Review: Amatuer Pictorialism- The Photograph as a Piece of Art

Can a photograph be art?


Pictorialism, one of the earliest ‘movements’ in photography, sought to solve that question. When Daguerre first unveiled his invention to the world, it marvelled at the ability to recreate images with “such fine detail in the drawing that you could study it with or without a magnifying glass”[1] and “the extraordinary minuteness of such multiplied details as were shown in the street views.”[2] Photography would aid the scientist, the architect, the bureaucrat and the police, it would bring joy to those who could now see far-off places and wondrous sights without travelling hundreds or thousands of miles. It would document and represent the world. But it would not be art, it would be “something else.”[3]

The camera has evolved beyond recognition from its earliest forms and its place as an art is safe in the modern world. The pictorialists triumphed. The images you see here, taken by me in Lancaster and Edinburgh, are an homage to them. I once doubted the ability of photography to be art, to create something as beautiful as Rembrandt, let alone Van Gogh. Although I make no claim that my own work has achieved the goal of pictorialism, of escaping documentation, of introducing the individual and of creating something unique, I hope to illustrate the importance of pictorialism to photographic history, and that its value remains.

In the picture above the clear blue of the sky behind the clouds, the menacing grey mass tinged red in the left, the dark city rooftops reflecting the clouds, turned the colour of blood by the setting sun create a wonderful contrast of colour. Even the faded raindrops on the lens, illuminated by the sun, have a powerful effect, extending the sun’s light and blurring the distinction between land and sky. It is evocative of Albert Bierstadt’s painting Sunset in the Yosemite Valley from 1868 and to prove photography can be art, must first see if it can emulate art. The later modernist movement focussed on the unique properties a photograph can exhibit, but this only grew out of the seeds sown by pictorialism.


Pictorialism makes use, in photographs like ‘The Curb Market’ by Joseph Petrocelli and ‘L’Abandonne’ by Bernard Alfieri, of emptiness. While photographs like ‘Afghan Girl’ and ‘Falling Man’ are beautiful, they are not pictorialist. Our eyes are inexorably drawn to the girl’s intense stare, to the man’s leg pointing in line with the building. Pictorialist images, while not necessarily without punctum, need not have the same definitive pull. They seek not to capture a thing, or a moment, or even a thing in a moment, but the feeling of the moment or thing. Stieglitz notes the mood of an art student at an exhibition who “had noted that instead of being purely mechanical, the printing processes were distinctly individual, and that the negative never twice yielded the same print, had seen how wonderfully true the tonal renderings… and in a word how full of feeling and thought was every picture shown… This is the real photography.”[4] He also states that since the creation of a powerful photograph is so personal, so local, the photographer “requires a knowledge of and feeling for the comprehensive and beautiful tonality of nature.”[5] To create a pictorialist photograph, the photographer must not only have to ability to take an image that is beautiful, but have the eye and to see and skill to capture the beauty of life.

The above picture, from outside Lancaster Moor Hospital, forgoes the possibility of focussing on the fluorescent yellow and action of the road and the cool blue and harrowing quiet of the asylum and focusses on the space between the two, the field, the colours melding into one, the nothingness of the space. The eye may be drawn to the trees by the road or to the light in the building, but ultimately it falls back into the middle space and finds very little to focus on. While Daguerre’s contemporaries studied his images with a magnifying glass to further marvel at the detail, this would take away from the image above. It is not the detail, not the thing that makes gives the image its power, but the feeling. Standing at the edge of the field, past midnight, staring at the old asylum was a profoundly ‘spooky’ experience, and the desire to move back to the comfortable, familiar yellow-lit street was strong. The image, with the camera slightly favouring the road over the asylum, the yellow over the blue, and the only lit ground a path of light leading back to the road, capture that feeling.


Reflections are another element that permeates much of pictorialism, visible in such works as Stieglitz’s A Venetian Canal, The Glow of Night, New York and Reflections- Venice, Georges Robard’s Lepart Matinal de Regartes and Georges Guillaume’s Au Soleil couchant. Night street photography and bodies of water provide the perfect mediums for the effects that make this strand of pictoral image beautiful. The hard lines of the city, so useful in the day for modernists, are softened at night, and the bright street lights cast gentler reflections that stretch out, giving the eye something to lazily wander across in place of the missing punctum. Where the city street is normally busy, at night it becomes easier to find oases of calm and the juxtaposition of the tall, imposing buildings against the now quiet and peaceful space creates the feeling of something different, something unexpected, perhaps something magical. This feeling gives the pictorialist photographer something to capture, in absence of a more conventional subject.

Similarly bodies of water provide a vast open tract for the eye to observe. Reflections again throw expectation, giving us a glimpse of a world in reverse, opening the scene up to new observations, while simultaneously removing the amount of specific focal points that might distract from the overall image. Again peace is an important part of the draw of the reflective surface of the water. Beauty is exceptional, it is outside the normal, and in modern day life, full of hard buildings and rapid movement, the tranquillity of gently moving water provides us with a beautiful escape.


Both of the above images present an immediate focal point- the reflection of the sun on the building and the moon. But the eye quickly wanders and the focal point is lost in the overall picture. In the image of the building, the closeness should be claustrophobic but the soft light and shade in the doorway create something more inviting than intimidating. Just enough open air is visible in the right hand third of the image to give an air of freedom. Similarly while the moon provides a focal point it is quickly lost in the empty space of the image. While a star, light on the horizon, branch and reflection all give something to look at, the overwhelming impression is of the darkness, and the isolation of the moonlight. Taken from the woodland walk on the edge of campus, the feeling of isolation, and of the beauty of moonlight, the only guide through the dark wood, were powerful throughout the walk.


Sunsets provide the pictorialist with many of the qualities that make a pictorial image and it is easy to see why they flood the internet. But while many of these are filtered and edited for beauty, the best pictorialist images are not. “Retouching is the process by which a good, bad, or indifferent photograph is converted into a bad drawing or painting.”[6] Emerson’s critique of retouching holds true today. While Photoshop can be used for many things, arguably for the betterment of photography, it has little place in pictorialism. If the goal is to capture the feeling, and you can only say your photograph has done this with a sepia filter, you have failed. To use the setting on a digital camera before taking an image is different, as this shows true sense of the ‘feeling of the thing in the moment’, but to edit afterwards is to fail to accept failure. If an image does not capture the moment, as we so often fail to do, discard it. To see a sunset, a mountain, a vast ocean is a wondrous thing. The feeling of such sights are what bring photographers to them time and time again. Pictorialism attempts to recreate that majesty in some small way. So to capture the feeling of something is not a vague, meaningless term, but a profound statement and ambitious goal for the photographer. It is an attempt to escape that greatest limitation of the photograph- the frozen moment. It seeks not to document, not to remind, not to illustrate but to inspire. Such an idea was radical in 1860 and it remains difficult today. Anyone can, and many do, take pictures of sunsets. But it takes a truly skilful photographer to look past the setting sun and the blood-red sky and sense the feeling, to connect with the magic and to capture it on an SD card. Pictorialism is not about capturing the pretty- it is about breaking the photograph free from the here and now, the moment in space-time, the fact that it “mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.”[7] To capture that feeling is to escape the constraints of space time. No, that mountain will never be captured again in that moment from that space. But that feeling that inspired the image will last for time immemorial, and that is the true subject.

[1] La Gazette de France(Paris), January 6, 1839, translated by Beaumont Newhall, The Fine Arts

[2] The British Literary Gazette (London), July 13th 1839, pg 444

[3] La Gazette de France(Paris), January 6, 1839, translated by Beaumont Newhall, The Fine Arts

[4] Stigelitz, Alfred, Pictoral Photography, 1899

[5] Stigelitz, Alfred, Pictoral Photography, 1899

[6] Emerson, Peter, Naturalistic Photography, 1889

[7] Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography, 1980


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