Pictorialism and Straight Photography: Approaches To Fine Art
I’ve thought about (and misunderstood) the differences between pictorialism and straight/purist photography’s role in fine art. I could recognize the two visually, but I was unclear on the motivation of each. I needed to know the reasoning behind art photography that was soft focused, painterly, and sometimes blurred, as opposed to the stark, almost clinical images that included every possible detail. Why did a photographer typically choose one over the other?
I’ve been reading Group f.64: Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and the Community of Artists Who Revolutionized American Photography, this week. Mary Street Alinder tells the story about seven photographers that had a new ideas in their approach to making images. These photographers that were using perfect focus, deep depth of field, and attention to every detail, were dubbed straight, or purists, and they were shaking things up in the world of photography. This was my first time to discover this paradigm shift in the art photography world, and would change the way I think about photography.
The Fight For Recognition
In the 1930’s, the pioneers of the straight/purist photography logic struggled for their modern ideas to be included as art in the deeply rooted pictorialist world. No one got it. Alfred Stieglitz had already made ground breaking progress in the fight for photography to be included as an art, but the accepted work was primarily pictorialism. The dispute was in the idea of how the camera was used. These modern, straight photographers, wanted the world to realize that art could be the thing itself- not just the idea of the thing. The conflict was in the understanding of this new art. This group of modern photographers, including Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Imogen Cunningham, had a new way of seeing things; a new definition of what art photography could be.
Pictorialism: The Resemblance of Painting
Pictorialism was a carry-over of painting, and the art world understood (and accepted) soft focus, blur, and the mood shaping practices used by pictorialist photographers. By the manipulation of elements in the image, their photographs were designed to steer the viewer in a direction of an intended reaction by the photographer; to evoke an emotion. It was about using the camera as a tool to record an idea, and what it could mean. This let the spectator fill in some of the blanks.
Some will say that the familiarity of the pictorialist’s work to paintings was intentional- to look arty (especially when photography was struggling to be accepted as art). It made sense that if there was some similarity between paintings and photographs, that there would be a better possibility of acceptance. Either way, there was an attempt to suggest to the viewer what the image could be; a concept.
The pictorialiast might say, “See what I want you to see, and this is how I want you to feel.”
Straight Photography: The New Thinking
The straight photographer/ purists took the picture of the subject with as much realism as they could muster, because of the emotion they felt. Simply, showing what made them feel strongly about the subject; what caught their eye; what made them fall in love with the subject. It was not about using the subject only as part of an overall idea. The straight photographer worked hard to include every element necessary to translate what they saw as beautiful in that subject. To show the truths in the subject. Some even refused to use a rag/ fibre type paper for printing, as it might soften hard lines and take away from the preciseness of the image.
Alinder included a letter on the subject that was part of a monthly published spat between pictorialist, William Mortensen, and modernist Willard Van Dyke, that was taking place in the pages of Camera Craft magazine. This would be where I understood everything.
“Mr. Mortensen objects to our complete rendering of detail, and says that our records of actuality are not artistic truth, because art “is things as they are experienced, not things as they are.” The art of the purist is experienced. The experiencing of an emotional reaction to the subject is the impetus which causes him to make his photograph. The subject is “seen” however, within the confines of his objective medium, and he proceeds therefore, to make a photograph in a manner which best will convey to the spectator, the truth of the subject which has caused his emotional reaction.” (3)
Although the straight photography images were technically sound, many thought they included too much information. There seemed to be no room for the viewer to emotionally or visually wander around within them. Edward Weston’s capture of a cabbage looked exactly like a cabbage. The point, exactly. By use of composition, sharp focus, wide tonal range, and deep depth of field, Weston showed the viewer the elements of the cabbage that had given him the inspiration to make the image. He showcased the subject.
The straight photographer’s idea was, “See exactly what I saw that inspired and moved me.”
The Approach You Make
There must be some forethought into the subjects and portrayal of those subjects before the shooting ever commences. Which way will you approach your subject? What is your intention of the final image? Thinking ahead will help define you and your work more consistently. Try to figure out which style will translate your motivation and help your audience grasp your work with more understanding.
I must establish a new way of shooting images in terms of subject and the technical side, but only after anticipating my intentions of the photograph. Both of these styles of photography are considered art. The questions, now, are in our approach; which road to take. There may aesthetic elements that are borrowed from both sides, but the image should still reflect the photographer’s preference of thought- conjuring up a concept, or idea using the subject, or exhibiting a reaction to the subject.
Understanding pictorialism and straight photography is crucial before making plans for art. The fight is over between the two schools of thought. Both are proven communicators, both have valid purposes, and also have a following. In looking at my previous (and new work), I’m not so worried about how I will be labeled- pictorialist or straight, but I will question if my intentions for my photographs translate to my viewer. I get it now, and it has made me re-think every image I’ll make from now on.
1. Image – by Edward Steichen – Camera Work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10479561
Auguste Rodin seen in a parallel pose with Le Penseur (The Thinker)
2. Image – by Ansel Adams – Ansel_Adams_-_National_Archives_79-AA-Q01.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15356598
Church, Taos Pueblo (1942)
3. Alinder, Mary Street (2014-11-04). Group f.64: Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and the Community of Artists Who Revolutionized American Photography (Kindle Locations 3581-3586). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.0