Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Pictorialism and the History of Photography

I'm continuing to read and re-read this book on Robinson and Emerson, struggling to make sense of things. One thing that's becoming quite clear is that Beaumont Newhall did us a great disservice in his discussion of Art Photography versus Pictorial Photography versus Straight Photography.

Historians always strive to categorize things into neat boxes. Eras, movements, schools. Photography is remarkably unfriendly to this occupation.

You can attempt to organize by school, according to the way photographers organized themselves:

This produces a first wave of Royal Photographic This and National Committee That, generally rooted in Victorian artistic principles, perhaps with a scientific bent. They aspire to make, with the camera, mawkish Victorian paintings. They revere Rembrandt and all the old masters of oil painting. They're trying to figure this new Photo Graphy thing out, and trying to make sense of it in the context of the paintings they know.

This is followed by a couple of breakaway groups, Secessionists. Linked Ring in the UK, the Photo-Secession in the USA, and some other related groups in the rest of Europe. These people are, in broad strokes, motivated by the ideas of the Impressionists. The pictures from these people tend to look like impressionist paintings, with occasional bursts of Caravaggio and Rembrandt because if there's one thing a camera does well, it's chiaroscuro.

Following this group, we get Straight Photography. f/64, Camera Work's final issues, and so on. These people are generally reacting against the soft impressionistic look the previous waves has settled on. They like sharp pictures, and a lot of gritty realism. These people are producing pictures that do not look like paintings, they look like photographs. You can make a strong argument that this is actually when photography comes into its own, incidentally.

After this, the wheels kind of fall off and it's every man for himself. Which, as we shall see, is how it has always been.

Another approach to organization is by technical approach:

This is an approach photographers are quite fond of, being as we are obsessed with technique. In broad strokes here we have a spectrum of how much modification is permitted. The usual simplistic approach to defining Pictorialism is in opposition to Straight Photography, and this boils down to a "lots of manipulation" versus "no manipulation" argument, mainly because that's how the Straight Photographers tended to style themselves.

This, it turns out, is utter nonsense. Emerson, who is argued by Newhall to be the ur-Pictorialist, was perhaps the strictest anti-manipulation photographer that ever lived. Meanwhile the f/64 crowd manipulated wildly, stopping just short of composites and scribbling on negatives.

The categorization by technique approach is generally accepted, at least as a simplified method, but it's utter rubbish. All we really have is a bunch of disconnected fetishists arguing over what manipulations are OK, and which are not. The historical record contains manifestos and other statements with signatories, but the reality resembles the manifesto not at all. Everyone manipulates. Except Emerson, who bailed out of photography after a couple decades.

Yet another approach could be the arrange photographers by ideas:

This runs into even more trouble, since we have multiple axes involved here, and every photographer is essentially unique, and is difficult to compare with any other photographer:
  • Is Art made or is it discovered?
  • Should photographs look real or surreal?
  • Should photographs look impressionistic or literal?

The trouble really is that every attempt to categorize with one method yields quite different categories than another method. Henry Peach Robinson appears in multiple categories. Peter Henry Emerson likewise, and furthermore appears to be an outlier on all fronts (albeit an influential one). Stieglitz is well known to have bridged the gap from Pictorialism to Straight Photography, whatever those even are.

Is Robinson a Pictorialist or not? There seems to be no way to define the term that does not admit Robinson, except the Newhall method with is to simply assert that Robinson wasn't, because Emerson started it and said Robinson wasn't. Robinson was a strong proponent of the kinds of techniques that might be said to define Pictorialism. He never made a picture that didn't look like a painting. One can argue that they look like the wrong kind of painting, but even that's not true. Robinson's inspirations do not seem to include the Impressionist painters, but he certainly made some pictures that look like some of Emerson's pictures. Differing inspirations (Turner vs. Impressionists) seem to have produced very very similar results at times. Robinson was a founding member of Linked Ring, a Pictorialist group.

Was Emerson a Pictorialist, or not? Certainly. His pictures explicitly look like Impressionist paintings. Was he a Straight Photographer? By some definitions, certainly: he opposed "hand-work" more than any Straight Photographer ever did, despite the fact that many of the latter defined themselves in opposition to "hand-work". He certainly felt that Art was discovered, not created. You had to see it, photography was, for Emerson, a minor (albeit very technical) detail that occurs after the important seeing part. If he bridges Pictorialism and Straight Photography, he does it 30 years early.

Was Ansel Adams a Pictorialist? Surely. His pictures look like paintings, and are heavily manipulated. Arguably, Adams is a throwback to earlier versions of Pictorialism, before the softness of Impressionism turned up. If you wish to exclude Adams from Pictorialism on the grounds that his photographs are sharp, then you have to exclude Frederick Evans as well, which is going to be a bit of a problem. If you wish to exclude Adams on the grounds that he didn't heavily manipulate his pictures, then you are an idiot.

The point here, really, is that these things simply don't fall in to neat categories. If you try to really pin down Pictorialism, or Art Photography, or Straight Photography, or any of Newhall's neat little boxes, everything slips away from you. These are not neat boxes, they are broad and overlapping generalizations. Each photographer should be seen as embodying more or less of any given category: mostly Pictorialist, but with a pinch of Straight Photography, until his later work which really reverts to.. and so on.

Photography is easy. Unlike painting you don't need to commit much of anything to accept an influence. You don't need to spend 6 months or 6 years learning specific brush techniques, you can simply see a photograph and steal a visual idea in an afternoon. Photographers have always influenced one another, styles evolving at a dizzying pace.

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