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Friday, May 24, 2013

Book Review: Pictorial effect in photography

This is a book by Henry Peach Robinson, one of the original "Pictorialists" in the late nineteenth century. It's a book that's available free through Google's books section, being long out of copyright and having been scanned by those folks. There's actually a couple of editions available as PDFs or other eBooks.

Pictorialism has been declared a terrible idea and dead as a doornail for something like 80 to 100 years as of this writing. It was replaced by the Modernism, or something. Ansel Adams, as a fallen-away Pictorialist, is trotted out as an example of the new thing as contrasted with the old thing. The old thing is usually represented with some muddy blurs, and the new thing with crisp, sharp, contrasty images. It's of interest to me because I think I might be becoming a Pictorialist, although I am not really in favor of muddy blurs.

All of this context makes reading this book pretty interesting, since (for instance) Ansel Adams landscape work appears for all the world to be reading directly from Robinson's playbook. Virtually any Adams landscape makes a marvelous illustration of virtually any point Robinson makes.

All that aside, though, this is a fine little volume with a great deal to say about composition. Robinson's taste runs the gamut from sentimental to twee, and many of his ideas are a bit dated; but this can largely be ignored. The bulk of the book is a truly excellent primer on composition. It's a quick read, with many examples, and it doesn't mention a Golden Ratio anywhere, thankfully. The material in the book is clearly lifted from orthodox (in 1860ish) theory on painting, which is no surprise since Robinson was trained as a painter. Robinson does make a serious and largely successful effort to translate this material into photographic terms, and to render it applicable to photography.

There's also a fair bit of philosophy of art to be found, in little veins between the technical information. Fact versus Truth is a common theme, and a good one to be thinking about for any would-be artist. Robinson feels that Truth is vital to a photograph, but Fact can be dispensed with. Indeed, he makes a pretty solid argument that Truth is more important to a photograph than to a painting. He does explain what all this means, by the way, and quite ably. Again, here, we find that as many Modernists agree with Robinson as disagree. Weston's photographs certainly told a Truth, always, without necessarily being Factual. No surprise, Weston was another fallen-away Pictorialist.

Nowhere in this book does Robinson advocate the murky blurs that usually held up as examples of Pictorialism. On the contrary, he's all about depth of field, detail, and a full range of tonal values. He merely wants the photographer to manage these things carefully instead of dumping endless masses of equi-potent detail into our eyes. Robinson does advocate compositing of images, but this appears as much to be to overcome technical problems with the emulsions he was working with as anything else. Where Robinson cuts and pastes, Adams dodges and burns, Adams having access to panchromatic film.

The book is filled with amusing quotations and remarks, and references to other work. There is a wealth of detail which gives a bit of historical insight into the working of a nineteenth century photographer. And, there's a bit of straight-up bitching about bad photographers mucking things up, now that it's all so easy to take pictures, what with these new-fangled dry plates. While he doesn't use the term fauxtographer, he would have if it had been around. Same as it ever was.

This book is completely worth reading, whether you're an expert or a newbie. It's fun, it's informative, it's short, and it's free.

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