Friday, May 11, 2018

The Modern Pictorialists

I am inspired here by a recent article on Luminous Landscape: A Moment of Clarity which I think is members-only, but you can still look at the pictures. I will, as an aside, remark that despite the title and the pictures it is not about simply slamming the Clarity Slider all the way to 11.

No, the piece is about a technique in which you nail your camera down firmly and then take a bunch of pictures of the same thing, doing the usual HDR dance of multiple exposures to capture loads of dynamic range, and then more pictures to get dramatic lighting, and then layering it all together in photoshop to produce a composite. The line that caught my eye was "Skies can be taken anywhere and dropped in" which is a classic bit of Pictorialism (against which the Pictorialist Emerson railed at thunderous length, to be sure). The result is, by the way, invariably a sky that looks pretty good but doesn't quite work. To my eye, David's pictures look like composites, and I think it's because the light doesn't quite work. It's close, but not perfect.

This sparked a memory of a visual artist and photographer who gets talked up a bit here and there, Antti Karppinen who has a variety of weird techniques in his composites, notably hue-matching various random elements. Which certainly creates a strong unifying force, but makes the results look ridiculously fake (albeit very painterly). Note, for instance, places where someone's skin tone is actually the same hue (although different values) as the wall behind them. Say what? That's just odd. Again, this strikes me as philosophically very Pictorialist.

But let's back up a bit and think about Pictorialism more.

In these degenerate times we think of it as mainly just scratching negatives and mashing on gum-bichromate prints until they look like lousy paintings. Maybe a bit of soft focus thrown in for good measure.

Pictorialism is, though, much more than that. It is the idea that photographs might usefully be designed to look like paintings. It is a set of techniques devised for accomplishing that. It is Impressionism re-cast in photographic terms, the idea that the photograph should "give the impression of" whatever you're trying to depict. It is the idea that the photograph should not precisely reproduce the world, but that it should re-create the experience of seeing that world.

This brings us naturally around to a completely different thread of Modern Pictorialism, namely Sally Mann.

I think this reveals an interesting bifurcation in the ideas that made up Pictorialism.

While people like Antti and David are, essentially, using a set of techniques to produce pictures that look cool, people like Sally Mann are using an almost 100% disjoint set of techniques, also recognizably Pictorialist, to make pictures which are.. something else. Perhaps Expressionist. Which overlaps, as nearly as I can tell, with Impressionist but which isn't quite the same thing.

This, I think, faithfully recreates the scope of the original Pictorialist movement.

On the one hand we have work that is, well, how to put this kindly: conceptually thin? Yes yes, I get that it's Cupid and she must be Artemis, but what's the point? Is it really just to cram in classical allusions? I'm going to rudely lump Antti and David in here. Overwrought, in a fairly literal sense, kind of twee. One of more sort of thin ideas, mainly just visual ideas, thrown down onto the page into what boils down to a fairly fake looking pastiche. Cool as hell, but not really something you're going to spend a lot of time with unless you're trying to deconstruct the photoshop methods used to make it.

On the other hand, we have conceptually fairly rich material. Usually less overtly over-worked, presumably because in general when you've got actual ideas and emotional impacts to make, you spend less time screwing around trying to mashing meaning and weight in with your fists.

In a very real sense, I think we're looking at a case of same as it ever was here. It's tempting to, again, throw the baby out with the bathwater and insist that only Straight Photography is worthy, and we certainly see an exuberent school of that line of thinking.

Perhaps, though, we could strike a path based not on the methods and "the look" of the thing, but rather on whether or not the artist is successful in imbuing the work with something worth being imbued with.


  1. those Clarity images are totally Bierstadt...

  2. I'm trying not to be negative these days for all sorts of reasons but I feel obligated to say those Karppinen illustrations are some of the worst things I have ever seen on the Internet. To have them in the same post as Mann's work is a bit disturbing to say the least.