Pictorialism - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Pictorialism
Early photographers such as Julia Margaret Cameron, David Octavius Hill, and Robert Adamson greatly influenced the development of Pictorialism. Hill, who was a successful painter of Romantic landscapes, worked with Adamson, a photographer and printer, between 1843 and 1847, to make over 1500 portraits of people in Newhaven, a small British fishing village. The portraits were compared by some critics of the time to those of Rembrandt. Alfred Stieglitz later dubbed Hill "the father of pictorial photography" and featured his and Adamson's photographs in his publications and at the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession in 1906.
Cameron began taking photographs in 1864, primarily portraits using the wet collodion process that she manipulated in the darkroom. When first shown, her images were criticized as 'slovenly' for their soft focus and cropping. As the Pictorialist movement came to the forefront with the formation of the Linked Ring Society, her photographs were re-evaluated as pioneering and were included in many of the group's annual exhibitions. In contrast to Hill and Adamson's photographs depicting ordinary people, her portraits were usually of well-known figures such as the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. When she did portray an unknown model, the work was often placed within a Pre-Raphaelite literary or mythical context. Cameron was part of a social circle that included the Pre-Raphaelite artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Michael Rossetti, and Edward Burne-Jones, all of whom were early supporters of her photographic style. Her work reflected their influence and art historian Alastair Grieve has argued that Dante Gabriel Rossetti's painting was equally influenced by her photographs.
The first recorded use of the term 'pictorial' in relation to photography comes from the English photographer Henry Peach Robinson who used it in the title of his book Pictorial Effect in Photography: Being Hints On Composition And Chiaroscuro For Photographers (1869). Robinson believed that using chiaroscuro, an artistic term referring to dramatic shadows and lighting, would create a pictorial, or painterly, effect in photographs. Robinson also advocated 'combination printing', a technique that he had created in the early 1850s, which involved manipulating multiple photographs into a single image.
International Exhibition of Art Photographers, Vienna, 1891
The first exhibition to have a notable impact on the development of Pictorialism was the 1891 Internationale Ausstellung Künstlerischer Photographien (International Exhibition of Art Photographers) in Vienna, Austria and this can be seen as a catalyst for future innovations in the field. Launched and curated by the Club of Amateur Photographers in Vienna, the exhibition showed 600 photographs, including, most notably, the work of English photographers, Alfred Maskell, Lyonell Clark, Lyddel Sawyer, Harry Tolley, and George Davison. Ten American photographers, including Alfred Stieglitz, also had works chosen for the show. These selections placed an emphasis on "photographs of artistic merit". The show had an international impact with The Times in London writing that, "we must call attention to the artistic excellence of the English photographs", the review then went on to praise the work of Davison, noting that "both his landscape and figure pictures make a truly artistic impression".
The Linked Ring, 1892
In 1891 Henry Peach Robinson, along with a number of photographers including George Davison, Alfred Maskell, and Lyddel Sawyer, seceded from the Photographic Society of Great Britain when one of Davison's Impressionistic photographs was rejected for the Society's annual exhibition. In May 1892 Robinson, Davison and Henry Van der Weyde, formed a new group called the Linked Ring, or The Brotherhood of the Linked Ring. The aim of the new society was "the development of the highest form of Art of which Photography is capable". Opposed to the conventional viewpoint that the camera was a mere mechanism for recording actuality, the group sought to be, "a sociable coterie of picture-loving, as separate from purely scientific or practical, craftsmen".
The three founders of the Linked Ring were photographic innovators. Davison used a pinhole camera to create Impressionistic images, Van der Weyde pioneered the photographic use of electric light, and Robinson had developed composite images. Other members of the group, such as Alexander Keighley, also explored new techniques. Keighley worked with carbon prints, manipulating a negative at various stages, to achieve a rich sense of atmosphere in works like The Dayspring from on High (1890s-1900). Exploring new techniques, both in shooting an image, and in darkroom manipulation, to create Pictorial effects was a defining characteristic of the group and of Pictorialism in general. In April 1893, the Linked Ring launched the Salon of Pictorial Photography, an annual exhibition that from 1893 to 1909 promoted pictorial photography on an international scale, and included photographers from other countries including the American Alfred Stieglitz and the French Robert Demachy. Originally the Linked Ring was primarily made up of British photographers, but, subsequently, many Americans joined, and these were known as the 'American Links'.
Similar groups were formed in other locations - in 1894 Robert Demachy and Émile Constant Puyo created the Photo-Club de Paris along with other photographers who had also seceded from Société de Francaise de Photographie a few years before. The Photo-Club organized an annual international photographic salon, the first of which opened in 1894 and continuing until 1897. In connection with the salon, the club published official bulletins and portfolio albums of gravure prints which art historian Janet Buerger has described, as being of "superior quality".
In 1902 with Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz started the Photo-Secession, based upon the model of the Linked Ring Society, of which he had been a member. His use of the word 'secession' was also derived from the formation of the Linked Ring, which had first taken shape when Henry Peach Robinson and other photographers seceded from the Photographic Society of Britain to pursue and advocate for Pictorialism. In 1903 Stieglitz described the Photo-Secession in a statement, "Its aim is loosely to hold together those Americans devoted to pictorial photography in their endeavor to compel its recognition, not as the handmaiden of art, but as a distinctive medium of individual expression. The attitude of its members is one of rebellion against the insincere attitude of the unbeliever, of the Philistine, and largely of exhibition authorities".
Unlike other camera societies of the era, membership was not by official selection, but upon mutual compatibility, and the approval of Stieglitz. Stieglitz was to describe how he answered Gertrude Käsebier's question whether she was a Photo-Secessionist, by saying that "if she felt she was, that's all there is to it." Most of Stieglitz's fellow photographers joined the group, and Stieglitz's close friendship with artists from other countries such as Heinrich Kühn, gave the society an international scope. Stieglitz became the leader of the Pictorialist movement and the group largely took over from the Linked Ring.
Camera Work, 1903
The first issue of Stieglitz's Pictorialist journal, Camera Work, appeared in January, 1903, and included, "Only examples of such work as gives evidence of individuality and artistic worth, regardless of school, or contains some exceptional feature of technical merit". The magazine, which appeared quarterly, contained reviews of national and international photographic exhibitions and high-quality photogravure images in each issue. Noted photographers of the Photo-Secession, such as James Craig Annan, Frank Eugene, Gertrude Käsebier, Edward Steichen, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Clarence White, were featured in the magazine's early issues.
The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession
In 1905 at the urging of Edward Steichen and with his support, Stieglitz founded The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession at 291 Fifth Avenue, the same apartment building where Steichen lived, in New York City. The three small rooms that Stieglitz rented became an artistic hub as Stieglitz intended, saying that its "small, but very select, shows" would display works "worthy of Secessionist methods". The gallery became a hub for artists, as well as a place known for exhibiting the latest in artistic photography, until 1908 when it was forced to close due to economic pressures. With the help of Paul Haviland, a wealthy donor, Stieglitz opened a new gallery the same year, this became known as 291.
Tensions developed within the group over the next couple of years, notably between Stieglitz and his longtime colleagues Gertrude Käsebier and Clarence H. White. This was driven, in part, by a divergence in photographic styles, as both Käsebier and White remained Pictorialists throughout their careers whilst Stieglitz and Steichen, along with other photographers, moved in the direction of Modernism and New Vision.
Pictorialism: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Pictorialism, Tonalism, and Impressionism
Pictorialist photographers followed the artistic models of their time, as seen in the early composites of Rejlander which draw upon Academic painting. The greatest impact, however, came from the Tonalist and Impressionist movements which emphasized the treatment of light.
Stieglitz, in images such as his Spring Showers (1902), borrowed the Tonalist use of soft focus to create a sense of 'atmosphere', stating that "Atmosphere is the medium through which we see all things. In order, therefore, to see them in their true value on a photograph, as we do in Nature, atmosphere must be there. Atmosphere softens all lines; it graduates the transition from light to shade; it is essential to the reproduction of the sense of distance. That dimness of outline which is characteristic for distant objects is due to atmosphere." Steichen, too, became celebrated for his use of Tonalism as seen in works like The Flatiron (1904) which depicts the noted New York City building at twilight.
Impressionism was equally influential upon Pictorialists, notably George Davison who utilized a variety of camera and printing techniques to achieve an Impressionist effect. The German Heinrich Kuhn experimented with a number of color processes in order to create Impressionist portrayals of his family and friends.
Images could be made up of composite parts of different photographs and this allowed photographers to create large narrative scenes, re-imagine portraits, and to create allegorical works. One of the early noted examples was Oscar Rejlander's allegorical Two Ways of Life (1857), which combined thirty two images in a single photo to show two young men being offered a choice by a fatherly figure between lives of virtue or sin.
Henry Peach Robinson used the technique to create moving works with a strong storytelling element such as Fading Away (1858) and The Lady of Shalott (1861), whilst the American F. Holland Day created images where a sacred context was combined with self-portraiture as seen in his The Last Seven Words of Christ. In the 20th century photographers such as William Mortensen continued to explore the composite in his macabre and Hollywood inspired images.
The Development of Gum Bichromate and Color Processes
In the mid-1890s, Frenchman Robert Demachy revived and refined the technique of gum bichromate and this allowed for the introduction of color and brush-like effects into photographs. The gum bichromate process involved applying pigment, gum Arabic, and potassium bichromate to the paper. When developed under light, the gum bichromate would remain pliable for a period of time, allowing the photographer to manipulate the surface of the photograph to create various painterly effects.
Photographers often favored particular colors, as seen in Robert Demachy's preferred orange tones and Steichen's use of blue-green. To make oil prints, photographers such as the Frenchman Émile Constant Puyo would apply gelatin, gum bichromate, and oily ink to paper. The surface would harden when struck by the light and then the photographer could apply other ink to the surface. Demachy's innovations in gum printing had a profound influence on Pictorialism and in 1904 Stieglitz called him "the father of gum-printing," and promoted his works as "of exceptional value", Demachy also published various articles on the process and became known for his international advocacy of it.
Austrian Pictorialists played a significant role with their later innovations in darkroom techniques and color processes. In the late 1890s a trio of photographers, Hugo Henneberg, Heinrich Kühn, and Hans Watzek, became known as Das Kleeblatt or The Trifolium. Henneberg was previously known for his landscapes such as Motiv aus Pommern (1895-1896), but, influenced by ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai and the Art Nouveau painter Carl Moll, he began to experiment with color. His explorations included employing the gum bichromate techniques popularized in France as well as applying new and various printing processes, as shown in his linocut print, Der Blaue Weiher (The Blue Pond) (1904).
The most noted member of the group, Kühn was already known for his Pictorialist images that resembled Impressionist paintings. An ardent innovator, he created a soft focus camera lens, and Gummigravüre, a process that combined photogravure with gum bichromate. He was also an early pioneer of using Autochrome, a color process, and later he invented his Syngraphie, a technique where two negatives with different sensitivity were combined to create a greater tonal spectrum.
Later Developments - After Pictorialism
Pictorialism as an active movement declined around 1915 as some of its key advocates such as Stieglitz and Steichen turned to other visual modes, notably Straight Photography. This was a style that rejected the manipulative techniques of Pictorialism and instead sought to produce uncropped images with a sharp focus and high contrast between colors. The movement also had a modernist interest in geometric shapes and structures. Developments in Straight Photography in the US were paralleled by the New Vision photography movement in Europe, which was led by Moholy-Nagy and was linked to the Bauhaus.
Nonetheless Pictorialism continued to be a preferred technique of many local and regional camera clubs as late as the 1940s and some Pictorialists including Clarence H. White and Gertrude Käsebier continued to work in the mode throughout their careers. In the 1960's there was an explosion of interest in alternative modes of photographic printmaking, leading to a revival of interest in pinhole cameras, platinum and gum bichromate prints, and oil and bromoil pigment processes. Artists like Sheila Metzner, Betty Hahn, Robert Fichter, David Scopick, and Stephen Livick, explored pigment processes and Dick Arentz, and George Tice developed platinum prints.
In 1965 Jerry Uelsmann argued that by using 'Post-Visualization' photographers could revisualize their images via darkroom manipulations. His works such as Allegorical Landscape (1963) are composite images created in the darkroom and have been called Neo-Pictorialist. Some art historians have described the composite photographs and staged self-portraits of contemporary photography as Post-Pictorialism. The composite images of Robinson are seen as an important precursor of the work of Jeff Wall, the tableaux of Gregory Crewdson, and the theatricality of Philip-Lorca DeGorcia.