22 December 2010

Pictorialism and Truth

“We very much fear that … photography … has been degraded to the level of a mere sport, and many take it up as they do lawn tennis, merely for an amusement, without a thought of the grand and elevating possibilities it opens up to them.”

As the tools of photography became widely accessible in the late-19th century, some artistically-inclined photographers worried that the medium would be diluted by hordes of amateur picture makers who reduced the creative process to the mere click of a button. The pictorialists sought to save photography from this fate by elevating it to the status of a fine art form.

The exhibit, TruthBeauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art, 1845-1945, currently at the Phillips Collection, provides a chance to see some of the finest photographic prints in the history of the medium. However, it is the ideas behind the pictorialist movement that seem to resonate most strongly today. In an age of camera phones and online photo-sharing tools, capturing images has become easily attainable than ever before.

The pictorialists also sought to break from the simplistic notion that photographs must provide an accurate representation of reality. In other words, they were not afraid to manipulate their images. Today, Photoshop and other tools have made it possible to alter images in ways that would be impossible in the darkroom. Yet some photographers continue to maintain that photography has a special obligation for accurate representation.

Edward Steichen (writing in the first issue of Camera Work in 1903) responds to that naïve view by pointing out that even before any conscious manipulation occurs:

“faking has already set in. In the very beginning, when the operator controls and regulates his time exposure, when in the dark-room the developer is mixed for detail, breadth, flatness or contrast, faking has been resorted to. In fact, every photograph is a fake from start to finish, a purely impersonal, unmanipulated photograph being practically impossible.”

The pictorialist philosophy seems more relevant than ever. 

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