Pictorialism and Modernism


Searching for photographic inspiration, I’ve been browsing the Web looking at images. I always start out with recent works searching for what’s avant-garde, what’s new, what’s different, but I quickly tire of the tide of deadpan stares on twenty-something portraits, pics of sugar packets next to coffee cups, and heavy-handed HDRs of the swirly rocks at Antelope Canyon. Soon I find myself looking back to the early to mid twentieth century. This was a time of revolution for photography and a time when it began to be accepted as a true art form.

In 1888 George Eastman introduced the Kodak #1 camera and photography was changed forever. Once the dominion of a small group of professional and serious amateur photographers, photography was suddenly available to the average man on the street.  No more huge cameras to lug around, no more nasty chemicals, no muss – no fuss; a simple fixed focus box camera preloaded with roll film that could be sent in toto back to Kodak for processing and viola! you are a photographer.

By simplifying the apparatus and even processing the film for the consumer, he made photography accessible to millions of casual amateurs with no particular professional training, technical expertise, or aesthetic credentials… Within a few years of the Kodak’s introduction, snapshot photography became a national craze… By 1898, just ten years after the first Kodak was introduced, one photography journal estimated that over 1.5 million roll-film cameras had reached the hands of amateur shutter bugs. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

In reaction to this tidal wave of kodakery, groups of “serious” photographers began promoting photography as a fine art form rather than just a hobby. Most notably Alfred Stieglitz formed a group called Photo-Secession in 1902. The group exhibited their work in New York and produced a magazine called “Camera Work”. Pictorial photographers wanted to emulate impressionistic paintings that were popular at the time and to emphasize the skill of the photographer in portraying an artistic vision rather than mere mechanical reproduction so they employed soft focus techniques, roughly textured papers, and lots of darkroom manipulation.

While in negotiations with the then director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, General Luigi Palma de Cesnola, Stieglitz recalled the General saying:

“Why, Mr. Stieglitz, you won’t insist that a photograph can possibly be a work of art… you are a fanatic.” Stieglitz replied that he was indeed a fanatic, “but that time will show that my fanaticism is not completely ill founded.”  Metropolitan Museum Bulletin

In 1910 the Albright Gallery bought 15 photographs from Stieglitz’s gallery and photography was on its way to becoming “art”.

Oddly enough by the time photography in the pictorial style came to earn its place in the official art world, the tide was already turning against its highly manipulated “painterly” roots. By the 1920s Stieglitz himself turned away from the style in favor of “just the straight goods” and in 1932 eleven photographers including Ansel Adams and Edward Weston formed Group f/64 with the express purpose of breaking with the vague impressionistic pictorial style in favor of sharp representations of the world. The designation f/64 was the smallest aperture of a view camera at the time thus providing the greatest sharpness and depth of field in photographs.

The f/64 group wanted to celebrate the camera’s ability to present the world as it was captured. This shifted the focus away from extreme darkroom manipulations intended to hide the true nature of the photograph and threw it onto the subject – its selection, its framing, and its lighting. Print making turned from soft focus and texturizing techniques to technical precision that could powerfully portray the essentials of the subject. This movement brought us terms like previsualization and the Zone System.

The turmoil of the 60s would eventually change the scene again as photographers turned against the rigorous requirements of “straight” photography and reverted back to heavy manipulation as in “postvisualization” where images are created in the darkroom from many random originals and even a turn back to regarding “snapshots” as an american folk art form.

I think I’ll stop here for now. Things start to get pretty messy about this time and it is going to take some sorting out before I can write anything coherent about it.



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5 Responses to “Pictorialism and Modernism”

  1. fencer Says:

    Hi forestrat,

    Thanks for the clear rendition of photographic history…

    That really was a revolution with Kodak (I hadn’t really taken in how much until I read your description) and we’re living in a similar wave of digital photography.


  2. fencer Says:

    Whoops… forgot to mention appreciation for your photos… whole new vistas of subject matter. The bolts one especially grabs me…


    • forestrat Says:

      Thanks, fencer. These are some photos from another night-time trip to an Erie Canal lock. The middle one is of a metal bridge that spans the canal right next to the lock.

      Digital is certainly changing photography although I’m not sure exactly what the result will be yet. Simply switching from a film camera to digital may not be the big game changer, but having a camera embedded in things like cell phones so that jillions of people are carrying a camera with them every waking minute could be.


  3. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Great photos, Forestrat,
    I like these ones that are very abstract and realistic at the same time. These look quite black and white, but maybe it’s just the lighting or some desaturation at work. I miss the B&W photos. They often tell the image much more powerfully than the coloured ones.

    • forestrat Says:

      Thanks, K.

      These are black and white images. I seem to have my camera set on monochrome more often than not latley even though I’m usually a color guy.

      Digital technology of course blurs the line between color and monochrome. Even though I set the camera to mono, it still records all the colors and I can get them back using the RAW file if I want to. I could also leave the camera in color mode and change the images to monochrome later in software.

      I think the shooting in color and editing later method gives more control over filter effects and film emulations. On the other hand I’m finding that I’m better able to get into the black and white mindset while shooting if I work that way in camera.


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