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three cheers for pictorialism

I write this to defend a much-maligned style of photography that had its day in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.  The pictorialists believed that they were making pictures, and, as artists, they had the right to use any techniques that their imagination suggested to them.  Given the time and the technology, their options were severely limited by the absence of color (unless of course they chose to hand color their prints).  They were limited to monochromes, as were all other photographers until the development of color film.

What I like most about the pictorialists was their objective, which was to make pictures as a vehicle for their emotional engagement with their subject matter.

a composition of five negatives....
"Fading Away" 1858
Henry Peach Robinson

One of the most noteworthy of the pictorialists was Alfred Stieglitz, but he was also one of the last, perhaps because he so strongly denounced his former aesthetic when he became enamored of a new group emerging that proclaimed a different aesthetic for photography.  That was the "f64" group, whose members included some very notable artists, e.g. Edward Weston and Ansel Adams.

Stieglitz in his pictorialist years
"Gossip" 1905
Alfred Stieglitz

Weston and Adams and the others were seeking an aesthetic in photography that especially capitalized on qualities intrinsic to and exclusive to the camera and photographic media.  They seized upon the resolving power of the lens and film, and they stated explicitly that any intervention of the photographer beyond making a perfect exposure was extraneous and superficial......not "real" photography.  They used the term "straight" for what they were seeking, the "straight" image.

I love the images that this group produced, but I believe that in their overwhelming success photographic art has been ill-served.  The first problem they created is that by invoking the "f-stop" as the definition of what they were doing, they disastrously reinforced the notion that photographic art is a matter of mechanics and machinery rather than a pursuit of the soul and the imagination.  The second, and related problem that they created is that they imposed on photography an aesthetic of super-resolution.  I mean to say that "sharpness" became the defining quality of a photograph.  If it's not sharp, it's not a good photograph.

I love sharp photographs, but I think it is absurd to believe that perfect focus and high resolution are the only aesthetic ground available to the photographer artist.  I think there are as many aesthetics available as there are creative minds and souls practicing the art.  Why should all good photographs look the same way?  There is plenty of variety in the aesthetics of paintings, why not in photographs too ?

Feeling comfortable with all the possibilities of photography is worth thinking about in the digital age when there are no obvious limitations to what can be done with a photograph.  It can now become anything that the photographer artist wants it to be, limited only by her or his imagination and technique.

The digital age is the time for a new pictorialism, not embarassed, not ashamed of not being "straight"............ just happy in its creativity.

Three cheers for pictorialism !!!

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