Pictorialism is one of the first and likely most influential photography movements. Beginning in the mid 1880’s and spanning to roughly 1920 or so, Pictorialists were pivotal in establishing photography as a legitimate art medium and gaining acceptance as artists.
Pictorialism was an international movement. Due to the increase of international travel and commerce in the late 19th century, people were able to travel to new places and the distribution of publications and even prints created a fertile operating system for the exchange of ideas and concepts on a now global stage. This gave photographers of the time a global support in their efforts, not unlike what the internet has done for photography in modern times.
Photography faced an acceptance challenge at its birth. A way of capturing an image and fix it to a surface was exceptionally innovative, but is it art or mere documentation? This was the argument many of the early practitioners faced and struggled with. The art world was very skeptical of this type of “automated” drawing. As a result, a school of photographers came forth with the intent of giving photography validity as a serious form of art.
Pictorialism isn’t bound by style or subject. However pictorialists dealt with two primary methods for distinguishing their images from mere documentation.
First the subjects and compositions were designed to bring a sense of fantasy or visual cohesion separating themselves from the documentation of every day life. Even landscape images tend to favor a sense of drama and effect to make the pictures more dynamic. Photographers such as Alice Boughton and Anne Brigman combined the human figure against landscape to a high degree of innovation. These images are still cutting edge by today’s standards.
Secondly, photographers were beginning to manipulate the chemical process itself much in the way that a painter would control their materials. Gum bichromate was very popular at the time and photographers started applying brush strokes and other manipulations of the process to achieve a painter-like quality to the photographs. Photographers such as Robert Demachy took this to an extreme – the work takes on a sketchily charcoal or graphite quality. Soft focus and dramatic lighting are also used to create a painterly quality to the work as well. This idea was likely influenced by styles such as impressionism which was contemporary at the time.
In this video we are looking at early pictorialists, so I’ve not included some of the bigger names like Stieglitz or Steichen. We will do a second episode on this to dovetail into modernism and I’ll be covering the major names at that point.
Photographers discussed in this video: