2. Project 2: Pictorialism

2.1. Modernist approaches

“Do not call yourself an ‘artist-photographer’ and make ‘artist-painters’ and ‘artist-sculptors’ laugh; call yourself a photographer and wait for artists to call you brother.”

P H Emerson, cited in Trachtenberg. A, Classic Essays on Photography (1980) New Haven, CT: Leete’s Island Books. Pg 100.

As you’ve seen, Emerson sought to distance photography from painting and began to explore and exploit the unique possibilities of the new medium. Whilst his photographs of rural life in East Anglia are in line with an idyllic, pastoral view of Victorian rural life, his approach and – more importantly – his view of what artistic photography could and should be, represented a change in direction for photography as art. He scorned the photographic tableau, which employed the modes of production of studio-based painters, and championed instead technical excellence whilst working from life, in the field. He departed from making softer, stylised photographs and began to make pictures that were sharply focused throughout the image. This implied a ‘democracy’ of the frame, where all of the subjects are on an equal footing in terms of their relation to other elements in the picture, and in their importance to the formation and interpretation of the scene.

It wasn’t until considerably later that this kind of simpler, yet more technically robust approach was properly defined. This is attributed to Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) who became editor of American Amateur Photographer in 1893 and set up the highly influential magazine Camera Work in 1902. Stieglitz’s contemporaries, who included Clarence White (1871–1925) and Edward Steichen (1879 – 1973), were known as the ‘Photo-Secessionists’, implying an ambition for photography to ‘secede’ from previously accepted ideas about photography, that is, serving purely practical purposes. Like their counterparts in Europe and elsewhere, the impressionistic approach was their visual style of choice. Through discourse within Camera Work and the associated 291 gallery, Stieglitz and his peers began to challenge the style and philosophy of pictorialism. The fact that it wasn’t only photography that was exhibited at the 291, and that modern artists like Picasso, Rodin and Matisse were also represented, marked a significant strategy to align photography with the contemporary art world, rather than to imitate traditional styles, as was practised elsewhere.

“The advocates of pure or straight photography feel that by manipulating a print you lose the purity of tone which belongs especially to the photographic medium in trying to get effects that can be more satisfactorily obtained by the painter’s brush.”

Clark, G., (1997) The Photograph, Oxford University Press: Oxford New York. p.168.

Alfred Stieglitz, Cubist and other cultural works of art assembled after the 291 Picasso-Braque exhibition (1915) Bridgeman Images.

1912 can certainly be identified as a defining moment within the history of pictorialism. In that year Stieglitz exhibited a collection of works, including one of the most celebrated photographs of all time, The Steerage. The image depicts, with clear photographic realism, a group of refused would-be immigrants boarding the SS Kaiser Wilhelm II to return to Europe. For Stieglitz, the image encapsulated an abstract collection of forms and tones alongside a sense of the emotional response he felt towards the scene he had witnessed.

Alfred Stieglitz, The Steerage (1907) Image via Wikipedia.

This retained the pictorialists’ desire to render an emotional response within a photograph, but Stieglitz believed he had achieved this by embracing photography’s unique ability to reproduce optical clarity captured within a split-second. The term ‘straight photography’ was used to define this approach, and it marked a radical shift towards celebrating photography (within creative circles) for what it really was. The show was positively received, but photography still had a long way to go before being accepted more widely.