Wednesday, January 27, 2016


Mike over at ToP has published a couple of lovely pieces recently, a good review of a Coburn show which is quite nuanced and, relatively, generous. He gets past the default "Pictorialism sucks" position, and actually takes a look at the photos. Then he follows up with this piece, which covers a lot of territory but includes what I think is literally the first good discussion of Kodak's journey over the last couple decades I've seen from a notable media outlet. Again, Mike gets past the default "Kodak was just run by idiots" and gives a nuanced discussion.

As usual, hat's off to ToP. I just take my hat off before I start reading it, each day, really.

I put forward my favorite bull/china-shop thesis over on the Coburn review in the comments. This thesis is that Ansel Adams was as much a Pictorialist as anyone. Mike, to my chagrin, attempted to correct me by reciting the standard treatise on Pictorialism. And he was doing so well! (tongue firmly in cheek here, folks, I have nothing but love for Mike and for ToP.)

I've discussed the problem with the word, somewhat, in this piece. In that piece I seem to have glossed over the idea that Pictorialism might be considered a style, as Mike suggests.

As a label for a style, I suppose one could use it to refer to a handful of things: softness, darkness, manipulated negatives, let's say. Then you can talk about how much Pictorialism is present in a given picture, perhaps. It's not really used in this way, though. Contemporary usage treats it as an either/or deal, a picture either is Pictorialist or isn't, and many of the canonical examples don't particularly partake deeply of the stylistic notes in play. Robinson's "Fading Away" doesn't partake of any of the stylistic notes, for instance, but is generally cited as an early Pictorialist picture.

As a label for a style I think the usage is still unsupportable. In order to use the word Pictorialism to mean the style that we usually associate it with, we have to deny vast swathes of history. Robinson didn't make Pictorialist pictures, and one of the canonical examples of such a picture isn't Pictorialist. Emerson isn't a Pictorialist despite the fact that the standard history tells us he is. I mean, you can claim, based on some mis-quotes about his use of softness, Emerson is but if you actually look at the pictures you will see that they're actually fairly sharp.

I am not a big fan of Newhall, but he is the default historian, so if we want to be talking to one another rather than past one another, it behoove us to respect his usage.

Contemporary usage of the word "Pictorialism" is so problematic as to render the word useless.

The usage is ahistorical, the usage of the word in the period to which is (now) refers was quite different than the modern usage. This would not necessarily be a fatal problem, since words do change and evolve over time.

However, contemporary usage is also so vague as to be worthless. As I pointed out in my earlier essay, under close examination everything starts to fall apart.

And finally, the word is really used as a pejorative. It can be used, according to context, to indicate that the speaker hates muddy gum-bichromate prints (and is In The Know about History) or likes them (and is therefore In The Know, plus Extra Cool).

We should probably just give up and drop the word entirely from our vocabularies.

For reference, when I use it, I use it in the 19th century sense of roughly "looks like a painting" on the grounds that that was the last usage of the word that actually meant anything.


  1. Howdy old chap.
    Your last sentence sums it up perfectly for me. It's how I have always considered the term.

    I also agree that the word is used as a pejorative term.
    That itself could lead to a whole discussion on taste, values, and preferences. After all, if someone - either back then, or now - enjoys such photography, who has the right to be condescending of them?

    It was of its time, just as certain fads and styles are of this time, unfortunately (looking at all those photographs of HDR, milky way, Iceland, slot canyons etc etc). Actually come to think of it, Pictorialism is starting to sound ok.

    One final thing - you are not alone in symbolically taking the hat off to Mike at TOP.
    Along with Mr. Tuck he is required daily reading.


  2. Forgive my ignorance, but I have always taken the Pictorialist label to mean 'contrived, staged, made up of multiple images' (HP Robinson's trademark) style of photography, as opposed to the 'straight out of the camera but altered with filters/in the darkroom' style of Adams and Weston, among others.
    Pictorialism is muddy, yes, but remember also the 60s and 70s, where portrait photography was 'soft', to hide the skin blemishes and the fact that some women and men age prematurely.
    Was that Pictorialism?
    Today's portraits are much more about lighting, environment and the finding of the subject's soul.
    Newhall was a victim of photography's politics (Stieglitz's insistence that only HIS opinions mattered (my take, I don't like the man!)), so took umbrage and sided with Adams.
    The whole thing was a monumental storm in a teacup, as Newhall /Steichen/Adams all struggled to be the MAN after Stieglitz died.
    I find Helmut Gernsheim's interpretation of photographic history to be much better than Newhall's, who, IMHO, is too pariochial in his understanding of who and what made photography.
    Ditto Nancy, such a sycophant!
    We all have heroes and villains; despite my contention that the only good material came out of Europe, I love the work of Weston, Friedlander, Arnold Newman and the landscape works of Robert Glenn Ketchum and Galen Rowell.
    I have lots of books by Adams, Emerson, but no H P Robinson.
    Mike J had the classical photo education, that there are heroes to be revered, and so he does.
    Me, I'm always wanting to disagree with the Establishment viewpoint, hence my comments above!
    PS Willie makes some bloody good points above, just to contradict me!

    1. Robinson's major book can be downloaded from!

      I feel like I know more than most people about the history of photography and am still profoundly ignorant. Thanks for the pointer to Gernsheim!

  3. You will find Gernsheim to be much more balanced than Newhall -- Gernsheim had no ax to grind.