SHAW, George Bernard

b. 26 July 1856; d. 2 November 1950

George Bernard Shaw is best remembered for his fifty plays and his distinction as an essayist and wit, but he was also an enthusiastic amateur photographer, who began taking photographs in 1898.

In a reply to Helmut Gernsheim as to why he had taken up photography, he wrote:

"I always wanted to draw and paint. I had no literary ambition: I aspired to be a Michael Angelo, not a Shakespear (sic). But I could not draw well enough to satisfy myself; and the instruction I could get was worse than useless. So when dry plates and push buttons came into the market I bought a box camera and began pushing the button...."

Evidently his success earlier on was not of the highest order. In an article written as an introduction to an exhibition by his friend Alvin Coburn (1906) he wrote:

"Technically good negatives are more often the result of the survival of the fittest than of special creation: the photographer is like the cod, which lays a million eggs in order that one may reach maturity...."

Shaw was an outspoken as well as knowledgeable writer and critic. He was very much against retouching; commenting in a newspaper (17 October 1888) he wrote:

"....there is still far too much of the sort of work that can be seen for nothing in the shop-window, not to mention one or two examples of "retouching" which can only be compared to the pipes and moustaches with which portraits of the sovereigns of England get decorated in school histories.... Retouching claims to be an art within an art; and doubtless it is so in much the same way that conjuring as applied to table-turning is an art within an art. All the more reason for it to be artistically done. It ought, however, to be excluded from a photographic exhibition, on the simple grounds that it is not photography...."

Commenting upon an exhibition in (12 October 1887) he was sufficiently unimpressed by the pictures being awarded medals to declare

"At this rate of judging, a New Photographic Society will be needed unless the present one promptly mends its ways..."

Indeed, only five years later this is precisely what happened, when the Linked Ring was created.

In a more lighthearted vein, here is part of an article appearing in Amateur Photographer (16 October 1902). Shaw was writing about that year's exhibitions by the Royal Photographic Society and the Linked Ring, but of interest is his playful comments on what were then called "Life Studies", now more popularly known as photography of the nude:

"It is impossible to contemplate the Salon walls without condoling with Mr. Steichen on the conflict between art and popular prudery. The camera can represent flesh so superbly that, if I dared, I would never photograph a figure without asking that figure to take it clothes off. I delight in mankind as nature makes it, and take such a moderate interest in mere garments that my tailor...has..had to change his name to avoid the public discredit of my callous abuse of his masterpieces...."

(Shaw's poor dress sense was notorious!:

"It is monstrous that custom should force us to display our faces ostentatiously, however worn and wrinkled and mean they may be, whilst carefully concealing all our other points, however shapely and well-preserved... But the avenger has come in the person of the photographer. The photographer's model, knowing that her face is the only part of her person by which she can be identified, hides that, and displays the rest recklessly. The method of concealment adopted by one of Mr. Steichen's sitters is to bury her face in a cat coiled up on the floor, thereby, of course, throwing into the most extravagant prominence those contours the very existence of what is conventionally regarded as a deplorable indiscretion of Providence, to be kept a guilty secret at all hazards. The poor lady's dilemma recurs in nearly all the figure studies.... I venture to submit a plain proposition on this subject. If sitting for a complete life-study is a misdemeanour, it should not be committed, nor should the photographer make himself accessory to it. If it is not a misdemeanour, the sitter should not be ashamed of it. To make matters worse, Mr. Steichen actually labels the lady with the cat in the American language. He calls her a "nude." This may be American modesty; but in English the adjective is only used substantively by old-fashioned dealers to denote a naughty French picture. This use of the word is also exemplified on the books entitled Nudes from the Paris Salon. Consequently English artists use the term Life Study, which is more accurate descriptively, and better grammar to boot...."

Shaw was deeply impressed by the photography by Frederick Evans, and the two became life-long friends.

© Robert Leggat, 1999.