Tony is a semi-retired professional photographer from Colchester. He has written several photography guides, runs a photography training business, and is an envoy for Permajet. And he is a leading “Suprematism” photographer. Nevertheless, as a member and the Members Secretary of Colchester Photographic Society and a judge, he still considers himself to be an amateur photographer.
Tony has been interested in the history of photography ever since studying it for GCSE. As he explained, pictorialism was an aesthetic movement that strongly influenced the early development of photography as an art form in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, it is often viewed as the beginning of photography as an art form.
Hitherto photography had been concerned with details and facts. But pictorialism was concerned with beauty and the creation of beautiful images. Its photographic practitioners emphasised the beauty of the subject matter, tonality, and composition in stylised images rather than merely seeking to record reality.
The term “pictorial” was first used by English photographer Henry Peach Robinson who pioneered combination printing – joining multiple negatives or prints together to form a single image. This was an early form of photomontage and, in effect, was creating art through photography. He wrote an influential essay “Pictorial Effect in Photography, Being Hints on Composition and Chiaroscuro for Photographers”. And he argued strongly for photography to be regarded as an art form.
Photographic pictorialism was heavily influenced and inspired by the artistic movements of “tonalism” and then “impressionism”. Perhaps significantly, Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne, Gustave Courbet and Paul Gauguin all took photographs.
The skill of the pictorialist photographer was to create visual beauty. And the hallmarks of pictorialist images are a lack of sharp focus, the use of one or more colours other than black and white, low tonal values, careful composition, visual brush strokes or other manipulation on the surface of the print, an atmospheric feel, and the conveyance of some idea, message or emotion.
Pictorialism was championed by a new generation of amateur (in the old-fashioned sense of “someone striving for artistic excellence”) photographers. They were looking for creative freedom from rigid rules. However, according to Tony, “serious photographers were appalled!”
Camera clubs first began to appear during the pictorialist era as gatherings of like-minded amateurs. Magazines and books were produced for them. And photography became lower cost. They put on annual exhibitions and “salons”, provided darkroom facilities and other equipment, and went on photographic outings.
Some groups were specifically concerned with pictorialism and the cultivation of photography as a fine art. Linked Ring was founded in Britain by Henry Peach Robinson and others; Photo-Secession was founded in the USA by Alfred Stieglitz, Photo-Club de Paris was set up in France; and the Capital Bicycle Club in Washington DC formed its own pictorialist Camera Club.
Tony showed us many pictures by his favourite pictorialist photographers, with plenty of commentary about the images and their authors. The photographers included
- Robert Demachy,
- Alfred Stieglitz,
- Anne Brigman,
- Frantisek Drtikol,
- Rudolf Eichemeyer Jr,
- Frank Eugene,
- Paul Burty Haviland,
- Heinrich Kuhn,
- Alvin Langdon-Coburn,
- Leonard Misonne,
- Emil Constant Puyo,
- Axel Bahnsen,
- George Seeley,
- Clarence Hudson White,
- Edward Steichen,
- Adolf Fassbender,
- Max Thorek, and
- Edward Weston.
Tony also talked about Arthur Hammond, a British born photographer who moved to the USA. He wrote many articles and books on photography, including the hugely influential “Pictorial Composition in Photography, a basic text on composition, technique, and pictorialism”.
All these photographers are worth further investigation and there is plenty of material, including their images, easy to find on the internet.
A variety of factors led to the decline of photographic pictorialism after 1920 through to the end of World War Two. It was overtaken by “modernism”, an emerging photographic style characterised by sharply focused images. Salons began to open up to different movements. “Group of f/64” was set up in San Francisco in opposition to pictorialism, to help develop a new modern aesthetic. And there were significant technical developments for colour photography and its use in magazines. Overall, photography became high speed.
To finish Tony told us a bit about how pictorialist images can be produced through digital photography. Whatever else is done, however, they must be carefully composed. On the equipment side it helps to use a poor-focusing lens. And a clear filter with dots of clear nail varnish will produce effects that are similar to the “points of light” in pictorialist images. In post-processing, soft blur and grain can be added and monochromatic effects with low tonal values produced. Tony uses Color Efex Pro to produce a classic soft-focus effect and grain. He then switches to Silver Efex Pro for toning and may also add a subtle white vignette.
Tony’s entertaining presentation included masses of information and many fascinating images by pictorialist photographers, as well as a few of his own attempts to imitate them. His educational and stimulating talk should spark the creativity of all the aspiring photographers present.
Information about Tony’s photography training business can be found at https://lightacademy.co.uk/ His Suprematism work can be found at https://suprematism.co.uk/
Reproduced prints of Henry Peach Robinson’s “Pictorial Effect in Photography: being hints on composition and chiaroscuro for photographers” and Arthur Hammond’s “Pictorial Composition in Photography” are available on Amazon.