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.
Pictorialism largely subscribed to the idea that art photography needed to emulate the painting and etching of the time. Most of these pictures made 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 Encyclopedia Britannica termed, in discussing Pictorialism, “personal artistic expression”.
The 1911 Encyclopedia 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 Brotherhood of the Linked Ring and The New American School were notable organised U.S. tendencies 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 un-manipulated, 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’s’ 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 solar plexus blow.” and “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.”
I do like the look of the Pictorialist photographs, but i do prefer to see printed what the camera can see. This is why I have never understood digitally manipulated images, yes I know that tools like Photo-shop can be used to clean up an image, and I have used it myself in the past. But I like to see the image as it was in real life or in the studio. To add things into a picture is to lie. So with pictorialism where they scratched the images to make them look eerie and different is an early version of manipulation. I should be more open-minded to enhancing and manipulating photographs, as there is nothing wrong with them, I will have to try using Photo-shop more myself.