2. Project 2: Pictorialism

“Pictorialism” is only an exaggeration of what the Photograph thinks of itself.”

Barthes, R., (1982) Camera Lucida. Vintage: London. p.31.

Some early photographers believed that whilst it had its practical applications, photography also had potential as an expressive medium, and that it was possible to conceive of photographs not just as images that rendered an objective, optical analogy of an object or a scene, but as subjective impressions – as pictures. Some painters, such as Oscar Rejlander (1857–75), saw the potential offered by photography and adopted it as their principal mode of expression. This debate came to a head in the 1890s when the Brotherhood of the Linked Ring, founded by Henry Peach Robinson (1830–1901), split from the organisation that would become the Royal Photographic Society, arguing that the organisation was too preoccupied with the scientific rather than the artistic side of photography.

The Linked Ring’s philosophy was that a photographic print could be considered as a work of art, despite the necessity for some kind of camera apparatus and related chemistry. The central element to the pictorial approach was not necessarily to do with the taking or making of the exposure, but lay in the printing process. Pictorialists explored alternative ways to subvert the mainstream industrial processes, which rendered continuous tones and optical clarity from glass negatives. Instead of applying the photosensitive coatings to the surfaces of their prints as evenly and uniformly as possible, pictorialists were keen to leave visible brushstrokes and marks on the print surface, revealing to the viewer the unique hand and artistry of the maker. Alternative processes included the bromoil, cyanotype and gum bichromate processes, which all rendered images with less clarity and imposed a more atmospheric aesthetic. Imitating the more impressionistic look of other two-dimensional media such as drawing, pastels and painting was also intentional.

The making of the actual negative was also explored, most notably by Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson, who created some of the first photomontages by assembling multiple negatives to create a scene with the appearance of having been captured within a single exposure. This subversion of the then undisputed belief that photography stood for accurate, truthful representation of real events and subjects was certainly one of the more radical explorations of the medium at the time.

The themes and subjects explored, however, were conventional enough and did little to challenge the art establishment. Robinson’s Fading Away (1858) was a typical sentimental narrative, and Rejlander’s The Two Ways of Life (1857) was an allegorical scenario on a grand scale. The tableau was a fairly exceptional phenomenon in terms of the history of photography, and has been re-examined in more recent years by practitioners such as Jeff Wall. Graham Clarke summarises these two seminal works of the period thusly;

“Like Talbot’s images, they depend upon a known visual language and convention, as found in the work of contemporary painters like Millais and Holman Hunt. They are, as much as Talbot’s work, examples of the photograph as a painting.”

Graham Clarke (1997) Pg 44.

However, the artifice of the ‘photographs’ of Rejlander and Robinson was met with scornful disdain by contemporaries such as Peter Henry Emerson (1856–1936), who strongly believed in a purer photographic way of seeing, more akin to human vision. Emerson is something of an exception, as he accumulated a large body of work on traditional rural practices around the Norfolk Broads that collectively serves as an invaluable document of the time. In recent years, Justin Partyka has made a similarly large body of work around East Anglia, which has been related to Emerson’s work.

The norm within pictorialism was, and remains, the production of singular, one-off pieces, designed to convey the maker’s mood at the moment it was made and to satisfy the eyes of the viewer. The singular-image tradition (as opposed to working with series or sequences of images) is still upheld by ‘photography salon’ type organisations, camera clubs, competitions and other societies.

Peter Henry Emerson, A Marsh Farm (c.1886) Bridgeman Images.

Exercise 3: Establishing Conventions

Find some examples of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century landscape paintings.

List all of the commonalities you can find across your examples. Where possible, try to find out why the examples you found were painted (e.g. public or private commission). Your research should provide you with some examples of the visual language and conventions that were known to the early photographers.

Annotate your examples and post them to your learning log.

Now find some examples of landscape photographs from any era that:

conform to these conventions,


break these conventions.

Annotate these examples with your notes/observations and post them to your learning log.