Pictorialist photograph of a young woman. Silver print in the original oak frame. Inscribed on reverse R.S. Paddock, Early 20th century.
Pictorialism is the name given to an international style and aesthetic movement that dominated photography during the later 19th and early 20th centuries. There is no standard definition of the term, but in general it refers to a style in which the photographer has somehow manipulated what would otherwise be a straightforward photograph as a means of "creating" an image rather than simply recording it. Typically, a pictorial photograph appears to lack a sharp focus (some more so than others), is printed in one or more colors other than black-and-white (ranging from warm brown to deep blue) and may have visible brush strokes or other manipulation of the surface. For the pictorialist, a photograph, like a painting, drawing or engraving, was a way of projecting an emotional intent into the viewer's realm of imagination.
Pictorialism as a movement thrived from circa 1885-1915, although it was still being promoted by some as late as the 1940s. It began in response to claims that a photograph was nothing more than a simple record of reality, and transformed into an international movement to advance the status of all photography as a true art form. For more than three decades painters, photographers and art critics debated opposing artistic philosophies, ultimately culminating in the acquisition of photographs by several major art museums.
Pictorialism gradually declined in popularity after 1920, although it did not fade out of popularity until the end of World War II. During this period the new style of photographic modernism came into vogue, and the public's interest shifted to more sharply focused images. Several important 20th century photographers began their careers in a pictorialist style but transitioned into sharply focused photography by the 1930s.
This style is defined first by a distinctly personal expression that emphasizes photography's ability to create visual beauty rather than simply record facts. However, recently historians have recognized that pictorialism is more than just a visual style. It evolved in direct context with the changing social and cultural attitudes of the time, and, as such, it should not be characterized simply as a visual trend. One writer has noted that pictorialism was "simultaneously a movement, a philosophy, an aesthetic and a style."
Contrary to what some histories of photography portray, pictorialism did not come about as the result of a linear evolution of artistic sensibilities; rather, it was formed through "an intricate, divergent, often passionately conflicting barrage of strategies." While photographers and others debated whether photography could be art, the advent of photography directly affected the roles and livelihoods of many traditional artists. Prior to the development of photography, a painted miniature portrait was the most common means of recording a person's likeness. Thousands of painters were engaged in this art form. But photography quickly negated the need for and interest in miniature portraits. One example of this effect was seen at the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy in London; in 1830 more than 300 miniature paintings were exhibited, but by 1870 only 33 were on display. Photography had taken over for one type of art form, but the question of whether photography itself could be artistic had not been resolved.
Some painters soon adopted photography as a tool to help them record a model's pose, a landscape scene or other elements to include in their art. It's known that many of the great 19th century painters, including Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Degas, Ce´zanne, and Gauguin, took photographs themselves, used photographs by others and incorporated images from photographs into their work. While heated debates about the relationship between photography and art continued in print and in lecture halls, the distinction between a photographic image and a painting became more and more difficult to discern. As photography continued to develop, the interactions between painting and photography became increasingly reciprocal. More than a few pictorial photographers, including Alvin Langdon Coburn, Edward Steichen, Gertrude Ka¨sebier, Oscar Gustave Rejlander, and Sarah Choate Sears, were originally trained as painters or took up painting in addition to their photographic skills.
It was during this same period that cultures and societies around the world were being affected by a rapid increase in intercontinental travel and commerce. Books and magazines published on one continent could be exported and sold on another with increasing ease, and the development of reliable mail services facilitated individual exchanges of ideas, techniques and, most importantly for photography, actual prints. These developments led to pictorialism being "a more international movement in photography than almost any other photographic genre." Camera clubs in the U.S., England, France, Germany, Austria, Japan and other countries regularly lent works to each other's exhibitions, exchanged technical information and published essays and critical commentaries in one another's journals. Led by The Linked Ring in England, the photo-secession in the U.S., and the Photo-Club de Paris in France, first hundreds and then thousands of photographers passionately pursued common interests in this multi-dimensional movement. Within the span of little more than a decade, notable pictorial photographers were found in Western and Eastern Europe, North America, Asia and Australia.