The ideas of Oscar Rejlander, Henry Peach Robinson, and Peter Henry Emerson--while seemingly varied--all pursued the same goal: to gain acceptance for photography as a legitimate art form. These efforts to gain acceptance were all encompassed within Pictorialism, a movement that had been afoot for some time. Photography at its introduction became immediately suspect as a method of yeoman copying, rather than a new medium for art.
Robinson, in particular, was to become a driving force in these developments. Robinson was an articulate member of the Royal Photographic Society, and his teaching was even more influential than his photography. In 1869 the first of many editions and translations of his book, "Pictorial Effect in Photography", was published. Robinson borrowed compositional formulas from a handbook on painting, claiming that their utilization would make photographs be more artistically successful. The importance of balance and the opposition of light against dark was stressed. At the core of his argument was the assumption that rules set up for one art form could be applied to another.
At the turn of the century, groups of photographers largely in the U.S. and U.K., influenced by the Impressionist movement in painting, and taking up Robinson's ideas of artistic rules, began to develop an aesthetic in photography designed to establish the status of the medium of photography as an art form. The work of many of these pictorialists was characterized by carefully controlled composition, an emphasis on conveying atmosphere rather than rendering fine detail and hand-working of the final print to create a "painterly" effect. There was also the emphasis on the final print and how it affected its audience, rather than on pure documentation. By the latter definition there are a lot of photographers, even contemporary ones, who could be classified as pictorialist, especially those who make use of Photoshop in their works.
Early Pictorialism is often denigrated as sloppy photography trying too hard to be art. At its worst it can indeed lack discipline and seem muddy, but in the hands of master artists, such as we see in this online exhibition, the pictorialist photograph can be stunningly emotive and singularly beautiful in its own right. After all, Photo Impressionism, which currently is so admired, is arguably a form of Pictorialism, or certainly an offshoot or later a refinement.
As Dennis Reed in a March 2005 letter to "Art in America" wrote, "After Adams (Ansel Adams) abandoned Pictorialist methods, he was very public (and not alone) in his campaign against Pictorialism. This contributed, in part, to the wholesale dismissal of Pictorialism by many historians. From today's perspective I believe it is possible to admire Adams's photographic accomplishments while also accepting other approaches, including those of Pictorialists. Defining Pictorialism too narrowly perpetuates an historical cliche and does a disservice to the variety of work done by Pictorialists."
In 1892 the Brotherhood of the Linked Ring was founded in Britain by Robinson, George Davison (a leader of the Art Nouveau movement), H. H. H. Cameron (Julia Margaret Cameron's son) and others dissatisfied with the scientific bias of the London Photographic Society. The three interlinked rings that were the symbol of the Brotherhood had Masonic overtones and most likely referred to the triadic virtues of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
The group held annual exhibitions, which they called salons. While the members' work varied from naturalism to staged scenes to manipulated prints, by the turn of the century it was their united belief that "through the Salon the Linked Ring has clearly demonstrated that pictorial photography is able to stand alone and that it has a future entirely apart from that which is purely mechanical." Similar Pictorialist groups formed in other countries. These included the Photo-Club of Paris, the Trifolium of Austria, and like associations in Germany and Italy. Unity of purpose enabled members to exchange ideas and images with those who had similar outlooks in other countries. Francis A. Bolton and others in this exhibition were Linked Ring members.
Bolton was active from the 1890s-1900s, and the prints date from that period. They represent his working prints and are probably all that remain of his work apart from a few prints in the Royal Photographic Society collection.
At the turn of the century Pictorialism would give way to the Photo Secession, a group of photographers whose purpose was the elevation of photography to a fine art. Although initially many of its members were also members of the Linked Ring and other Salon organizations, the group eventually sought to bring photography into its own aesthetic, moving it further away from the realm of painting. The group began to stress purity in their photography, thus turning away from painterly approaches like hand manipulation (especially after 1917 at the insistence of Paul Strand and Alfred Stieglitz), marking a significant transition in the thinking of photographers of this period.
But even later there is considerable discussion and disagreements over pictorial concepts. William H. Mortensen took up the torch of the pictorialists. Mortensen felt that what the camera saw was the beginning of the process and whatever interventions the artist took to complete the idea was fair game. This is a very important distinction between the approaches of early Pictorialism and William Mortensen. He always saw his process as undeniably photographic and the end result as a photograph. He absolutely did not want his work to resemble other processes.
While many of the "Pictorialist" photographers of the early period represented here, such as Clarence White, Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz, Constant Puyo, Robert Demachy and Frantisek Drtikol, are some of the best known in the photographic pantheon, others might be lesser known lights, but their images certainly put them in the first ranks.
For example, "The Age of Steel" (Pittsburgh bridge shrouded in smog by Robert L. Sleeth) in our exhibit is simply magnificent and powerful. Sleeth was reportedly a friend of Edward Steichen. He was a Pittsburgh lawyer, steel magnate and avid and talented amateur photographer. Sleeth's work was published in the American Annual of Photography in 1910. Well traveled and active in the early salons from about 1907, Sleeth must be considered one of those masters largely missed by current photo historians.