Playing with Pictorialism

Earlier this year my wife and I took in a photography exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery called TruthBeauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art, 1845-1945.

3women bigThis was a show of photographs from the early 20th Century and the late 19th by acclaimed early photographers such as Julia Margaret Cameron, Baron Adolph de Meyer, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Josef Sudek illustrating one of the first international art movements, in whatever artform, known as Pictorialism.

We are so used now to the sharp definition and clear colors of modern photography, but it has come sometimes to seem almost sterile in its exactness. This exhibit was a revealing look into the history of photography and a exciting perspective on photography as art in ways I’d never considered before that opposes that apparently obligatory precision.

As the technology of photography slowly became more accessible, those who aspired to make art with it took their cue from painting as the basis of their aesthetic: lighting, impressionistic exposures, ambiguous edges and shapes. They wanted to evoke a mood, a feeling with each image.

7244RuzickaThere are moments with great paintings for me, especially landscapes, where something vital and unique, yet widely characteristic of earth’s beauty, is captured in a scene that tugs at me deeply. This is what the best pictorialists aspired to create with photography. And there is something about the lack of color in early photography which lends itself to a more creative seeing of the world than we often seem able to have with all the richness of color.

There is a conflict at the heart of this approach of course, to make a handcrafted, personal, artistic image of the world with a machine. But such conflicts can give rise to art…

William Thomas has written a personal review of the show and of the history of photography. He recognizes the sentimental, soft-focus excesses that came to be labelled Pictorialism, especially by its critics, but also says:

“Yet, through the Pictorialist pretense shines a dedication to craft and truth – and something more, something ineffable and profound – a stillness, a sense of dignity and place in prints still with us…”

But by the end of the First World War, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen decided Pictorialism was too mannered and old-fashioned for where they thought photography should go, and along with Edward Weston in the years to come, ushered in Modernism which to this day remains the dominant aesthetic in photography.


The modernists reacted against the often willful fuzziness of the pictorialists for a hard edged, focused, non-manipulative use of the camera to give us images, like Ansel Adams, of breathtaking clarity. (Although Adams also began in the Pictorialist style.) Group f/64, which championed this approach, stated:

“Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form.”

But now that we are on the other side of Modernism from Pictorialism, it is not the excesses of that previous movement that identify it, but its successes in so many of the images that have come down to us. Here is a good exhibit on the web of pictorialist photography, some of which were in the Vancouver show. [For a sample of modern pictorialist photography, look here and here.]

Now that we’re in the Photoshop generation, with almost infinitely malleable digital photography and imagery, what is a photograph, and indeed, what is photographic art, seems to be difficult to discern. But for me, I always come back to that quote of Francis Bacon, that the purpose of art is to deepen the mystery, and at its best the sensibility called Pictorialism did, and does, that.

I like old things, to my wife’s consternation, like sepia photographs, old leather, and the Antiques Road Show. So I’ve started to experiment with making photographs look old. Here is one example, with a before and after.



But looking old by itself isn’t much of an aesthetic, so I’ve been trying to imitate some of the old photographic processes through the magic of Photoshop. Here’s an original tintype photo (I’m not sure where I found this):

tm factory-b

Here’s my version of a mock tintype, although with a lot less contrast and not very successful in its “tintypeness”, although I still like it (Near the Coquitlam Dike ):


In the next, I think I was aiming at an carbon print style, with the coloring and tonality of this photo (again of unknown origin, unfortunately):

ag cottonwood eastern-b

My attempt to get slightly similar coloring and tonality ended up with Girl On The Steveston Beach:


And finally here’s another one of my attempts at a pictorial style, imitating vintage photos, On Bowen Island. (That’s the Sunshine Coast ferry in the background, by the way.)


I want to experiment more, probably not imitating the antique look so much, now that I have that out of my system. Probably I will look at techniques that blur edges and strive for a more ambiguous “painterly” quality while still keeping some kind of modern photographic sensibility.



Notes on images:

From the top: Elias Goldensky’s Portrait of three women, from the Vancouver Art Gallery site.

Next: Drahomir Josef Ruzicka – Sunlight in the Chicken House on a Nebraska Farm, from Photo Central.

The third: The Pond – Moonlight by Edward Steichen, a print of which sold for $2.6 million in February 2006. It’s interesting to take a look at the list of the most expensive photographs with a few links to the photos themselves. Don’t think there are any digital ones on there…

The rest are identified, or not, as noted.

Explore posts in the same categories: Art, Culture, Photography

16 Comments on “Playing with Pictorialism”

  1. Lovely post, Fencer, lovely images. My oldest son is a photographer, quite gifted, already making some success for himself, primarily with golf photos. But I sent the post on to him for the landscape experiments. He’ll love them.


  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Mary,

    Thanks for your comments… it’s fun to play around with this stuff.


  3. suburbanlife Says:

    I like your photo experiments! It seems to me that pictorialism is heavily invested in expressing mood, something which seems to be more able to be accomplished with tonal photography rather than with full-colour pictures.
    There is a young photographer in Vancouver, David Burdeny, whose images marry the pictorialist and modern aesthetic. He shows at the Jennifer Kostuik Gallery. You might like his work. G

  4. fencer Says:

    Hi suburbanlife,

    I took a look at David Burdeny… quite impressive large format B&W. There’s something formal and almost Japanese about them (I’m thinking of Zen gardens). At one gallery ( ), there’s some amazing glacier ones. They might even be infrared B&W with the dark sky and water…

    I think you’re right about mood and expressiveness and monotone or even duotone photography.

    Thanks for your comments…


  5. An enjoyable read. You selected several of my favourites from the Van Art Gallery show and it was nice to see them here again.
    Your Photoshop experiments are lovely. There is something magical about the monochromatic schemes of sepias and carbon prints.
    I love the lamp in both its coloured version and its sepia one. It’s so restrained and austere and yet beautifully composed with the light coming through the venetians.
    Capturing the fleeting effects of light is the thing that draws me to continually take photos. You might like to look at the photos of Canadada. She posts on wordpress (paintings and writing) but you can go from there to find her photos.


  6. fencer Says:

    Hey lookingforbeauty,

    Restrained and austere, that’s me… well, maybe not so much…

    I’ve messed with that lamp so much, I can’t see it with fresh eyes any more.

    I took a look at Canadada’s photo blog… I liked some of her multi-image collage things. And she does pinhole, too!

    How about you? I was looking on your site for photos… found some motion-blurred dancing girl ones I liked… the one large one at the end of that post is very evocative and artful. You should show more.


  7. I do lots of photography and it’s interspersed in my artiseternal blog mostly. I’ve not updated my website for a long time. I’m hoping that this upcoming year will be a more fruitful year for me in the visual arts (I”ve been writing mostly this year) and that I will have some time to show, not just on the blog, but in galleries and with an updated web-site.
    Thanks for the encouragement. I’ll go find one to put on the blog right now – but probably no text to go with it.

  8. forestrat Says:

    I find myself walking the line (or maybe blending the line) when I take photos.

    I think that as a “nature” photographer, I want to always be showing nature as nature and not as some human construct. I also want to avoid mere documentation. I want engage the viewer’s imagination in some way so that they can “feel” the scene as if they are there experiencing it.

    I find it fun to work at this edge.


  9. fencer Says:

    Hi lookingforbeauty,

    Enjoyed your photos at the artiseternal blog… and the text about what you were doing.


  10. fencer Says:

    Hi forestrat,

    Your photos seem consistently to walk that narrow path you talk about… to me there’s a sense of introspection to them.


  11. Eliza Says:

    Hi Fencer:
    The photos look fantastic, the first photo being particularly evocative. There is something about black and white as well as sepia-toned photographs that make the compositions more meaningful.

  12. fencer Says:

    Hi Eliza,

    Nice to hear from you…

    Color is so distracting!


  13. eyegillian Says:

    This post is the reason I came to visit your blog for the first time. I had just seen this book and immediately wanted to buy it (but put it on my Christmas list instead) — I find it to be a fascinating movement, and I’m interested in the modern interpretation of this movement. I love how you’ve described the aims of pictorialism and illustrated this with your own photos. Lovely work!

  14. fencer Says:

    Hi eyegillian,

    Thanks! I’ve enjoyed playing around, approximating the pictorialist sensibility…

    I’ve enjoyed the photos on your Flickr site… and especially the blurry ones!


  15. I really enjoyed this post. I have a question for you. Do you think pictorialism is coming back these says with mobile cameras and apps like Instagram that seek to put a vintage-y and “art-y” taste into photographs? People have obviously responded well to the popular app and like how they can easily create something more “artful” or is it something entirely different from pictorialism?

  16. fencer Says:

    Hi Danielle,

    I’d hesitate to appear to be anything more than a casual experimenter…. but yes, I think a lot of what the mobile phones are doing is very like pictorialism, with “grunge” and simulated dark room processings.

    My wife has an iPhone and is an accomplished photographer with expensive SLR equipment and full-blown Photoshop. Sometimes she prefers what she can do with her mobile phone…. just because it is so easy to make something look “arty.” She has a half-dozen of very well-done photog apps to accomplish that.


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