Pictorialism, the Photo Secession and Group f/64

Figure 1 - Henry Peach Robinson "Fading Away" (1858)

Figure 1 - Henry Peach Robinson "Fading Away" (1858)

Photography is the coalescence of art and science. The form itself was born of a desire in artists who were frustrated with the challenges of traditional forms. The camera obscura was arguably created by artists frustrated with the technical and monotonous tasks associated with creating an exacting representation of a scene or landscape. Nicéphore Niépce (one of the inventors of photography) himself did not have a steady enough hand to trace the inverted images of the camera obscura as was popular in his day, and Louis Daguerre was himself a frustrated artist. From these motivations the form we know as photography was born, and no sooner than the challenges of science were resolved, the desire to modify and manipulate the scene began.

Figure 2- Alfred Stieglitz, "Spring Showers" (1902)

Figure 2- Alfred Stieglitz, "Spring Showers" (1902)

Pictorialism began as a movement in the late 1800s. With the introduction of the amateur handheld camera by Kodak in 1888, well to do upper class gentlemen sought the device out as a way to indulge artistic fancy. These men (they were largely men at the time) while not imbued with a natural talent for art sought some outlet to express themselves artistically. Lacking in conventional talent the development of photographic technology permitted these men a means to express there artistic sensibilities. From these patrician roots the movement that would become known as pictorialism was born.

These early photographers sought to elevate the medium of photography to high art, and began manipulating images. Techniques such as roughing an image, printing on textured materials, and combination printing (multiple images combined into a montage) began to appear on the photographic scene. Photographer/Artists such as Henry Peach Robinson (Figure 1 – Combined image from five negatives) began developing new techniques and methods to create photographic imagery that emulated it’s traditional artistic brethren. Pictures began to take the style of art, often being manipulated in such a way as to resemble art itself.

Pictorialism gave rise to a large group of artists that began to emulate in photography, by any means they could, the tones of art at the time. Images created rather than captured began to express elements of romanticism and sentimentality, both heavy themes in the art world of the day. A number of photographers led by Alfred Stieglitz and F. Holland Day formed a group at the turn of the century called the Photo Secession. This sparked a controversy as to whether photography should be a representation of the cameras view from a purely objective viewpoint, or whether it should be a representation of the subjective view of the photographer.

Ansel Adams, "Half Dome, Apple Orchard, Yosemite" (1933)

Figure 3 -Ansel Adams, "Half Dome, Apple Orchard, Yosemite" (1933)

In opposition to this movement a group of seven San Fransico photographers formed the venerable group F/64. These photographers believed that the aesthetic style of photography should be that of a more objective viewpoint. It was there effort to promote and define a new modernist aesthetic of pin sharp focus and carefully cropped imagery. The name for this group was in reference to the diaphragm of the photographic lens which represented the longest Depth of Field and finest definition of image.  From their manifesto:

“Group f/64 limits its members and invitational names to those workers who are striving to define photography as an art form by simple and direct presentation through purely photographic methods. The Group will show no work at any time that does not conform to its standards of pure photography. Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form. The production of the “Pictorialist,” on the other hand, indicates a devotion to principles of art which are directly related to painting and the graphic arts.

The members of Group f/64 believe that photography, as an art form, must develop along lines defined by the actualities and limitations of the photographic medium, and must always remain independent of ideological conventions of art and aesthetics that are reminiscent of a period and culture antedating the growth of the medium itself.”

The methods they presented transformed the role of the photographer as artist from a creator of imagery to that of a selector. It was his or her selection of form and composition that made the picture. Among it’s members it included such photographic greats as Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston. They had a profound effect on the aesthetic of photography and paved the way for many of the principles that guide the modern photographer.

Figure 4 -Alvin Langdon Coburn, "Mark Twain" (1913)

Figure 4 -Alvin Langdon Coburn, "Mark Twain" (1913)

It is a debate whether photography should be intended to show truth, and what that truth is. Is truth a completely objective view of the world devoid of a photographers ego, or is it a representation of the photographers viewpoint and affected by his own artistic sensibilities? An interesting question and a debate that rages on today, especially with the explosion of photo manipulation technology. Where is the line that divides art and photograph? Does it even exist?

Both the aesthetics of Pictorialism, the Photo Secession and F64 greatly affected modern photography. All these styles defined new techniques, broke ground and paved the way for future photography. Is one aesthetic better than the other? Well I suppose that’s a matter of taste. It is clear however that all these photographic principles have contributed to modern photography for better or worse. It has given us as artists the ability to bring concepts to life and create works of art with a camera.

Find out more with these amazing books:

Impressionist Camera, by Phillip Prodger

Pictorialism into Modernism: The Clarence H. White School of Photography, by Marianne Fulton

Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set – Volume I & II: The Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Photographs

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