the force of official government, it is amusing to
    ask oneself what is the real weakness of civilisation, ours especially,
    when it contends with the one lawless man. I was reminded of one weakness
    this morning in turning over an old drawerful of pictures.

    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 coalblack
    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.

    This is a small but exact symbol of the failure of scientific civilisation.
    It is so satisfied in knowing it has a photograph of a man that it never
    asks whether it has a likeness of him. Thus declarations, seemingly most
    detailed, have flashed along the wires of the world ever since I was a boy.
    We were told that in some row Boer policemen had shot an Englishman, a
    British subject, an English citizen. A long time afterwards we were quite
    casually informed that the English citizen was quite black. Well, it
    makes no difference to the moral question; black men should be shot on the
    same ethical principles as white men. But it makes one distrust
    scientific communications which permitted so startling an alteration of
    the photograph. I am sorry we got hold of a photographic negative in
    which a black man came out white. Later we were told that an Englishman
    had fought for the Boers against his own flag, which would have been a
    disgusting thing to do. Later, it was admitted that he was an Irishman;
    which is exactly as different as if he had been a Pole. Common sense,
    with all the facts before it, does see that black is not white, and that a
    nation that has never submitted has a right to moral independence. But
    why does it so seldom have all the facts before it? Why are the big
    aggressive features, such as blackness or the Celtic wrath, always left
    out in such official communications, as they were left out in the
    photograph? My friend the poet had hair as black as an African and eyes
    as fierce as an Irishman; why does our civilisation drop all four of the
    facts? Its error is to omit the arresting thing--which might really
    arrest the criminal. It strikes first the chilling note of science,
    demanding a man "above the middle height, chin shaven, with gray
    moustache," etc., which might mean Mr. Balfour or Sir Redvers Buller.
    It does not seize the first fact of impression, as that a man is
    obviously a sailor or a Jew or a drunkard or a gentleman or a nigger
    or an albino or a prize-fighter or an imbecile or an American. These
    are the realities by which the people really recognise each other.
    They are almost always left out of the inquiry.
    If you're writing a The False Photographer essay and need some advice, post your Gilbert Keith Chesterton essay question on our Facebook page where fellow bookworms are always glad to help!

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