Pictorialism is a photographic movement that developed in the last 1800's and continues to the present. The main feature of the movement is the focus on photography as art where the value of the photograph is not based on the subject of the photograph, but the composition and how the subject is presented. This broad definition being given, it must be noted that pictorialism is far from a simple approach that can be easily defined. It has changed and developed over time, it has created new techniques, it has impacted on other forms of photography and aspects of it can be seen in modern approached to photography.
To consider pictorialism further, it is necessary to begin at the beginning. This will involve providing on overview of pictorialism and a history of its development. Two pictorialists will then be described as a means of giving example of the approach. Finally, it will be considered how the pictorialist approach has impacted on both art and photography.
Overview of Pictorialsm
Pictorialism was a movement in amateur photography that focused on photography as a form of art. This focus was one of two major approaches that developed throughout the last quarter of 1800's. The first major approach was one that focused on photography as a hobby. With this approach, amateur photographers focused on recording their families and their activities, without any concern for this as a process of art. The second major approach was one that focused on photography as an art form and struggled to have the art world accept photography, just as they accepted paintings and sculpture. This second major approach was known as pictorialism and defined as "an international movement to promote the art of photography" (Lemagny & Rouille 62). This movement of pictorialism involved photographers forming society's to promote the value of photography as an art form, taking part in exhibitions and promoting photography to the art world.
This movement was also a struggle against the general focus of photography at the time, commercialism. This commercialism was based on finding useful applications for photography such as being used in the media, for portraits and in scientific experimentation. Each of these uses was pursed as a commercial use where photography would not only be a tool, but be a service that could be sold for money. This commercial movement can be defined as the professional version of photography. Pictorialism then emerged as an amateur version with pictorialism an approach that reacted against commercialism and attempted to give photography a greater purpose.
The pictorialist movement was closer in thinking to painters, with many of the early pictorialists trained as painters. It is noted that the pictorialists displayed their work in salons, similar to the way painters of the time did. These salons have been described saying,
These temples of pictorialism, which claimed an affinity with 'art,' made a point of establishing their distance both from the photography of the professionals, which they regarded as commercial and stereotyped, and also from that of the amateur photographers" (Lemagny & Rouille 80).
This pictorialist movement then was a specific movement that seen themselves not as photographers but as artists, even while the art world was debating whether or not photography could be an art. The pictorialist were essentially, a group in the center of several fields that were not quite accepted by any.
The Development of Pictorialism
Part of the struggle of the process of pictorialism establishing itself as an art form, was the interaction between the artist and the work created. For a photograph to be considered an artwork it had to be unique in some way. A photograph taken of a person would not be unique and would not necessarily reflect the artist, since any other photograph could take the same photograph. This was considered to be the quality of art that photography lacked. The accepted art forms of painting and sculpture each specifically involved the artist. The Mona Lisa is not just a portrait and no other painter could have created it, it specifically involved the unique vision and the unique work of the artist. In short, it was created by the artist and the work of the artist is inherent to it. In comparison, if photography is merely the process of taking a photography by pushing a button, the photographer is not inherent to the process and so cannot be called an artist. Robert Demachy is quoted explaining this quality of photography as art saying,
Let the amateur photographer use as much oil, gum or platinum as he likes; let him touch up his own photograph with paint or attack it with a scraper: that is perfectly all right with me, so long as he shows me a picture such as the next man could not produce" (Martinez 8).
This is the approach that pictorialism took, moving away from simply taking photographs and moving towards the photographer being involved with the photograph so that they can be called its creator. This involved using techniques like those described above like adding paint to photographs. This move was actually moving away from photography itself as an artform and moving towards having at incorporate photography with accepted forms of art to label it as an artform. For example, adding paint to a photograph became a painting activity, not a photography activity. The photograph simply became a basis for the artwork, much like a landscape scene is a basis for painting a unique landscape. While this move was supposed to help photography be accepted as an artform it actually did the opposite, with the message being sent that photography was only an artform when combined with another real artform.
This approach eventually subsided with photography moving back towards being accepted as an artform on its own. It must be noted that the move towards photography needing an artform to make it a real art was based on the fact that the artist must be a creator of an artwork. It was eventually recognized that photography could achieve this on its own. The recognition of the relationship between the photographer and the photograph has been described saying,
Once the photographer put a part of himself into the act of photography, once he introduced his own presence into the necessary relationship between that connected reality to his image of it, once he lent a personality to the gaze of his lens, then the image became autonomous in relation to its subject, receiving the stamp of the particular impressions that were evoked in the camera operator himself at the sight of his subject" (Lemagny & Rouille 96).
This shows how the photographer creates something unique via his or her own individual views and by developing a distinctive style. This approach recognizing that the individual photographer could create a unique image just because of their own style and not necessarily by tampering with the image, led to a move away from these techniques of art and back to techniques exclusive to photography. This move was accepted because the photographer could still be seen as creating something unique and in having a relationship with the subject, rather than being the individual that happened to take the photograph of the subject. It was recognized then that the photograph was actually a creation of the photographer, much as a painter or a sculptor is a creator of their art.
Two Pictorialists: Henry Peach Robinson and Robert Demachy
Two of the pictorialists that had a major impact on the field will now be considered, with a look at their approaches a good representation of what separates pictorialist photographers from both professional photographers and other artists. The two pictorialists that will be considered are Henry Peach Robertson and Oscar Rejlander.
Henry Peach Robinson
Henry Peach Robinson has been described as "a pioneer of pictorialist photography" (Leggat, Robinson), known for his photography as well as his writings on the subject.
Robinson's approach to photography was not to capture reality but to capture something with emotional impact greater than the subject matter and to do this in an artful way. This involved not taking photographs, but using photographs to create images in a technique known as combination printing. This technique involved combining several photographs to create an overall image. This approach has been explained saying,
Robinson was not interested in reality. He used photography as a puzzle in which each piece was fitted into an imaginary design... It was a naive way of reconstructing the reality of the world" (Lemagny & Rouille 90).
A good example of this technique is Robinson's Fading Away. This piece has been described saying,
Perhaps the most famous of his pictures is Fading Away (1858), a composition of five negatives, in which he depicts a girl dying of consumption (which we know as tuberculosis), and the despair of the other members of the family" (Leggat, Robinson).
While this photograph appears as a real scene, it is actually Robinson's imagined view of a scene. This approach then becomes art, with Robinson a…