PICTORIALISM: The Fine Art of Photography

Alvin Langdon Coburn, American, 1882-1966, <i>Hyde Park Corner,</i> about 1905, from London, 1908, photogravure, Snite Museum of Art, Gift of Douglas Barton, Charles Rosenbaum, and Harry Heppenheimer, 1985.073.001

Alvin Langdon Coburn, American, 1882-1966, Hyde Park Corner, about 1905, from London, 1908, photogravure, Snite Museum of Art, Gift of Douglas Barton, Charles Rosenbaum, and Harry Heppenheimer, 1985.073.001

O'Shaughnessy Galleries II and III January 15 through March 5, 2017

Drawn from the permanent collection of the Snite Museum of Art, this exhibition of fifty-three photographs examines the international phenomenon of Pictorialism, an aesthetic style prevalent from about 1875 to 1925.

At the turn of the twentieth century serious photographers struggled for recognition of their work as fine art.  This international venture, and the range of styles it embraced, is known as Pictorialism.  By the 1880s, mountains of kitschy, commercial stereographs and postcards, and mediocre amateur snapshots had given photography a tawdry reputation.  It was such a popular hobby that by 1891 there were 172 camera clubs in England alone.  Most amateurs understood its processes as purely mechanical.  By contrast to the throng, aesthetic photographers adopted the principles of academic painting, and lavished their negatives and prints with meticulous attention. They strove to imbue their photographs with personal expression.  These artists broke from the photographic societies, to form exclusive groups like the Trifolium, the Brotherhood of the Linked Ring, and the Cercle d’Art Photographique.

Technical excellence was a hallmark of Pictorialism, which was diverse in style. Some proponents, like Peter Henry Emerson in London, composed their images in the camera, enforcing the objectivity of the lens.  Others, like Robert Demachy in Paris, employed filters and lens coatings to soften his images, creating an Impressionistic mood. In the darkroom he reworked his original negatives with a painterly  touch, and used unusual printing methods to obtain the rich tones of intaglio prints. This preference reflected the lasting ideals of Arts and Crafts movement, and the rejection of the handmade over mechanized reproduction. Many Pictorialists were influenced by Symbolism, a style that conveyed allegory and sensuous experience instead of concrete representation.

In the United States, Pictorialism was dominated by the Photo-Secession, a group organized by Alfred Stieglitz in 1902.  He mounted periodic museum exhibitions for the group, and opened a small gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York to sell their work. Stieglitz also published Camera Work, an elegant magazine that combined art criticism with beautifully printed photogravures.  Several of those prints are included in the present exhibition.  By the time of World War I Pictorialism had been superseded by a sharp, realistic photography.  However its wide reputation for quality and aesthetic seriousness continued to attract photographers into the 1940s.