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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Pictorialism is the name given to a photographic movement in vogue from around 1885 following the widespread introduction of the dry-plate process. It reached its height in the early years of the 20th century, and declined rapidly after 1914 after the widespread emergence of Modernism. The terms "Pictorialism" and "Pictorialist" entered common use only after 1900.

Pictorialism largely subscribed to the idea that art photography needed to emulate the painting and etching of the time. Most of these pictures were black & white or sepia-toned. Among the methods used were soft focus, special filters and lens coatings, heavy manipulation in the darkroom, and exotic printing processes. From 1898 rough-surface printing papers were added to the repertoire, to further break up a picture's sharpness. Some artists "etched" the surface of their prints using fine needles. The aim of such techniques was to achieve what the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica termed, in discussing Pictorialism, "personal artistic expression".

Despite the aim of artistic expression, the best of such photographs paralleled the impressionist style then current in painting. Looking back from the present day, we can also see close parallel between the composition and picturesque subject of genre paintings and the bulk of pictorialist photography.

‎The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica noted that: "as a distinct movement pictorial photography is essentially of British origin", although in its later phases there was a strong influence on American photography. The British Brotherhood of the Linked Ring and The New American School were organised groups in Pictorialism around 1900. An American circle of photographers later renounced pictorialism altogether and went on to found Group f/64, which espoused the ideal of unmanipulated, or straight photography.

One of the most important publications that promoted Pictorialism was Alfred Stieglitz's "Camera Work" 1903 - 1917. Each publication had up to 12 plates that were reproduced in Photogravure, Halftone or Collotype. These plates are now collected and very sought after in the art world. Most of the photographers that made up the issues were members of the Photo-Secession, a group that promoted photography as art and soon moved away from the ideals of pictorialism.

By the year of 1910, when Albright Gallery bought 15 photographs from Stieglitz' 291 Gallery, a major victory was won in the battle for establishing photography as art. Pictorialism, which had served to open the museum doors for photography, was now already regarded as a vision of the past by the spearheading photographers of that time. Stieglitz, always craving for the new, was quoted around 1910 saying "It is high time that the stupidity and sham in pictorial photography be struck a solarplexus blow." Additionally, "Claims of art won't do. Let the photographer make a perfect photograph. And if he happens to be a lover of perfection and a seer, the resulting photograph will be straight and beautiful - a true photograph."

The new and proceedingly modern America needed a new representation in art. This necessarily meant the end for pictorialism as major form of art, although the contemporary American portraitist Sally Mann revisited the pictorialist style in her 2003 book What Remains.


Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Pictorialism" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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