Sandy King

An excerpt from The Carbon Print illustrating Ponton’s Discovery to the Alternative Process Revival. Writer / Sandy King and John Lockhart Photography

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In Retrospect

However, even as a tendency, pictorialism did not altogether disappear after the 1930s. Many pictorialists continued to be active in the 1940s and 1950s, although ignored by most members of the fine art establishment. David Brooks has commented on the irony of this situation:  “In the last few years retrospective portfolios have been published in popular magazines; exhibits have been mounted in important museums and galleries; works have been auctioned by the most prestigious agents; and the Library of Congress has issued silver and lithographic prints all involving photographers like Arnold Genthe, Gertrude Kasebier, Robert Demachy, Baron A. DeMeyer, F. Holland Day and William Mortensen. In their day each of these artists (a number of others, as well) created photographs that were hung in exhibits, published in magazines and journals, and purchased by museums. They were equally celebrated in time as many well-known photographers are today. How incredulous then that not one of these photographers is listed in the most important history of photography used in this country’s schools and departments of photographic education. In fact, Pictorialism-the philosophy and technique represented by these and many more photographers-is given only a few scant pages of begrudgingly condescending recognition in these histories, along with the impression that the movement atrophied and slipped into oblivion well before many of the individuals named produced their most significant work.”17

In retrospect, most of the criticisms leveled against the aesthetics and techniques of pictorialism have proven to be either erroneous or irrelevant to contemporary standards of photography. Since the late 1970s there has been a significant revisionist tendency toward Pictorialism among historians. This has resulted in the publication of numerous studies that affirm the historical importance and validity of the techniques and aesthetics of the movement, initiated by Peter C. Bunnell’s seminal edition of essays, APhotographicVision,PictorialPhotography,1889-1923, first published in 1980.

The Rise of “Straight“ Photography

The argument between the pictorialists and the purists was never really resolved, but Adams won a clear political victory. Straight photography became the accepted doctrine of the photographic art establishment, and the hated pictorialists were effectively banished from the civilized world of the new high priests. Nonetheless, all that was pictorial did not disappear with the dominance of straight photography. It is important to remember that the only major point of contention between the purists and the pictorialists was over process, not content or individual expression. Essentially, purists favored optical precision, and the use of purely photographic processes, while the pictorialists pursued their art through various manipulative printmaking processes. The landscape continued to be a major subject for purists, and the picturesque style continued to be dominant.

Edward Weston wrote: “I must conclude . . . that my ideals of pure photography . . . are much more difficult to live up to in the case of landscape workers-for the obvious reason that nature unadulterated and unimproved by man-is simply chaos. In fact, the camera proves that nature is crude and lacking in arrangement, and only possible when man isolates and selects from her.”15Moreover, the principles of pictorial composition continued in the documentary work of many photographers, including Dorothea Lange and Frank Eugene Smith, and even in Weston, who wrote: “A purist who is going to get any results has of necessity to know a great deal about composition. The manipulator can stick some clouds in a vacant sky, paint out a couple of houses, move the gate from the right to the left end of the wall, and remove the telephone wires to get his ‘composition’ right. But the Purist must do all this before he makes his exposure.”16

Into The 20th Century

Although Pictorialism faded as a school by the end of World War I, pictorialism as a movement survived as an important photographic tendency until the 1930s, though with increasing opposition from advocates of straight photography, the so-called purists. The controversy between the pictorialists and the purists played itself out in a series of debates in the photography journals of the period, culminating in the 1930s in Camera Craft magazine with an exchange of articles between William Mortensen, the leading pictorialist of the day, and Ansel Adams, who defended the cause of straight photography.

The process of straight photography is very direct: be there, put the camera on a tripod, and photograph to reveal a maximum of information; then, process the image and make the final print to maximize tonal qualities and detail. The path of pure photography leads from the daguerreotype, through sharp-cutting collodion-based photography, to today’s glossy silver gelatin papers. Its practitioners through time have been Muybridge, O’Sullivan, Jackson, Ansel Adams, Weston, Strand, Atgeet, Renger Patsch, and numerous others. Though the ideological underpinnings of these photographers are different, all would share a common belief, best verbalized by Edward Weston and Paul Strand in the early 1920s: photography has certain basic qualities which, derived from its technical parameters, endow it with a specific mission and impose on it certain mechanical principles. Strand writes that there are laws to which we must ultimately conform or be destroyed, noting: “Photography, being one manifestation of life, is also subject to such laws. I mean by laws those forces which control the qualities of things, which make it impossible for an oak tree to bring forth chestnuts.”14

Pigment Printing – The Enobling Process

The roots of all pigment printing processes go back to a patent taken out in 1855 by the Frenchman Alphonse Poitevin. In his patent, Poitevin described processes very similar to direct carbon and gum bichromate, as well as collotype and the oil and bromoil processes. The modern history of pigment printing began in the early 1890s, during the period of photographic impressionism. In 1890 George Davidson won the highest award at the Annual Exhibition of the Photographic Society of London with a pinhole photograph entitled AnOldFarmstead(Davidson later changed the name to The Onion Field).10The award led to a schism in the Royal Photographic Society between proponents of the old school, who believed in sharp focus and hard-cutting lenses, and proponents of the new school, who admired atmospheric effect and diffusion of focus. The immediate result was the formation of the “Linked Ring,” a group of photographers of the new school committed to the principles of pictorialism.

Although the pinhole camera gave the soft images desired by pictorialists, the photographer still had limited control of the final image. The pictorialists believed that a photograph could be judged by the same standards used to judge other pictures.11There was a prevailing belief that only hand-crafted photographs could be considered works of art. The platinum process, used by Emerson, was very popular with the pictorialists, but the process did not lend itself to intervention on the part of the photographer. What was needed was a flexible printing process that would allow physical intervention by the photographer, and control of the final image. As a consequence many artist/photographers began experimenting with alternative printing processes in order to achieve the kind of effect they equated with art. This led to wide-spread popularization of the pigment processes. The pigment processes were called the “ennobling” processes because they permitted the exploration of creative ideas by hand manipulation.

The pictorial use of the pigment processes began in 1894 when Rouillé-Ladevèze demonstrated to members of the Société Française de Photographie prints made with the gum process. That same year he published a book of the process, Sépia-photo et sanguine-photo.12 Gum printing was further popularized by Robert Demachy and Alfred Maskell.13Gum bichromate immediately became the preferred printing technique of pictorialists, a position it retained until replaced by the more flexible oil process in the early 1900s. Oil printing was introduced as a photographic process by G. E. H. Rawlings in 1904 and within a very short period of time eclipsed gum in popularity. Bromoil, a sister process to oil, was introduced by C. Welborne Piper in 1907.

The “Syntax” of Printmaking

Contemporary sensibilities emphasize photography as a creative activity separate from the constraints of the medium, but this attitude is overly restrictive. It is not possible to look at photographs as though they were ends without means, for every photograph is “the culmination of a process in which the photographer makes decisions and discoveries within a technological framework.”5The end result of the process is photographic syntax, which is determined by the chemical, optical and mechanical relationships of the medium.6The final stage in this process is printmaking syntax, which determines the final, tangible form of the image. At this stage, all elements of the object are important, for the color, texture, tonal scale, and reflective qualities of the printing material have a very real impact on the way content is expressed.7

The syntax of printmaking has been of absolute importance at every stage in the evolution of photography, though often its importance has been ignored or misunderstood. At no time, however, has printmaking syntax been more important or impressive than during the period of salon photography, because photographs were printed for display in exhibitions, rather than for reproduction in books or magazines.8The Pictorialists, perhaps better than any other photographic movement, understood the importance of the “original” and as a consequence “expended an enormous amount of energy searching for ways to give their prints maximum surface beauty.”9

The Importance of Manipulation

In the area of technique comma the use of alternative printing strategies that allowed manipulation of the final image was of the highest importance to the pictorialists. Technique is of paramount importance in the practice of photography, whether the final result is a record of the scene, or to make “art.” This has been true in all periods for pictorialists, who sought to convey an internal, subjective, vision, and for purists, whose goal was to discover, or merely record, reality. For the pictorialists, however, process was more important than verisimilar representation, and they often valued it for its own sake, because the most important consideration was not what the thing depicted, but how it filled the compositional space of the print. In essence, pictorialists were asserting the superiority of the conceptual ability of the photographer over the object and its place in the real world.4