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Title

: Pictorialism After the Photo-Secession

Author

Christian A. Peterson

Date

1997

Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
In New York City in 1902, Alfred Stieglitz organized a small cadre of photographers, including pictorialists Gertrude Käsebier and Clarence H. White, thus creating the Photo-Secession. Its members crafted photographic images inspired by the established arts, showing great sensitivity and individuality. Pictorial (or artistic) photographers usually engaged the portrait, the landscape, or the genre scene—subjects invariably presented in refined compositions with soft-focus effects and low tonalities. Such images often appeared as exquisitely printed photogravures in the quarterly magazine Camera Work, published by Stieglitz. Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession created a whole new class of photographs that was easily identified as art. As a consequence, pictorial photographers' reliance on a modest repertoire of subject matter and image treatment produced a homogeneous aesthetic. In addition, the Secession was an elitist group. Its membership was small and, under Stieglitz's autocratic hand, it wielded great influence on the photographic community at large. By 1910, however, the Secession dissolved, largely due to internal conflicts, and Stieglitz turned his attention to modernist art.The important accomplishments of Stieglitz and the Secession are well-known, but little attention has been paid to pictorial photography in the United States after 1910. Pictorialism, in fact, continued unabated for nearly 50 years and its outlook contrasted greatly with the homogeneous and elitist view of the Secession. The rich and underappreciated movement is examined in the exhibition: "After the Photo-Secession: American Pictorial Photography, 1910-1955," organized by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts and presented from February 8 through May 4, 1997 in the Harrison Photography Gallery.American pictorial photography after the Secession was aesthetically multifaceted and politically populist. Spurred on by an evolving progressive American middle class, the movement was particularly widespread and popular. Most large cities nurtured one or more camera clubs with each offering a variety of activities. Frequent exhibitions, called "salons," of pictorial photographs were heavily attended by the general public. And a thriving photographic press published numerous monthly magazines and hundreds of books appealing to a broad readership. Photography itself became known as the art of people, and many women entered the pictorial ranks, Eleanor Parke Custis and Jane Reece among them.American pictorial photography after 1910 demonstrated its multifaceted aesthetic by embracing a wide range of photographic styles. It welcomed images of traditional beauty (similar to Secession work), as well as adventuresome pictures incorporating modernism and commercialism. Those pictorialists who continued to value traditional beauty pursued simplicity, soft-focus effects, and hand-manipulated imagery. Those photographers, influenced by modernism, embraced contemporary subjects, rendered their images more sharply focused, and utilized daring visual effects. During the 1920s, commercial photographers also infiltrated the ranks of pictorialism, bringing with them a penchant for high drama and clean, well-lit subjects. Few movements of photography were as inclusive and catholic as was American pictorialism after 1910.Traditional aesthetics and picturesque beauty still formed the core of many pictorialists' work after 1910. Much like their predecessors, these photographers valued picturesque qualities and beauty for their own sake. Many traditional pictorialists traveled to Europe to photograph quaint villages and their peasant inhabitants, producing images that evoked safe, Old-World values. Even religious themes were explored, reflecting an obvious regard for virtue and optimism.Some traditional pictorialists used techniques that allowed hand manipulation of their images, such as the paper negative or the bromoil process. Training in art and art history assisted them in making accessible pictures of the figure, the landscape, and other established subjects. Pictorialists concentrated intently on the rules of good composition, which they considered a key element to making legitimate art.William E. Macnaughtan, one of these pictorialists, made his 1912 photograph, A Connecticut River, in the traditional mode. The photograph is of an idyllic landscape, rendered in a soft, painterly manner. The classic composition of foreground, mid-ground, and sky provide a pleasing image that soothes the emotions and reflects the French school of Barbizon painters. In addition, Macnaughtan printed his image on platinum paper, a medium heavily favored by the Secessionists for its capacity to yield subtle middle tones and deep shadow areas.During the 1920s modernism began to influence pictorial imagery. Some pictorialists began using such contemporary, urban subject matter as the skyscraper and the automobile. In contrast to the soft-focus and low tonalities of traditional pictorial images, these subjects were invariably rendered in sharp focus with a full range of tones. As the Machine Age dawned, a national atmosphere of speed and mechanization captivated pictorialists and the general public alike.Certainly, the New York World's Fair of 1939, with more than100 buildings of art-deco design, provided a rich source of modern subject matter for pictorialists. Photographer Arthur Hammond made his understated image Semi-Lunar at this event. In it he captured fairgoers leaving the Perishpere, a 200-foot-diameter sphere. Hammond carefully chose his camera position and time of day to make a modernist image that was both minimalist and futuristic. The spaces in the picture are simple and sparse, with the open sky taking up fully two-thirds of the composition. And the forward-looking architecture and its crescent illumination reinforced the contemporary optimism for science and technology.Commercialism became the other major element in pictorialism after the demise of the Secession. Many advertising, illustrative, and industrial photographers joined camera clubs and entered their work—sometimes the very pictures made on assignment—in pictorial salons around the country. Commercialism and pictorialism shared a basic goal of incorporating acceptable emotional appeal in their photographic imagery; and both disciplines strove to tap common feelings, idealization, and rampant optimism.Fred G. Korth, a Chicago industrial photographer, initially made his image Galvanized Sheets as a promotional shot for a sheet metal company. Its high-contrast tones, dramatic lighting, and angular composition glorified the unification of man and industry and typified industrial photography after World War I. Such themes and image treatment, however, were fully acceptable in camera club circles by this time, making Korth's image a popular entry in Midwestern pictorial salons.The majority of the 75 photographs in the exhibition "After the Photo-Secession: American Pictorial Photography, 1910-1955" are owned by the Institute, which boasts one of the country's richest collections of pictorial photography. After its premiere here, the exhibition will travel to eight other American museums during the next two and a half years.The exhibition is accompanied by the comprehensive book "After the Photo-Secession: American Pictorial Photography, 1910-1955," available in the Museum Shop. See page 13 for a review of this book.Watch for the lecture "Shadows and Patterns: Japanese American Pictorial Photography, 1920-1940" coming Thursday, March 27, 1997, at 7:00 P.M., by Dennis Reed, Dean and Professor or Art at Los Angeles Valley College.Related ImagesGertrude Käsebier (American, 1852-1934)
The Red Man, from Camera Work No. 1 (January 1903)
Photogravure
Gift of Julia MarshallWilliam E. Macnaughtan
(American, dates unknown)
A Connecticut River, 1912
Platinum print
Gift of funds from Jud and Lisa DaytonArthur Hammond
(American, born England, 1880-1962)
Semi-Lunar, 1939
Gelatin silver print
Alfred and Ingrid Lenz Harrison FundFred G. Korth
(American, born Germany, 1902-1982)
Galvanized Sheets, about 1948
Gelatin silver print
Gift of Lora and Martin G. Weinstein
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Source: Christian A. Peterson, "Pictorialism After the Photo-Secession: The Photo-Secession may have made the first convincing case for photography as a means of personal expression. But it was the work of thousands of populist photographers that gave it a stronghold that lasted 50 years," <i>Arts</i> 20, no. 2 (February 1997): 2-3.
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Added to Site: March 10, 2009