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Pictorial photography

About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

A style of photography and imagery based on an application of the principles of fine art, and, in particular, on ideas of beauty and nature deriving from the Picturesque. Although specifically identified in the late 19th century and the early 20th, the underlying aesthetic was a response to the ongoing debate about photography’s scientific and artistic status. In this respect, the term ‘pictorial’ is defined in Henry Peach Robinson’s Pictorial Effect in Photography (1869), which recommended adherence to the systemized aesthetic of the contemporary painting Salon.

The creation of Robinson’s elaborate tableaux vivants involved technical precision, but a different approach predated his work in Hill and Adamson’s calotypes of the 1840s and Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs of the 1860s and 1870s, all of which were characterized by shallow focus, chiaroscuro tonality and simple, centralized composition. Reacting against Robinson, P. H. Emerson codified these attributes in a lecture entitled ‘Photography: A Pictorial Art’ at the Camera Club, London, in 1886. In Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art (1889) he adopted the theory of Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–94) that the human eye focuses on only the centre of the field of vision. Emerson proposed photography’s use of a limited depth of field and subordination of extraneous detail.

Although Emerson repudiated his views, a new phase of photography was in evidence at the exhibition of the Photographic Society of Great Britain in Pall Mall, London, in 1890. George Davison’s pinhole photograph The Onion Field (1889) was the most radical example, but the glossy sepia and purple-black albumen prints were generally superseded by the soft matt greys and browns of gelatin silver and non-silver processes that allowed more control over the final image. Platinum printing, well established by 1885, yielded a subtle range of tones on a variety of textured papers. Bichromated colloids produced permanent images through such processes as carbon printing, gum bichromate, photogravure and, in the early 1900s, bromoil and oil pigment printing. Photographs mimicked the texture of a charcoal drawing or replicated a watercolour painting in hue and tone, appropriate to the massed, flattened tones of the new aesthetic. Impressionistic effects were enhanced through soft-focus lenses and the use of screens to blur images during exposure or printing.

Photography gained stature as a means of artistic expression through a conscious dissocation from its mechanistic attributes, and its equivalence to other media was fostered by the Art Nouveau emphasis on unified decorative values. Pictorialism, as the first truly international photographic movement, was promoted in the 1890s and early 1900s through numerous multinational groups and associations. In 1891 the newly organized Vienna Camera Club exhibited 600 exclusively ‘artistic’ photographs selected by painters and sculptors. Work by English photographers was included, and following this, Henry Peach Robinson led a group in secession from the Photographic Society of Great Britain, forming the Brotherhood of the Linked ring. Their first exhibition, The Photographic Salon (1893), included work by George Davison, Malcolm Arbuthnot (1874–1967) and Francis J. Mortimer (1874–1944). The membership of the Linked Ring embraced American and European photographers, including the Trifolium of the Vienna Camera Club: Hans Watzek, Hugo Henneberg and Heinrich Kühn. The Trifolium also joined the Photo-Club de Paris (1894), founded by Maurice Bucquet, with Robert Demachy and Constant Puyo (1857–1953). The Club broke away from the Société Française de Photographie, and the jury for its 1894 exhibition included four painters and the National Inspector for the Fine Arts. Das Praesidium, whose members included Theodor Hofmeister (1863–1943) and Oskar Hofmeister (1871–1937), was instrumental in exhibitions at the Kunsthalle in Hamburg (from 1893). The Cercle d’Art Photographique of Brussels (1900) included Léonard Misonne (1870–1943) and Pierre Dubreuil (1872–1944); its exhibitions also embraced non-photographic media. This was not unusual: in 1898 the members of the Munich Secession showed Watzek’s large gum bichromates prints alongside paintings. Other notable forums for Pictorial photography included the International Exhibition at Glasgow (1901) and at Turin (1900 and 1903).

In 1900, F. Holland Day (of the Linked Ring) and Alvin Langdon Coburn organized The New School of American Photography at the Royal Photographic Society in London. Many of the same photographers exhibited as the Photo-secession at the National Arts Club in New York (1902); the show was organized by Alfred Stieglitz and included works by Gertrude Käsebier, Clarence H. White, Frank Eugene, Edward Steichen and Heinrich Kühn. The work was further promoted by Charles Caffin (1894–1918) in his important book, Photography as a Fine Art (New York, 1901). The Photo-Secession found its voice in Camera Work (1903–17), the elaborate periodical edited by Stieglitz; its critical acclaim far outlasted the aesthetic that inspired it. Other journals fostered art photography, among them The Amateur Photographer (London, from 1884), edited from 1893 by Linked Ring member Alfred Horsley Hinton (1863–1908); Photographic Review (from 1891) in Lwów, Poland (now L’viv, Ukraine); Photograms of the Year (London, from 1895); Die Kunst in der Photographie (Berlin, 1897–1908), La fotografica artistica (Italy, from 1904); and Vestnik fotografii (Moscow), whose director after 1903 was Nikolay Petrov. Charles Holme edited special editions on Pictorial photography (1905 and 1908) for The Studio (London).

Outside Europe and the USA, Harold Cazneaux was integral to Australian Pictorialism, while in Canada Sidney Carter (1880–1956) founded The Studio Club (Toronto, 1904), inspired by the Linked Ring. In Japan Ogawa Isshin (1860–1929/30) integrated existing aesthetics with a concern for spiritual values, an approach mirrored in the Pictorialist landscapes of the Indian Sir Pradyot Kumar Tagore (1873–1942) and embodying photography’s quest for personal expression.

In 1910 the Photo-Secession organized an international exhibition of 600 photographs at the Albright Art Gallery (now Albright–Knox Art Gallery), Buffalo, NY. In that year a schism with American members of the Linked Ring led to its dissolution, and although George Davison, Malcolm Arbuthnot and Alvin Langdon Coburn organized an exhibition of the London Secession in 1911, that effort had no direct sequel. Coburn joined Gertrude Käsebier, Karl Struss (1886–1980) and Clarence H. White in founding the Pictorial Photographers of America (1915). Although Camera Work ceased publication in 1917, the continuing popularity of Pictorial photography in the USA was evident in Pictorial Photography: Its Principles and Practice (1917), by Paul Anderson (1880–1956), and The Fine Art of Photography: Painting with the Camera (1919). F. J. Mortimer promoted British Pictorialism well into the 1940s as Director of the London Salon and the Camera Club, President of the Royal Photographic Society and editor of The Amateur Photographer (from 1908) and Photograms of the Year (from 1912).

World War I brought increasing aesthetic, social and political fragmentation. Post-Impressionism pulled avant-garde photography away from a 19th-century Pictorialist aesthetic towards formalist abstraction, to which Pictorialism’s misty romanticism and ideal of intrinsic beauty were irrelevant. Pictorialism’s attributes of manipulated photographic media, subjectivity and symbolism have, however, remained guiding principles of photography as art.

Hope Kingsley
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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