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Pictorialism, Art and Photography: Now and Then

Jim Donelson (jcdonelson)


Keywords: pictorialism, concept, postprocessing, art, jcdonelson

I’m usually not big on the history of a given subject, but I stumbled upon Pictorialism and found it quite interesting. It revealed that no matter how much things change, in some way they are still the same. 

Since I am not a primary source, I will quote other more authoritative sources. To quote Wikipedia concerning Pictorialism:

“Pictorialism is the name given to an international style and aesthetic movement that dominated photography during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There is no standard definition of the term, but in general it refers to a style in which the photographer has somehow manipulated what would otherwise be a straightforward photograph as a means of ‘creating’ an image rather than simply recording it. Typically, a pictorial photograph appears to lack a sharp focus (some more so than others), is printed in one or more colors other than black-and-white (ranging from warm brown to deep blue) and may have visible brush strokes or other manipulation of the surface. For the pictorialist, a photograph, like a painting, drawing or engraving, was a way of projecting an emotional intent into the viewer's realm of imagination.”

Phillip Prodger, in the introduction to Impressionist Camera: Pictorial Photography in Europe, 1888-1918 (London: Merrell, 2006) said:

“Generally, photographers practicing pictorialism in France strove to make photographs that looked like drawings, paintings, and watercolors. Often, they employed elaborately constructed settings and used costumes and props to tell a story. They used soft-focus lenses for blur, textured papers to imitate the effects of prints, and pigment-printing techniques to resemble painting. Other popular techniques included such darkroom manipulations as combining and retouching negatives. Pictorialists favored handmade materials over the industrial camera equipment and supplies that developed at the end of the twentieth century.”

The reason why this came to be is that in the mid-19th century it was generally thought that photography was not art. It was argued that a camera was simply a machine that recorded a scene as it was - i.e. reality, and was therefore not art. Since human creativity was not involved, it could not be art. So Pictorialisms goal was to involve human creativity into the photograph.

This made more sense then that it does now, as taking a photograph required a fair amount of technical skill and equipment, so it seemed to be more of a technical endeavor than an artistic one. This started just before the Kodak age when photography was brought to the “people” in a form that anybody could do. It was much more difficult to create a photograph then as it is now as your attention had many more considerations to attend to.

Many of us may not realize this, but many the things we do with Photoshop now, in principle were done at that time. These photographs by Henry Peach Robinson, are composited from several separate images. Which he cut and pasted with scissors and glue. At that time there was also much controversy regarding combining images, as there is today to some degree. Somewhat along the lines of ‘to post-process or not’, ‘image blending or not’ or ‘RAW vs. JPEG’.

01

Fading Away (1858) by H. P. Robinson

 

02

When the Day's Work is Done (1877) by H. P. Robinson
Click for an enlargement

 

03

The Ferry, Concarneau (1904) by Mary Devens

 

But it gets more interesting. Robinson wrote several books on Pictorialism, at least two of which can be found in PDF format and are free, as the copyright is long expired. One of them is titled "Pictorial Effect in Photography: Being Hints On Composition And Chiaroscuro For Photographers" London: Piper & Carter, 1869 (archive.org link). This is a rather long and formal book, where as “The Elements of a Pictorial Photograph” Bradford: Percy Lund & Co, 1896 (archive.org link) is a shorter and more concise work.

This later book is quite interesting in that it describes composition in a way quite similar to today. Among other things he mentioned that these are not rules but guidelines and he talked about ‘making’ a picture. “As I said at the outset, rules are not intended as a set of fetters to cripple those who use them, and it is not meant that the student should absolutely abide by them.”

He advises the Landscape photographer “to obtain in his foreground some object, or mass of objects, that will act as a keynote to keep the whole in harmony” (Victorian era authors tended to be somewhat formal in their writings). He further advises “and if nature does not supply such object, the pictorial requirement may often, without violating material truth, be furnished by art.” In other words, go ahead and put something there - perhaps from another negative. At times it is hard to decipher precisely what he is saying due to differences in time and culture, so if you chose to read it, you will have to adapt to the writing style.

Robinson stresses lines and contrast, balance and unity in his discussions of composition, just as we do today. He also mentioned having the picture tell a story, a concept we still adhere to.

He also advises studying the styles and composition of the master painters. "I would recommend the student to go to the National Gallery, and make a careful examination of the Turner collection". He is referring to J. M. W. Turner, “known for his expressive colourisations, imaginative landscapes and turbulent, often violent marine paintings.”

04

Dutch Boats in a Gale (1801) by J. M. W. Turner

 

By 1890, Kodak had revolutionized popular photography. This is another interesting analogy to today, with cell phones creating a second wave of popular photography.

This is what was said at the time: 

“Many serious photographers were appalled. Their craft, and to some their art, was being co-opted by a newly engaged, uncontrolled and mostly untalented citizenry. The debate about art and photography intensified around the argument that if anyone could take a photograph then photography could not possibly be called art. Some of the most passionate defenders of photography as art pointed out that photography should not and cannot be seen as an "either/or" medium ‒ some photographs are indeed simple records of reality, but with the right elements some are indeed works of art.”

Sounds familiar? The debate was reopened. 

William Howe Downs, art critic for the Boston Evening Transcript, summed up this position in 1900 by saying "Art is not so much a matter of methods and processes as it is an affair of temperament, of taste and of sentiment ... In the hands of the artist, the photograph becomes a work of art ... In a word, photography is what the photographer makes of it ‒ an art or a trade." (from his essay “PHOTOGRAPHIC ILLUSTRATION OF POETRY” by William Howe Downs)

I think that pretty much answers the question - there are painters that paint your house and painters that paint a picture.

Following Pictorialism, the next movement, starting around 1920 was “Modern Photography” and officially ran until 1960.  Modern Photography was a departure from the constraints of traditional art, like as painting, to…. well, just photography.

Alfred Stieglitz (January 1, 1864 – July 13, 1946) (Georgia O'Keeffe’s husband) started off as a Pictorialist, but ended up championing the “Modern Photography” movement. A quote of his “Photographers must learn not to be ashamed to have their photographs look like photographs." sums up the situation in around 1920. This movement opened the way and encouraged styles such as Street Photography and Snapshot Aesthetic (Garry Winogrand’s style) among others. The term snapshot aestheticrefers to a trend within fine art photography in the USA. “The [Snapshot Aesthetic] style typically features apparently banal everyday subject matter and off-centered framing. Subject matter is often presented without apparent link from image-to-image and relying instead on juxtaposition and disjunction between individual photographs.” (Wiki topic)

So perhaps this information helps to understand photographs that appear to be “wrong.” Even such things as soft focus and crooked framing were once considered the be the height of correctness, and in my book still have a place. It also points out the many of today's controversies are hardly anything new.

“I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.” - Garry Winogrand

05

Untitled, New York (ca. 1970) Garry Winogrand
Click for an enlargement

 

 

(5 Votes )

Originally written on January 28, 2019

Last updated on January 29, 2019

10 comments

Jim Donelson (jcdonelson) on March 28, 2019

Ribbon awarded for his contribution to the Articles section

Thank you all for reading this and your kind words, it is encouraging.

David Goldstein (dagoldst) on February 13, 2019

All I know about photography being art is I like some images enough to put on a wall, the others not so much. Or as the Joker once said, "I don't know if it's art, but... I like it!".

Russell Whittemore (rosewood_ltd) on February 3, 2019

Donor Ribbon awarded for his support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Donor Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2017 Awarded for his in-depth knowledge and high level of skill in several areas.

Excellent summary. It's good to be reminded of our antecedents and it is ironically humorous that the "manipulation" debate initiated by the first pictorialists is still being argued today. While I have documentarian aspects of some of my own work, I am much more interested in putting my own stamp on the things I see in my mind's eye, when I record something with my camera. I particularly like the act of creating images that cannot be "seen" or directly experienced in the real world, but evoke a particular sense of place, emotion or atmosphere.

Alan Cring (ProfessorC) on February 2, 2019

For more than a few years, now, I have described myself as a "pictorial artist." Unfortunately this is not so much a category as it is a rather poorly understood description. My work is striking in its virtual uniqueness, and it satisfies my deep need to be remembered as an artist, not "just" a photographer. That having been noted, I should mention something else about my artwork: it attracts an audience; it annoys my critics; and, rather importantly, it sells.

John Hernlund (Tokyo_John) on February 2, 2019

Nice read, thanks for taking the time to share it! This makes me wonder what it might be like 100 years from now, how will people then be looking back at today's photography? Only time will tell, although we won't hear it ourselves.

Joseph F. Olson (joeolo) on January 31, 2019

I found this to be a very interesting read. Thanks

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on January 31, 2019

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Jesus, the "Fading Away (1858)" picture by H. P. Robinson was made out of five negatives. Wonderful times we live in.

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp) on January 31, 2019

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

Tom, yes. we live in a great time. I liked your 'Remembering Paul' image. A great example in point :-)

Jesus Rincon (jesusr27) on January 30, 2019

I thought I was "cheating"....Wonderful times for art and photography. Thank you, great article.

Tom Conway (coastalshooter) on January 28, 2019

Each of us approaches photography in our own way. The use of long exposures, ND & other filters, Photoshop & other software permit us to "make" photos rather than "take" photos. However, I believe a little more Pictorialism vs. Realism is appropriate, as viewers then see what the artist (us) had in mind. We can shape the image, make it more or less "painterly," add colors, curves, or a hundred other layers until the image on the screen (or the negative) matches what is in our brain. It is a great time to be a photographer!

G