Every period in history has had its own cultural equations. These are socially and culturally conditioned conventions that set the criteria for different things and issues; it could be the fashion of an era, expected codes of behaviour or lifestyles, or criteria for determining the quality of certain works of art. In the history of art there were several periods, styles and movements where firm and clear rules to determine how artworks were instituted introduced particular iconographic and/or formalistic equations. However, these rules had a clear purpose. They were imposed with the aim to standardise and control visual production and the discourses that were communicated by it, and later, on the way to modernity, to distinguish works of art from other manifestations of visual culture.
One of the most quintessential and exemplary cases of such strict framing of an art form can be found in the period and among the practitioners of the so-called Pictorialist photography movement at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Pictorialism was a strange phenomenon that started as an elite gentlemen’s club but soon become widely popular and, with the successes of its early practitioners, increasingly mainstream. Its most renown practitioners, however, were determined to remain an elite club and to achieve that they imposed certain rules and formulas on newcomer photographers. The pictorialist style became widely popular because of the success of early pictorialist photographers, who saw themselves as artists among photographers, and because photographic technology was rapidly developing, especially in so-called heroic period of pictorialism, roughly between 1890 and 1910. More and more people, amateur and professional photographers alike, the geeks of that time, were mastering the medium.
However, pictorialism in photography was around before the aforementioned heroic era. In the mid-19th century, when it was still a very new visual medium, photography often followed the postulates of other visual media of the time, namely painting which was seen, together with sculpture, as an ultimate form of art. Therefore, photographers with artistic intentions inevitably started following formulas of contemporary painting in order to get access to the world of art. Pictorial photography was introduced in the 1870s but it gained significance later, in 1880s and 1890s, when Impressionism finally became a widely accepted artistic form and visual cannon, a new academism. Therefore, like Impressionist artists, pictorialist photographers followed the agenda of the subjective depiction of a moment, an impression which derives from nature but also from the artist’s perception of that nature. Exploring this phenomenon, John Taylor wrote in Encyclopaedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography: “Even as it developed, Impressionism was the most famous of all French art movements. Although controversial in the 1870s, impression was quickly (and loosely) adopted as a way of viewing the world. The term was not confined to one style of depiction, but described an attitude to art.”
Impressionism in painting therefore matched with pictorialism in photography. When photographers, who had joined camera clubs and photographic societies, were pushing their way into art galleries, they invented very strict rules regarding what artistic photography is, what it depicts and how it depicts it. In order to do that, they turned to painting for references and therefore adopted certain features of classic artistic media. One of the most important ideas was the uniqueness of the (photographic) artwork. Photographers who saw themselves as artists commonly produced hand-made prints where the ‘authorial’ touch was crucial in the process of production and post-production. The photographers were expected to not only print their pictures themselves but also in a masterful manner that created a subtle pictorial atmosphere and, by carefully selecting the paper, produced the smooth and soft effects of chiaroscuro. Every photograph was therefore a unique work of art. Furthermore, based on these premises, pictorialism undoubtedly invented strong aesthetic features that, in certain instances such as the activities of the camera clubs, survive to this day, while so-called ‘art photography’ took (many) different routes in the first decades of the 20th century.
In his book Amateur Photography and Pictorial Aesthetics: Influences of Organization and Industry on Cultural Production historian of photography Michael Griffin concludes that “in a sense, the search for photography’s aesthetic was over by 1910, a year often cited with respect to the death of pictorialism. After 1910 the controversies of the secessionist era waned. Pictorialism, however, did not die. It simply became increasingly institutionalized. It no longer represented the cutting edge of new work and experimentation. It no longer had an important impact on the modern art world. It had, instead, become the established aesthetic of serious amateur work and the recommended standard of photography journals, industry pamphlets and commercial handbooks.”
The era of pictorialism coincided with the period when photographers started demanding an equal position in the world of art. They claimed that photography is a form of art, equal to painting and sculpture. They set out to accomplish a difficult and long-lasting task that hasn’t been completely achieved to this day, especially in deeply traditional European societies with a long awareness of the ‘fine arts’. Historically, visual art making required certain sets of manual, visual and intellectual skills from its makers, while photography was often seen as a mere technological and scientific procedure for visual representation of reality. Photographers, therefore, had to prove their level of artistry and the most obvious way to do so was to follow the principles of fine art of the time.
In his book Pictorialism as Theory, Robin Kelsey writes that “the effort of these boosters to establish picture as a definitive category capacious enough to include photography led them to reaffirm broad principles of representation such as those that Alberti and Diderot had proffered. In the latter half of the 19th century, several photography advocates placed particular emphasis on linear perspective as a unifying requirement of pictorial art. Despite modernist transgressions in pictorial construction, that requirement remained largely intact, and photography was deliberately engineered to satisfy it.”
Robert Demachy, Toucques Valley, 1906
Pictorialists, therefore, deliberately followed specific visual and conceptual programmes. Griffin explored several formulas and equations of pictorialism: “Certain styles and themes were already well established by 1890. Influenced by 19th century movements in painting (especially the Barbizon School and Impressionism) the work of turn-of-the-century pictorial photographers is dominated by landscapes and idealized genre scenes. Nature is celebrated in soft, idyllic landscapes. Romantic visions of peasant life conform perfectly to earlier genre paintings. Idealized scenes of intimate family life transfer the genre treatment to the middle class. Soft, suggestive treatments of the female figure abound, whether nudes, portraits of ladies in elegant attire, romantic idealizations of motherhood, or glimpses of domestic activity in the home or garden.”
But to get to these programmatic equations, a sufficient critical and theoretical discourse was required. It eventually appeared as a consequence of a growing network of photographic societies and camera clubs that were able to organise international exhibitions and publish journals. Through these platforms, they maintained theoretical and critical discourses on standards of artistry in photography. Due to changes in the technology of image making and advanced communication infrastructure, pictorialism became the first truly international photographic style around 1890.
“Between 1890 and 1910, manifestos, critiques, rebuttals and arguments dominated society meetings and filled the pages of photography journals. What were the proper goals of photographic practice? What should its standards be? The democratization of photography presented a challenge to previous notions about practice, decorum, aesthetics and appropriate subject matter. A deepening tension grew between an amateur establishment intent on promoting photography as a serious art form and the waves of newcomers who seemed to threaten that legitimization,” continues Griffin.
But given the context of that period, which was the high point of industrial revolutions in European countries and in the USA, and the beginning of true global trade (and globalisation), it is very telling that in their artworks pictorialists almost completely ignored the rapidly changing cultural landscape which was ever more marked by industrial development and urbanisation. In a way, pictorialists, with their romantic style that encompassed motifs of pastoral solitude and countryside life, were the guardians of the Romantic tradition in art in opposition to the more socially and politically engaged photographers who embraced the more veristic possibilities of the medium in order to critically depict the reality of the world as it is. Despite the fact that photographers at that time were mostly upper- and upper-middle class gentlemen who profited from the rapidly changing world, they were actually the ones who could afford to venture into untouched nature and, with a great deal of nostalgia, admire the world as it used to be. According to Griffin, they were also the best customers for the photographic industry:
“A great deal of time and money has been invested by the Photographic Society of America and Eastman Kodak on convergent instructional and technical programs which promote pictorial photography as a hobby and teach pictorialist tenets as normative evaluative criteria. Industry marketing has matched the development of new products to established preferences for pictorialist form. Together, photographic manufacturers and amateur associations have worked to shape mainstream notions of what constitutes “good” photography.”
Avgust Berthold, Birch Trees, 1905-1907
The elitist stance of pictorialist photographers was further emphasised by emergence of photography magazines and journals that became platforms for discussion and critique. Moreover, during the late 19th century technological development led to faster and safer communication tools which enabled people to exchange materials and knowledge. One example is the postal service, which became more widespread and common among the wider population. All these factors gradually incited the development of international photography exhibitions to which photographers would simply send their photographs. These exhibitions triggered critical reflections and heated discussions among opinion makers, often themselves photographers, about the state of affairs in ‘art photography’.
Taylor writes: “Though fraught with ambiguity and conflict in their practice, art photographers nevertheless modelled themselves on the art establishment. They held annual “salons,” put their prints up for sale, judged each others’ work, and awarded medals. They kept up a continuous flow of critical opinion and confirmatory acts. They took portraits of each other, wrote reviews, and formed alliances. An accumulation of opinion and reputation flowed within and across continents. Their activities created a “hothouse” atmosphere, designed to keep out what they felt to be the enemies of art. The density of material flowing in the system appealed to the Romantic standards of truth and beauty, which was opposed to the banal and manufactured.”
An important part of this discourse was also the question of appropriate motifs for pictorialist photography. Typically, a pictorialist photographer would document, or depict, romanticised and traditional perspectives of everyday experience, while definitely avoiding addressing current social and political issues. The art was somewhat removed from real life.
In her article entitled Pictorialism and Sartorial Symbolism: A Poetic Response to Modernity at the Turn of the Twentieth Century Alicia Mihalić writes that “pictorialists’ emphasis on nature accompanied with recurrent idealized images of female figures offered a particular view of clothed bodies. Visions of biblical, historical or mythical subjects were achieved by transforming the sitters with the aim of conveying various meanings, thus employing clothing as one of the most important vehicles in constructing ideals of feminine purity, vulnerability and sensuality.”
But, by the end of the 19th century, there was growing discontent among ‘art photographers’ and photography experts who defended certain rules, formulas and values in photography. The medium was expanding and there were more and more photographers with artistic aspirations emerging on the scene. Joseph Pennell’s frequently reprinted essay Is Photography Among the Fine Arts? (1897) shows the exclusivity and snobbery with which those belonging to the upper classes treated ordinary middle class salon exhibitors:
“I look down the list of exhibitors at the Photographic Salon, where the gospel of art is most strenuously preached; I see among them the names of parsons, of Government clerks, of solicitors, of a beef-extract maker, of a banker, and some titles— in fact, the amateur rampant. It is the time left over from his serious work in life that this photographer gives to his art. Photography is his amusement, his relaxation. He labours in his pulpit or at his desk all the week, and then, when the half-holiday comes, he seizes his little black box, skips nimbly to the top of a ‘bus, hurries from his hampstead heights to the Embankment, plants his machine in a convenient corner, and, with the pressing of a button or the loosing of a cap, creates for you a nocturne which shall rank with the life-work of the master.”
At the same time, it was held that a typical pictorialist photographer, or an ‘art photographer’, should not be a professional photographer but rather an engaged amateur. According to the pictorialist equation, professional photographers’ minds were blurred with the pressures of industry which prevented them from developing true artistic expression. Amateur photographers, on the other hand, were free from the pressures of the industry and could therefore become true artists, unencumbered with technical requirements of the medium. Griffin observes the major conventions of the pictorialists:
“it was during the 1890’s and early 1900’s that photographers striving towards “art” began a conscious attempt to distinguish their activities and their photographs from other pictorial work. They employed softfocus lenses, specially textured papers, gum printing, and the glycerine process, along with burning, dodging and handwork on negatives and prints in order to emulate the textures, the treatment of light and atmosphere, and the romantic settings typical of painting.”
For a certain period of time the pictorialist aesthetic was dominant in Europe and the USA. Pictorialism became a truly international movement with many backers and supporters from the higher circles and art photographers themselves were commonly wealthy and respected individuals in society. Taylor notes that the members of “The Wiener Camera Club enjoyed the patronage of the Royal Family and aristocrats, as well as photographers of international standing and high status, including lawyers (Joseph T. Keiley), bankers (Robert Demachy), merchants (Theodor and Oskar Hofmeister), and heirs (Heinrich Kuhn). The pictorialists’ self-promotion was indeed similar to that of the art world, no doubt because of prestige. It could not have been for financial reward, since none of the practitioners was making serious money from art photography, and yet they continued to pursue it in their spare time. The position of the pictorialists is complex, because most were middle-class professionals. Pictorialism was only a hobby and full-time camera work was extremely rare. Yet the attraction of mimicking high art becomes clearer if it is considered in terms of social class. Artistic production and promotion had no direct business significance and was largely concerned with membership of the correct social set.”
In the heroic period of pictorialism, this situation could be applied to any other cultural milieu, be it London, Paris, New York, Berlin, or smaller urban centres. Their social, economic and political status enabled the opinion makers to create their own specific rules of judgement regarding what is worthy of pictorialist aesthetic and what is not as well as what is worthy of pronouncing as art and what is not. However, every fashion eventually comes to an end and is replaced by another fashion. Trends are inevitably doomed to end. And after some decades of unparalleled success and monopoly, in 1910s and 1920s pictorialism was becoming outdated and was increasingly seen as belonging to a bygone era. Taylor comments on the dissolution of international pictorialist networks:
“The more pressing problem by 1910, however, was that pictorial aesthetics seemed outdated. The Victorian ideals, the comfortable drawing-room life, which is so evident in Edwardian pictorial photography, were no longer the appropriate style for art as modernism gained ground in Europe. Fin de siècle art movements were brushed aside by modernism; optimism based on eternal values was destroyed as mechanization took command. The conserving arts gave way to the explosive forward movement of the avant-garde. Pictorialism could not stand the blast of modernism in the guise of Cubism, Futurism, abstraction, Neo-classicism, New Realism, and Surrealism.”
Suddenly, the tide had turned and Modernist photography took the lead in imposing conventions, formulas and equations in so-called ‘art photography’. At that time, there were more and more critics who were ridiculing the old-fashioned and stiff formulas of the pictorialist aesthetic. The critic Roy Griffith described his views on soft-focus pictures and dreamy atmosphere in the American Photography magazine in 1908:
“Curiosities of labour are not art; nothing is that employs false means to an end. Art is the employment of true means, in their true scope of service, to a result known beforehand. The first principle of a lens is the focus; the first principle of making a picture with a lens is to get the picture sharp. A picture made out of focus with a lens is no more art than the mouthings of dumb man are oratory, a child’s scrawl literature, or a house that will not stand architecture.”
Every rule, convention and trend eventually comes to an end…
© Miha Colner, November 2021 [language editing and proof reading: Ana Čavić)