Lisa Robinson's weekly History of Photography Column
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History of Photography: What is Pictorialism?

In the late 1800’s photography was still basically like a baby giraffe learning how to get up and walk for the first time. Photography didn’t really know what it was, processes were still being invented and refined and there was still great debate between it’s uses for amateurs, scientists/engineers, and artists. More clubs and associations began popping up, including the founding of the Professional Photographers of America and the establishment of photography degrees at schools such as the Chicago College of Photography. These all aimed to elevate photography to something more than a tool for science or casual family documenters.

Pictorialism begins

At Plough by Peter Henry Emerson, founder of Pictorialism. You can clearly see him implementing his theory of human vision being clearest at the center of field of view.

In 1886, Peter Henry Emerson basically went on a rant in a lecture to the Camera Club in London talking about his disdain for the current state of photography, and how it was trying to be too much like painting.  He wanted to push photography into a respected medium all it’s own, which ultimately became the goal of the Pictorialism movement. Emerson believed that art is made from nature and it’s the task of the artist to translate that to the human eye. He would insist on photographing his subjects in their natural environment, with natural light and selective focus. Eventually, this developed into his theory of differential focus which holds that only the central field of vision in the human eye is sharp and that everything else is “sketched in” by our brains. He is quoted as saying

 

“Nothing in nature has a hard outline, but everything is seen against something else and its outlines fade gently into that of something else, often so subtly that you cannot quite distinguish were one ends and the other begins. In this mingled decision and indecision, this lost and found, lies all the charm and mystery of nature.”

Emerson found a way to visually represent this belief by taking images just slightly out of focus. He believed this allowed the photograph to be represented as the human eye would see it. (I’m going to take a wild leap and say that Emerson would NOT have been a fan of the HDR movement!) Unfortunately, Emerson’s teachings weren’t exactly understood and the movement did produce quite a few just plain out of focus photos and a misinterpretation that because it’s out of focus means it’s art.

Aesthetics v/s Technical

Nevertheless, between 1889 and around WWI, pictorialism continued to thrive and continued to reinforce aesthetics over the technical. As it evolved beyond Emerson’s views, it came to include more beliefs that the resulting image can (and should) be affected by the human hand, as this meant it was more of a “one of a kind” work (i.e. higher perceived value) and not just something that can be reproduced over and over. Pictorialist photographers developed their photos with processes like gum-bichromate and platinum which allowed a greater dynamic range of being able to alter the tonality. They also experimented with printing on different papers, artist papers, different fibers, etc. to affect how the final image looked.

All of the effects together, had the result in pictorialism providing photos that made the viewer “feel” something that couldn’t be said. There was a strive for a more emotional connection with all the methodologies they employed and ultimately achieved. While pictorialism did not destroy the notion that cameras were machines that could turn out replicas over and over, it did solidly grow another branch on photography’s family tree and solidify a place for it in the artistic realm.

The Onion Field by George Davidson, another example of pictorialism and how it uses focus and tonality ranges to affect feelings.
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