Cindy Sherman is one of the world’s leading artists – for 30 years, she has starred in all her photographs – and yet the more we see of her, the less recognisable she is. She’s a Hitchcock heroine, a busty Monroe, an abuse victim, a terrified centrefold, a corpse, a Caravaggio, a Botticelli, a mutilated hermaphrodite sex doll, a man in a balaclava, a surgically-enhanced Hamptons type, a cowgirl, a desperate clown, and we’ve barely started.
Shots of movies that never existed
This lively description of Cindy Sherman comes from a Guardian interview in 2011. I first came across her work in the 1977 “Complete Untitled Film Stills”. These are a series of 69 black and white photographs described in the same article as “a brilliantly novel concept – grainy shots of movies that never existed.” The pictures were shot across a range of locations including her NY studio, New York, Long Island and Arizona. They now reside in MoMA, New York. Inspired by film, TV and pop culture imagery, full of irony and depicting clichéd characters, the series challenged cultural stereotypes of women. They created an enthralling and highly ambiguous, narrative at the same time. Her talent was evident not only as a photographer, but as a highly accomplished model, make-up artist, story-teller and stylist.
Too ambiguous to label
As a film fan and of film noir in particular there is much to like in the film stills: the concept, the noir and horror influences, Sherman’s ability to metamorphosise and the ambiguity of her images. Like David Lynch, who channels his subconscious to produce his films, Sherman appears to be an artist who works with the unconscious and interprets her work afterwards. As she said herself , “I often don’t know what I’m going after until after it’s shot. It’s amusing how far someone can stretch my intentions and make a concept that fits their theories.” To take pictures that clearly tell a story, but not one the viewer can quite make out, is something I aspire to to, but only rarely achieve. Cindy Sherman has achieved this throughout her career – through which she has had plenty of labels applied to her work. It has been called feminist, postmodernist and post-structuralist, but her work is that of a performance artists and it is often hard to categorise.
Self portraits that are anything but
Like another of my favourite photographers Brassaï, Cindy Sherman started out as a painter, working in the super-realist style. She soon moved to photography and began using a combination of costume make-up, pose, expression and location to alter her appearance. In doing so she created images of herself that were anything but self portraits. She has described herself as anonymous in her work, and has commented that she never sees herself in her own pictures. Her performance art approach and her skilled mimicry make this a highly credible claim “I’ll see a photograph of a character and try to copy them on to my face” she once said. This is an idea that I admire, but that I also find somewhat unsettling.
Challenging to hang over the sofa
In 1980 Sherman moved from black and white to colour and from there, nervous about her success, she deliberately produced less marketable work. Admirably she described it as “making things that would challenge someone to hang it over their sofa.” She started to use mannequins as well as prosthetics in much darker and more grotesque work. I will admit to liking this far less than the Untitled Film Stills, but it needs to be considered as part of the extraordinary re-invention of both herself and her work over the years.
Central in an era of consumerism and image proliferation
The importance of Cindy Sherman’s work is well described in an article on The Art Story:
Turning the camera on herself in a game of extended role playing of fantasy Hollywood, fashion, mass advertising, and “girl-next-door” roles and poses, Sherman ultimately called her audience’s attention to the powerful machinery and make-up that lay behind the countless images circulating in an incessantly public, “plugged in” culture. Sexual desire and domination, the fashioning of self identity as mass deception, these are among the unsettling subjects lying behind Sherman’s extensive series of self-portraiture in various guises. Sherman’s work is central in the era of intense consumerism and image proliferation at the close of the 20th century.
In the era of the selfie, everyone can be their own photographer, model and stylist. To re-invent yourself completely shot-by-shot as Cindy Sherman has, and for the pictures to be so durable, is another matter altogether.
I first came across Fan Ho’s work in a podcast from Ted Forbes’ The Art of Photography. Some photographer’s work gives me an immediate jolt the first time I see it. Fan Ho’s photography, like that of Brassaï and William Klein, to name just a couple of others, gave me that same instant reaction. His painterly use of smoke, mist, light and shadow combined with incredible, often geometric, composition is breathtaking. An blog post on Kept Light refers to some Ho’s photographs of boats on the water as being “reminiscent of Turner’s paintings with light emanating from the work.”
His mastery of street photography has led to him being referred to as the ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson of the East,’ but I much prefer his nickname ‘the Great Master’. The influence of the European composition tradition is clearly present, but his vision is unique. Transplanted to the East, his unique blend of light and geometry that somehow combines drama with serenity has made him one of the world’s greatest photographers. As Abigail Cain put it in an article on Artsy at the time of his time of his death in 2016:
The serene and contemplative nature of Ho’s work is particularly remarkable considering the tumultuous state of Hong Kong during his most prolific decades. The artist and his family were among the many hundreds of thousands of refugees that flowed into the city in the 1950s, fleeing the reignited Nationalist-Communist Civil War that was ravaging mainland China. Between 1945 and 1951, the city’s population more than doubled. However, Ho’s photographs reveal nothing of that chaotic historical context; instead, they present timeless scenes of life in Hong Kong. The marriage of old and new—a traditional Chinese sailing vessel bobbing alongside a battleship in the harbor, a wooden rickshaw being pulled across steel train tracks—was a consistent feature of his work, as was a fascination with the natural geometry of urban alleyways and markets. And now, when the city ranks among the most densely populated locations in the world, Ho’s reflective photographs offer an experience unattainable anywhere else—solitude on a Hong Kong street
In a similar vein, Laurence Miller, a Manhattan gallery owner, described Fan Ho’s photographs as “like direct descendants of the Bauhaus, yet they were made in Hong Kong. They were abstract and humanistic at the same time.”
Fan Ho was born in Shanghai in 1931, and emigrated with his family to Hong Kong in 1948.He took up photography at a very young age and adopted the Rolleiflex he would use for the rest of his career at the age of 14. Living in the Central neighbourhood of Hong Kong, he was in the perfect position to document street life, though at a time when studio photography was far more common than street photography. An article in The Red List describes what Fan Ho found and captured in the Hong Kong in the late 1940s and early 1950s:
The centre of a chaotic atmosphere, the city had received the thousands of refugees of Japan’s invasion and thus was marked by despair, poverty and tumult. Yet, the photographer managed to capture an almost empty city, concentrating on individual subjects and scenes whose theatricality were enhanced by his dramatic use of light, shadow and smoke within geometric compositions – no wonder one of his series was entitled Living Theatre. With his black and white images, Fan Ho illustrated a nostalgic and melancholic cinematic Hong Kong where traces of modern life and issues disappeared behind traditional lifestyles as if reality had been erased: ‘I liked to concentrate and simplify the world in black and white, it was more suitable to my nature. I could express my emotions more freely, they were more fully under my control, [and the results were] surreal and semi-abstract. I liked this distance: not too close, not too far away…’ With his reclusive photographs, Fan Ho offered a seductive fantasy to Hong Kong’s inhabitants, that of loneliness.
Fan Ho’s creative process required a great deal of patience, no least because Hong Kong was and remains one of the most densely populated places on earth, but also to get all the other elements he needed to be in place. He described how he worked to the Independent in 2014:
At the beginning you must find the ideal location. Then you must be patient to find the right subject that arouses your interest, even if it’s just a cat . You must have the precise moment to catch the spirit, the essence, the soul of the person… If you don’t have the exact moment, you have to wait for the right feeling. It’s real creative work because you have to have the feeling inside.
Ho was critically acclaimed: a fellow of the most prestigious photographic societies, he was named one of the “Top Ten Photographers of the World” by the Photographic Society of America between 1958 and 1965. He was also an Honorary Member of the Photographic Societies of many countries around the world. He simultaneously pursued a career in film, starting out with the Shaw Brothers and later becoming a film director. Ho died in 2016, in San Jose, California at the age of 84. His images of Hong Kong remain the most iconic images of the city and his photography continues to be on show in major museums around the world.
Brassaï is one of those photographers whose work had an immediate and profound effect on me. His dreamlike nocturnal street photography and sharply observed portraits of life after dark provide a unique set of images that is as close to a time slip into 1930s Paris as most of us will ever encounter.
Paris de Nuit
His most famous work (Paris de nuit, 1933 and Voluptés de Paris 1935) opened up a dark realm that had only been captured by painters before. He was not the first to shoot at night – Alfred Stieglitz amongst others had worked at night previously, but he was the first to produce a substantial body of work. After Paris by Night, other photographers took to sustained nocturnal photography – Bill Brandt captured London in the late 1930s (it was Brassaï’s publisher who commissioned Brandt night time work) and Weegee did the same in New York in the 1940s.
“Night does not show things, it suggests them. It disturbs and surprises us with its strangeness.”
As a self-taught pioneer of night photography in his adopted home of Paris (he was a Hungarian émigré), Brassaï faced the relatively new photographic challenges of working at night, equipped as he was with a Voigtlander 6.5 x 9cm camera, slow f4.5 lens and a wooden tripod. His atmospheric landscape shots needed long exposures and were subjected to excessive contrast from street lights. Ingeniously, he used the varying lengths of his smokes, inevitably including a Gauloise, to time his exposures. He also carried copies of his work to explain his late night activities to local law enforcement. An article on Imaging Resource describes his technique:
Using his training as a painter, Brassaï framed his shots so that small areas of light pierced large areas of blacks and shadows. Light reflected in wet streets and diffused by fog, would define shapes within the dark. This contrast gave his printed images richness and depth and he called these prints his “little boxes of night.”
Ground-breaking though his night photography was, Brassaï had a wide palette. His work ranges from surgically precise photojournalism to avant garde dreamscapes. He combined the eye of an expert people watcher with a painterly ability to shade and tone his work with beautifully diffused light. A polymath, he was a journalist, artist and sculpturer as well as a master photographer. He cited Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec as an influence and was friends with Dali, Picasso and Matisse.
Curiously, Brassaï started out with a dim view of photography, comparing it unfavourably to the art he originally pursued, but it became a requirement of his journalistic assignments, and having seen the beauty of Paris at night he became determined to capture it – defining night photography in the process. He was influenced by his friend and fellow Hungarian André Kertész, a pioneer of photojournalism, of whom Henri Cartier-Bresson said: “Each time Andre Kertész’s shutter clicks, I feel his heart beating.”
A walk on the wild side
Brassaï’s walks in the Montparnasse district of Paris brought him into contact with a night time cast of prostitutes, street toughs, lamp lighters, transvestites and pleasure seekers. He is most famous for the ground-breaking and gritty images he captured of those night folk. In his own words: “Night does not show things, it suggests them. It disturbs and surprises us with its strangeness.” As he was well connected, Brassaï’s work also includes images of high society, including ballet, opera, artists (including Picasso) and the intelligentsia. Consequently his work documents 1930’s Paris from the most marginalised to high society. A New York Times Article published in 1984, the year he died, captured perhaps the most celebrated aspect of his unique vision:
A Transylvanian transplanted to Paris, he managed in the 1930’s to capture aspects of French life that had never before submitted themselves to the camera, and to do so with a directness and vigour that is a hallmark of greatness in the medium. No doubt as a émigré he saw Paris more acutely than most of its natives, but he also was able to penetrate its darker demimonde because of a relentless passion for the forbidden and deep sympathy with the outcast.
Brassaï, like William Klein and Fan Ho (all hugely influential) was an outsider in the environment he chose to shoot in and that contributes, as noted above, to his unique perspective. Although most famous for night photography and Parisians of the night, Brassaï’s work is multi-faceted. Beyond his night time shooting he used the soft, diffuse light of fog and the muted tones of rainy days to capture the essence of Paris and its inhabitants just as beautifully in daylight. He was also a connoisseur of graffiti. Day or night, high society or underground, documentary or pictorial, Brassaï’s eye captured it all.
I came across the work of William Klein when browsing though photography books in a book shop. It didn’t take many turns of the pages for me to decide to buy the book and learn more about the man and his photography. I found his raw, ironic, high contrast and grainy street photography vibrant, often strange and compelling.
William Klein came to the notice of the world in the 1960s after he was talent spotted by the art director of Vogue who saw an exhibition of his early abstract work and offered him a job on the spot. Klein had studied painting in Paris but was untrained as a photographer and considered himself an an outsider – lacking any respect for the photographic technique he didn’t possess. In later years he ascribed this to a contrarian instinct: “Having little technical background, I became a photographer. Adopting a machine, I do my utmost to make it malfunction. For me, to make a photograph is to make an anti-photograph.”
Fashion photography is traditionally highly polished, and his untutored, highly dynamic and ironic approach was revolutionary. Vogue subsequently financed a street photography project in New York where Klein, encountering culture shock after his time in Paris – which he feared would soon wear off – went “in search of the rawest snapshot, the zero degree of photography”. To get there he employed “A technique of no taboos: blur, grain, contrast, cockeyed framing, accidents, whatever happens…” and adopted the role of “a make-believe ethnographer”.
Life is good…
The resulting book ‘Life is Good and Good For You in New York’ (1955) became a prize winning route to celebrity, though no American publisher was willing to publish it (and didn’t for 40 years), considering it unflattering to the point of being anti-American. Instead it was first published in Paris, Klein’s adopted home. He followed up with books on Rome, Moscow and Tokyo all in the same inimitable, rebellious style. Despite his success he became restless and turned to film making. His first film was Broadway by Jazz, described here in an article in the Financial Times in 2012:
Broadway by Light is often described as the “first pop film”, and to watch it now is still an exhilarating 11-minute roller-coaster ride through the neon of Broadway and Times Square. Klein invented his own kind of visual jazz – violent, vulgar, seductive and beautiful, with a soundtrack to match. The camera moves ceaselessly in and out of the alphabet of signs as the bulbs bloom and fade into abstract blobs of pure colour: Coca-Cola, Budweiser, Rock Hudson, The New York Times. Fascination. Continuous till 4am. Orson Welles said it was the first film in which “colour was necessary”.
Klein only returned to photography in the 1980s, where his pioneering role was recognised. Since then he has won many more awards and become known for his graphic design work, which applies bold slashes of paint to the enlarged contact sheets he had marked up in pencil years before.
The Street style of William Klein
In his street photography William Klein likes to get into the thick of things; filling the frame with the chaos of the city. He mixes and moves with his subjects, embracing a wide lens for close up shots and motion blur in a way no one has before. As he said: “sometimes, I’d take shots without aiming, just to see what happened, I’d rush into crowds – bang! bang! I liked the idea of luck and taking a chance. Other times I’d frame a composition I saw and plant myself somewhere, longing for some accident to happen.” An article in the Independent in 1998 sums up his approach:
In Klein’s New York people press themselves up against the lens, dancing around the photographer, pulling faces, pretending to shoot each other, or the photographer, with toy guns. It is the kind of photography that is impossible to do today: people are no longer delighted to be snapped in the street, do not dance or horse around in Harlem on Easter Sunday for a photographer. They were intrigued by this white guy with his beautiful French wife.
His preference for the wide angle lens came from the “contradictions and confusion” that it revealed, and enabled him to include many subjects in his innovative composition. Of the blur he said: “If you look carefully at life, you see blur. Shake your hand. Blur is part of life“. His prints use extreme contrast and grain complete the visceral effect. The combined effect is perfect for street photography, as this post in Streethunters from 2015 describes:
Perfection. We all strive for it when it comes to photography. Perfect exposure. Composition. Tack-sharp images. But, street photography isn’t about perfection. At it’s core, street photography is about capturing life. And life is far from perfect. William Klein, in his own way, mastered imperfection within street photography and became a trailblazer.
Klein’s maverick work has an immediate impact but is difficult to interpret. This is apparently by design. In what has become my favourite William Klein quote he said: “My photographs are the fragments of a shapeless cry that tries to say who knows what… What would please me most is to make photographs as incomprehensible as life.” Or maybe not as, in an interview in 2013, when asked which is the most gratifying medium he chose film on the basis that “people don’t know how to read photographs. There isn’t this dialogue….What you put in a photograph is not always perceived by the other people who look at them as what you wanted to say. There isn’t a culture of photography. You learn about music appreciation at schools or go to museums, but I found that generally people don’t study photography. There are a lot of things that can be said in photographs but people don’t relate to them.”
Many photographers have been inspired as much by his attitude as his photographs, which is why you will see so many William Klein quotes in posts and articles about his life and work. More artist than photojournalist, his lack of respect for the established order, his raw technique and the way he interacts with his subjects make him one of photography’s great sources of inspiration.
Wet plate photography was not easy. The wet-plate collodion process used between the 1850s and 1880s uses a solution of gun-cotton in ether and alcohol and requires the entire photographic process including coating the plate, exposing and developing it to be completed within fifteen minutes.
These and other challenges faced by early photographers were brought home to me by the a BBC documentary ‘Britain in Focus’, produced in partnership with the National Media Museum and presented by Eamonn McCabe. The first episode covered the earliest period of Photography in Britain – from polymath inventor Henry Fox Talbot in the 1840s to Peter Henry Emerson in the last years of the nineteenth century. The program surveyed some of the greatest pioneers of early photography in their most famous locations: Fox Talbot in Lacock Abbey, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson in Newhaven, Roger Fenton in the Crimea, Julia Margaret Cameron at Little Holland House, Robert Howlett in the Isle of Dogs and Peter Henry Emerson in the Norfolk Broads.
I was familiar with the work of most of the photographers in the program, with the exception of Roger Fenton. I was hugely impressed by his images and a little research showed him to be an extremely important photographer. Born into a wealthy banking family in 1819, he studied law at Oxford and painting in Paris before he took up photography, learning the early Calotype process developed by Fox Talbot. Fenton was a founder member of the Photographic Society (later the Royal Photographic Society), the first official photographer of the British Museum and quite possibly the world’s first officially appointed war photographer, photographing the Crimean War in the first systematic coverage of a conflict in 1855.
Wet Plate Photography in The Crimean war
Fenton’s connections led to his commission by the British government to photograph the Crimean war – a conflict that pitted the Russian Empire against a somewhat unlikely alliance of Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia. He took a photographic assistant, a servant and a large horse-drawn van converted from a merchant’s wine wagon to carry his cumbersome large format wet plate photographic equipment (see image, right). The wagon offered a good target for Turkish artillery and Fenton also suffered from the high temperatures, broken ribs and cholera. Nevertheless, and despite the long exposures and rapid processing required, he was able to capture 350 images, most of which were later exhibited across Britain and displayed to the British and French royal families.
Fenton was a technically accomplished photographer and his large format images from Crimea are striking. They consist mainly of posed portraits and scenes and landscapes of battle sites including the iconic The Valley of the Shadow of Death. Though he saw plenty of horrors during the conflict, he did not record any with his camera, most likely because his government patrons wanted the images that could be used as part of a campaign to counter reports of wide spread military incompetence in a war that was unpopular with both the press and the public.
The depth of field made possible by the large format, together with marvellous tone and composition make Roger Fenton’s work quite extraordinary. In addition to his war photography he shot royal portraits, architecture, landscapes (such as those of Bolton Abbey covered in the documentary) and still life. He regarded photography as both art and business and abandoned it entirely in 1863 to return to law when he saw its status was diminished to a craft – illustrated by the 1862 International Exhibition’s placement of photography in the section reserved for instruments and machinery. He died only a few years later in 1869.
Large format film photography
Large format film images, particularly those created using wet-plate photography, have a unique look that can not be reproduced with 35mm cameras – the shot of Roger Fenton’s wagon clearly shows this. However, the supporting image in this post is an homage to it. The shot of the ruined manor at Hampton Gay (which burned down in 1887) is a long exposure (40 second exposure at f13 using a black glass ND filter) shot in windy conditions. It is sepia toned and I added some grain and lens falloff in post production. I’ve shot the manor with a few medium format cameras (6X6 and 4.5) but at some point I’d love to shoot it with a large format, preferably glass plate, camera.
The recent exhibition Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph at the Science Museum in London which ended on September 11th 2016 was described as ‘magical to behold’ by Time Outand ‘ground-breaking’ by The Times. I found it extremely enjoyable as it told the story of the pioneers of early photography very capably as well as displaying a great body of their work.
Central to the story of early photography is William Henry Fox Talbot, who was born in February 1800. He attended Cambridge University in 1817 and went onto become a gentleman scientist, inventor, Egyptologist, member of parliament, mathematician, astronomer, archaeologist and transcriber of Chaldean cuneiform texts as well as a pioneer of photography.
It was a struggle with his sketchbook that put him on the road to photography: in 1833 at Lake Como in Italy, he found it difficult to capture the scenery adequately by sketching it with the aid of a Camera Lucida (an instrument used by draftsmen at the time which uses a prism to direct rays of light onto paper producing an image and from which a drawing can be made.) This started him on the journey of discovery with light-sensitive paper to automate the process that he was to pursue at his home in Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire.
Science, silver and sunlight
Investigations with silver nitrate and sunlight actually go back as far as Angelo Sala (1576-1637). Johann Heinrich Schulze (1687-1744) was the first to create photograms (a process that does not require a camera) with paper masks and Talbot would have been well aware of the work of Thomas Wedgwood (1771-1805) and Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) who also worked on photograms of leaves and other objects. These could not adequately fixed and faded quickly. Talbot built on this work, experimenting with plants and lace on paper coated with silver nitrate and fixing the images with salt to produce sciagraphs – drawings of shadows.
Talbot created the first negative in 1835, which minimized exposure time considerably compared to previous methods. He had help from his friend Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), one of the leading British scientists of the time, and another formidable polymath, who was an astronomer, mathematician, chemist, inventor and experimental photographer. It was Herschel who solved the problem of ‘fixing’ pictures (used by both Talbot and Daguerre) and was also the first to use the terms ‘photography’ and ‘negative’.
Inventors and pioneers
There is some debate as to is the inventor of photography or even who was the most influential of the pioneers. France can claim Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833), inventor of a process known as heliography, who used a Camera Obscura to record an image of his country estate in 1826 via an eight-hour exposure. Better known is Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, (1787-1851), a former architect and artist who collaborated with Niépce, and who had used the Camera Obscura to assist with his paintings in his earlier career. He developed the Daguerrotype process after Niépce‘s death – a process based on light-sensitive, silver-plated copper, unique in the family of photographic process, in that the image is produced on metal directly without an intervening negative. Hippolyte Bayard (1801-1887) also holds a claim as the developer of the direct positive process and the first in the world to hold a photo exhibition. Bayard’s story embodies the struggle for recognition and adds a human dimension in the midst of all the science on show at the museum. It also serves up one of the most interesting images of the exhibition. Bayard was persuaded to postpone announcing his new positive process to the French Academy of Sciences by a friend of Daguerre, which cost him the recognition he deserved, and led him to create the first staged (or faked) photograph entitled, Self Portrait as a Drowned Man, which was on show at the Science Museum exhibition. The image portrays the photographer as a corpse, and M. Bayard wrote a fake suicide note on the back:
“The corpse which you see here is that of M. Bayard, inventor of the process that has just been shown to you. As far as I know this indefatigable experimenter has been occupied for about three years with his discovery. The Government which has been only too generous to Monsieur Daguerre, has said it can do nothing for Monsieur Bayard, and the poor wretch has drowned himself. Oh the vagaries of human life….! … He has been at the morgue for several days, and no-one has recognised or claimed him. Ladies and gentlemen, you’d better pass along for fear of offending your sense of smell, for as you can observe, the face and hands of the gentleman are beginning to decay.”
There is something magical to me about pictorialist photography, particularly urban pictorialism, as shown here in Leonard Misonne’s accomplished example from 1899. In addition to having the skill to take photographs with the cumbersome and slow equipment of the time, the pictorialist’s vision was realised through a complex end-to-end process that required yet more skill and talent. They had to be skilled in dark room manipulation, often made their own emulsions and embraced alternative printing methods. Some even made their own paper. So, there is much to admire about these photographers, but what exactly is pictorialism?
But is it Art?
To explore the much asked question ‘what is pictorialism?’ we need to ask a more fundamental question that is central to the movement and its development. That is, ‘is photography art’?
From its inception, when it took a mastery of optics, chemistry, and an arcane workflow to take and process a photograph there had been a debate about the nature of photography. Was this new invention only capable of reproduction or could it transcend its machine origins and produce art? In the early years of its development, photography was sometimes looked down upon as purely mechanical, but as early as 1853 the English miniaturist Sir William John Newton was championing the cause of photography as art. Newton also suggested that photographers could make their pictures more like works of art by throwing the subject slightly out of focus and using retouching techniques.
Influences – Hill and Adamson
Photographers David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson had a strong influence on the development of Pictorialism. The partnership was formed in Edinburgh in July 1843, just four years after the invention of photography was announced. In the four years that followed they produced an extraordinary body of work that included portraits, landscapes and social documentary using the Calotype process. The strong sunlight needed to produce a successful calotype meant that Hill & Adamson were required to work outdoors and one of their most important achievements was the portrayal of The Fishermen and Women of the Firth of Forth, shot at Newhaven, a small fishing village on the outskirts of Edinburgh. The portraits are considered to be the first social documentary photographs and were compared by some critics of the time to those of Rembrandt. Alfred Stieglitz would later describe Hill as “the father of pictorial photography” and would featured the duo’s photographs in his publications and the galleries of the Photo-Secession.
Influences – Julia Margaret Cameron
Julia Margaret Cameron was also an important pictorialist influence whose pictures would be championed by Stieglitz in CameraWork (volume 41, 1913). Cameron’s photographs had a romantic and expressionist style and often used slightly blurred focus. She considered her pictures art well before the pictorialist movement got underway and took inspiration from artists such as Raphael and Michelangelo.
When Cameron received the gift of a camera in December 1863 her husband was in Ceylon attending to the family’s coffee plantations, and her children were no longer at home. Photography became her focus and a link to the writers, artists, and scientists of her well-connected circle. Although she took up photography as an amateur with no knowledge and she worked at it with great energy and once she had developed her technique started to vigorously copyright, exhibit, publish, and market her work. She developed close links to the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A). IT was home to her first exhibition in 1865 and home to her portrait studio in 1868.
Cameron was an outstanding portraitist, producing brooding head and shoulders shots of the famous men of her acquaintance including English poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson and mathematician, scientist and photography pioneer Sir John Herschel. Her work also consisted of theatrical tableaux from myth, the Bible, Shakespeare, and the works of Coleridge and Tennyson. Today, she is considered one of the most important and innovative photographers of the 19th century.
Influences – Oscar Gustav Rejlander
Oscar Gustav Rejlander was one of the fathers of art photography, and a pioneer of photomontage. Originally a painter, he rejected the contemporary view of photography as a scientific or technical medium and made photographs that imitated painting, inspired by the Old Masters.
It was a visit to Rome in 1852 that was the catalyst for his interest in photography. Shortly after his return, Rejlander took photography lessons with Nicolaas Henneman, previously an assistant of William Henry Fox Talbot, after which he adapted his artist’s studio in Wolverhampton for photography. In 1857 Rejlander produced his masterpiece, a 31-by-16-inch image, by joining 30 negatives together. The Two Ways of Life was both technically ambitious and controversial, depicting an elaborate and moralising allegory of the choice between vice and virtue. Rejlander photographed each model and background section separately, using more than thirty negatives. These were then combined into a single large print which demonstrated the aesthetic possibilities of photography.
The picture caused a sensation initially but became the lead example in a polarised public debate on art, photography and whether combining images was acceptable.
Influences – Lady Clementia Hawarden
Rejlander admired the work of another photographic pioneer, Lady Clementina Hawarden, whose work is sometimes compared to Julia Margaret Cameron’s, though to my mind it is very different. Rejlander observed that ‘she aimed at elegant and if possible, idealised truth’.
As a Victorian woman, coming to photography in the late 1850s, Hawarden’s work was confined to her first-floor studio in her elegant Kensington home. Her images pushed the boundaries of art and photography using a careful selection of props, clothing, and model poses using her daughters as her subjects were her daughters. Their likenesses in her work were often reminiscent of the pre-Raphaelite artists.
Hawarden’s photographs demonstrated technical excellence as well as innovation and she became an expert in indoor photography. This expertise was recognised by two silver medals the Photographic Society of London.
Peach Robertson’s Pictorial Effect
Rejlander’s work also inspired Henry Peach Robinson, a British photographer who, like Rejlander, had previously trained as an artist. He achieved fame with his five-negative print of 1859, Fading Away, depicting a young consumptive dying in her bed surrounded by her family. Like Rejlander’s work, the tableau caused controversy due to the photograph’s artificial technique and morbid subject matter, with critics questioning whether a single picture from multiple negatives made photography untruthful.
Robinson, a member of the Photographic Society, published his manifesto Pictorial Effect in Photography in 1869. The work, which gave the movement its name, included compositional formulas taken from a handbook on painting and made the case that rules created for one art form could apply to another.
Emerson and Naturalistic Photography
In the 1880s the British photographer Peter Henry Emerson proposed an alternative artistic vision for photography. He was a dedicated student of the arts, influenced and inspired by the naturalist school of painters, which included Jean-François Millet. Millet’s rendered his landscapes and peasant scenes in low tones and with a softened atmosphere, but they were realistic enough for him to periodically face the charge of being a socialist.
Emerson’s vision was that photographs should reflect nature and be produced without artificial means. He believed that the tone, texture, and light of the scene were enough to make photography an art form. This point of view became known as naturalistic photography after the publication of his treatise Naturalistic Photography in 1889, in which he outlined a system of aesthetics. This treatise insisted that photography should show real people in their own environment, and avoid costumes, posed models or backdrops.
Emerson embraced the photogravure process which was refined by Karl Klíc, a painter living in Vienna, who patented an improvement on William Henry Fox Talbot’s earlier process . The Talbot-Klíc process allowed for deeper etched shadows and the transfer of the negative image to a copper plate using gelatin-coated carbon paper. It was published in 1886.
In 1888, the introduction of the point-and-shoot Kodak camera, together with printing as a service, greatly accelerated the popularisation of photography. This only intensified the public debate about the role of the medium, which reached its peak by the end of the century.
As photography became popular serious amateurs, many inspired by Emerson’s ideas and images, began to explore the medium’s expressive potential. This resulted in the first truly international photographic movement – The Pictorialism Movement. The movement represented a shift of focus from Emerson’s Naturalism to the broader expression of photographers as artists.
What is Pictorialism?
The pictorialist photographers produced pictures that were the polar opposite of the output of point-and shoot. They used soft focus techniques, a range of darkroom techniques and alternative printing processes to produce beautifully rendered, skilfully composed, highly picturesque, atmospheric and often otherworldly images. These were hand printed (usually on hand-coated artist papers) using artisan emulsions and pigments, making the production of an image much closer to the creation of a painting.
The movement sometimes goes under other names including “art photography”, “Impressionist photography”, “new vision, and “subjective photography.
Pictorialism was closely linked to influential artistic movements such as Tonalism and Impressionism, and the Pictorialists took inspiration from popular art, adopting its styles and ideas to demonstrate that photography was an artistic process.
The emergence of Pictorialism was also the product of the meeting of photography and art in practical terms. Artists started to use photographs to capture images that would be rendered as paintings later, whilst some Pictorialists had been trained as painters.
There is no accepted definition of Pictorialism. The Britannica definition is “an approach to photography that emphasizes beauty of subject matter, tonality, and composition rather than the documentation of reality.” This is helpful, though in addition to an approach it is also variously defined as a style, particularly of fine art photography, and as an aesthetic or international movement, including an art movement. The Alfred Stieglitz Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago captures much of this in this description:
“The international movement known as Pictorialism represented both a photographic aesthetic and a set of principles about photography’s role as art. Pictorialists believed that photography should be understood as a vehicle for personal expression on par with the other fine arts. Responding to both the new Kodak camera “snapshooters” and formulaic commercial photographers, the Pictorialists proudly defined themselves as true amateurs—those who pursued photography out of a love for the art.”
To understand Pictorialism it’s worth reviewing what Pictorialist pictures have in common. Landscape photographer Sandy King (who still works with 19th century hand made photographic processes) offers an excellent description of the characteristics of Pictorialism:
Only images which show the personality of the maker, generally through hand manipulation, can be considered works of art
An interest in the effect and patterns of natural lighting in the outdoor landscape
An impressionistic rendering of the scene, in which overall effect is more important than detail
The use of symbolism or allegory to reveal a message
The use of alternative printing processes: carbon and carbro, gum bichromate, oil and bromoil, direct carbon, and platinum.
A review of the techniques Pictorialists used to convert the camera into something closer to a paint brush is also enlightening. These included dark room manipulation; the combining of multiple negatives; the use of artisan emulsions; alternative printing methods using gum bichromate and gum bromoil; the use of paint brushes and hand made paper. In addition to giving the pictures their unique look, these techniques also ensured that no two prints looked identical, even if they came from the same negative.
These photographers, who considered themselves artists, formed clubs and salons such as The Linked Ring, The Royal Photographic Society, The Photo-Club of Paris and The Trifolium of Austria all of which promoted photography as fine art. As part of the advocacy for the expressive power of the photograph these clubs and organizations produced lavish journals and exhibition catalogues featuring beautiful hand-made photogravures.
The Photo Secession
In 1902 Alfred Stieglitz formed the Photo-Secession, a society with the stated aim of seceding from the accepted idea of what constitutes a photograph. It was inspired by art movements in Europe, such as the Linked Ring. Stieglitz described the aim of Photo-Secession as “to hold together those Americans devoted to pictorial photography in their endeavor to compel its recognition, not as the handmaiden of art, but as a distinctive medium of individual expression.” He described its attitude as “one of rebellion against the insincere attitude of the unbeliever, of the Philistine, and largely of exhibition authorities”. The “membership” of the Photo-Secession was largely set by Stieglitz’s predilections. The core members were Edward Steichen, Clarence H. White, Gertrude Käsebier, Frank Eugene, F. Holland Day, and later Alvin Langdon Coburn.
The Photo-Secession actively promoted its pictorialist ideas through the influential quarterly Camera Work and the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession (also known as the 291) which provided a place for the members to exhibit their work. Painter and photographer Edward Steichen and other notable artists were instrumental in developing the program of exhibitions at the gallery, which featured exhibitions by important European artists such as Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, and the Cubist works of Pablo Picasso that would influence artists across media around the world.
By 1910 Photo-Secession had become divided over the degree of manipulation of negatives and prints that was appropriate and divided. In 1916 Käsebier, White, Coburn and others formed the Pictorial Photographers of America (PPA) to continue promotion of the pictorialism. A year later Stieglitz formally dissolved the Photo-Secession, although it had not been active for some time.
The Decline of Pictorialism
The heyday of Pictorialism was from the 1880s to 1915. Unsurprisingly for such a romantic movement it lost momentum after the World War I and was a spent force by the end of World War II. It was superseded by the sharp focus of Modernism in Europe and the West Coast or Straight photography movement in the USA, the greatest exponents of which were Edward Weston and Ansel Adams.
Later Pictorialists and Neo Pictorialism
Pictorialism had all but disappeared by the 1920s, but some photographers persisted with it. Adolf Fassbender, for example, kept making pictorial photographs into the late 1960s. In the 1990s the label neo pictorialist was applied to some photographers influenced by the original movement. An article in Vice describes the emergence of neo pictorialism well:
“A century after the fight for legitimacy, photography is now cycling back to its beginnings with a rise in traditional and alternative processes through companies such as the Impossible Project and Lomography seeking to reclaim analog photography and leave behind the freneticism and immediate gratification of a digital photograph—much in the same way that Pictorialists sought to slow down the photography of their time with an eye to the myriad possibilities of the medium.”
Photography as Art
The ideas of Newton, Rejlander, Robinson, and Emerson’s were not the same, but they were all pioneers for photography to be considered a legitimate art form. This is a question that rarely crops up today, but for those who wish to ponder it I’ll take a proof point from many possible options. In 2011 a grey image of the Rhine by German artist Andreas Gursky sold for $4.3m (£2.7m) at auction, setting a new record at the time. The grey and featureless landscape was described by the artist as an allegorical picture about the meaning of life. That sounds like art to me.
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