Photo: ...Descending...
Pinkham & Smith Visual Quality Motion Picture lens-- 75mm f/3, on Nikon D3


Here you will find information on my use of soft-focus and Pictorialist lenses, and my techniques for mounting, using, and processing images from these lenses in this very digital world.

In addition, I will expound from time to time on the subject of "The New Pictorialism", and the development of a reflective style in current circles. Topics from Google Plus posts will find a home here, and perhaps some relative permanence in the ever-renewing world of social networking.

--Bruce Hemingway

Friday, December 30, 2011

Pictorialism's roots

Venetian Canal (1894) by Alfred Stieglitz
The Flatiron (1904) by Edward Steichen

The birth of late-19th century Pictorialism was driven by many technological and social factors; of these,  two major developments in the evolution of photography in the 19th century stand out.

The popular view of photography, entertained by many painters and much of the public, was that photographs should not be considered "art" because they were made by mechanical means and by physical and chemical processes instead of by human hand and spirit. To some, camera images seemed to have more in common with fabric produced by the machinery in a Jacquard loom than with handmade creations fired by inspiration.

At the same time, many artists feared the replacement of painting. Paul Delaroche was one of the most successful academic artists of the mid-19th-century French Salon Realism.  Delaroche is reported to have said "From today, painting is dead" upon first seeing examples of the Dagurreotype process invented by Louis Daguerre in France in 1839. Indeed, painters of miniature portraits lost; in 1830 the Royal Academy in London exhibited over 300 miniatures; by  1870 only thirty-three. The Cartes-de-visite were small visiting card photographic portraits (usually measuring 4 1/2 x 2 1/2") which became immensely successful in the 1860's, selling by the millions, and spawning a huge commercial industry in production and support.

The introduction of the roll-film camera meant the loss of complexity in the photographic process. Consider this timeline:

1878 - George Eastman was one of the first to demonstrate the great convenience of gelatin dry plates over the cumbersome and messy wet plate photography prevalent in his day. Dry plates could be exposed and developed at the photographer's convenience; wet plates had to be coated, exposed at once, and developed while still wet, hence, the horse-drawn field darkroom:
Wagons and camera of Sam A. Cooley,
U.S. photographer, Department of the South
Between 1860 and 1865 [Library of Congress]
1888 - The name "Kodak" was born and the KODAK camera was placed on the market, with the slogan, "You press the button - we do the rest." This was the birth of snapshot photography, as millions of amateur picture-takers know it today.

  • Kodak Camera of 1888 
  • expose 100 Frames, send camera to Kodak
  • Kodak develops film and returns prints and the camera reloaded
  • "You press the button, we do the rest."
  • 1/25 second exposure
1889 - The first commercial transparent roll film, perfected by Eastman and his research chemist, was put on the market. The availability of this flexible film made possible the development of Thomas Edison's motion picture camera in 1891.  A new corporation - The Eastman Company - was formed, taking over the assets of the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company.

1891 - The company marketed its first daylight-loading camera, which meant that the photographer could now reload the camera without using a darkroom.
(Source: Eastman Kodak)

Photography was now in the hands of everyone. The reaction of some photographers was to adopt new techniques to counter both the overly mechanical and too accurate view of photography, and the fact that painting enjoyed a much higher status than this new mechanistic process. So was born the desire to make photography more "painterly".

These artistic photographers, or Pictorialists as they came to be called,  used many techniques to achieve their stylistic ends, such as the use of multiple image printing, heavy manipulation of negatives, soft-focus, and the use of techniques such as gum bichromate printing and post-tinting, all of which were intended to lower the detail and produce a more artistic image. Many of these techniques were difficult and complex, thereby running counter to the ease-of-use of the snap-shooters of the day.

In an effort to be artistic, many Pictorialists chose to resemble the art of their day-- Impressionism-- in both subject matter and to some extent in visual style.

"In effect, the term Pictorialism is used to describe photographs in which the actual scene depicted is of less importance than the artistic quality of the image. Pictorialists would be more concerned with the aesthetics and, sometimes, the emotional impact of the image, rather than what actually was in front of their camera." (from A History of Photography © Robert Leggat, 1996.)

Parallels with The New Pictorialism will be the subject of a future post. Stay tuned...

Elias Goldensky, (American, 1867-1943). Portrait of three women, ca. 1915. Platinum print.

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