The Artists – (A History of Photography )
The Pictorialists and the Photo Secession; Emerson and the Linked Ring; Steiglitz and Streichen;
Part One: The Pictorialists
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, a ‘back to nature’ movement in the art world, began to infiltrate into the subject matter of practising photographers of the age. General dissatisfaction with the established genre of portrait photography, and mainly studio based pictures of the London Photographic Society, with its more scientific and studio based approach, created the catalyst for change.
Through the exhibitions of the work of French painters, like Millet, and Corot, who worked in the Naturalist style, in London galleries, photographers like Peter Henry Emerson, George Davison and other serious amateurs, began to look at the potential for the development for a more serious aesthetical expressive use of the camera. Their desire was to imitate nature by clever use of focusing of the camera lens to create, as near as possible, the picture the human eye beheld, with as little as possible interference after the image was taken. The composition of the main pictorial elements, was in direct imitation of impressionist and naturalist styles of painting. Emerson’s work recording life and times of people living on the Norfolk Broads, published in 1886, clearly shows the influence of Millet, a genre painter of the Barbizon School of naturalist painters. Reviews at this time of the art of the French painters, exhibiting in London, in the journal of The New English Art Club, had a significant impact on Emerson, who praised their work.
In ‘Gathering Water Lilies’, the subject two lovers in a boat on a river, the horizon line is very high, the main focus being on the water and boat. There is a range of subtle tones created and helped by the platinum type print that was
available at this time. The foreground is a pattern of flowers, leaves and reflections. The background is in much softer focus. The reed beds give a feeling of intimacy and help to isolate the couple from other riverside activities.
One of Emerson’s close friends and travelling companion at this time was the English painter, Thomas Frederick Goodall, who belonged to the New English Art Club.
Through ‘The Artist’, the journal of the New English Art Club, Emerson also came into contact with the work of James McNeill Whistler, whose work was reaching critical acclaim throughout the 1880’s. Having seen a review of Whistler’s paintings in the club’s journal, Emerson, made contact with the artist through writing to him, and also sending him examples of his own work. Emerson also reviewed the work of Whistler, with enthusiasm, in his own publication ‘Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art’1889. The influence on the photography of Emerson and his contemporaries, can be seen
in the use of horizon lines, and the structural elements of masts, poles, and other linear objects, foregrounds imitate impressionist paintings with patterns, created by water and flowers. The essence of nature in landscape,, and the way landscapes can be altered through local conditions, with mist, haze, snow and rain, was what Emerson tried to achieve, though the use of a camera lens. Selective focusing, and soft focus,, were important in the recreation of the natural scene as perceived through the imperfect vision of the human eye.
Another exponent of the pictorial style of photography, and a contemporary of Emerson, was the photographer, Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (1853-1941), whose subject was the port of Whitby and its peoples. ‘Water Rats’(1885), shows a typical natural scene of bathers in the water, some in and some out of the water, around a boat. Emerson was to praise Sutcliffe’s submissions to the Photographer’s Society’s exhibitions, in proving ‘a triumph for the naturalist technique’.
George Davison, (1854-1930), experimented with using pinhole cameras as a way of gaining softer images. Davison wrote that the greater the photograph’s ability to evoke the landscape as it was seen by the human eye the greater its aesthetical value would be too. Pinhole cameras were ideal for this type of photography. An example of his experiments can be seen in ‘Onion Field’(1850).
In contrast to the rather pure ideals of the naturalism of Davison, H P Robinson believed that photography could express the complete range of the imagination, and was more interested in the manipulation of the image, before and after the photograph was taken. He would create a picture using multiple images from different negatives, composing themes from classical paintings and poetry. ‘The Lady of Shallot’ (1861), is an example. The final picture was a composite from different negatives, so that the lady in the picture could be a costumed model set against a natural picture of a lake. Whereas, painters drew and posed their model, in a studio, and then, painted a landscape behind the figure, Robinson, literally took the scene from the lake and imposed the lady’s figure over the top.
Steiglitz and the Photo Secession
In Europe, Alfred Steiglitz, (1864-1946) began submitting photographs of pastoral scenes, to the magazine Amateur Photographer. He was later to write and publish his ideas on the subject of aesthetics in photography being instrumental in its acceptance as a true art form.
Steiglitz’s first contact with the camera was through his science studies at college. His teacher Hermann Wilhelm Vogal, who was involved significantly in researching and developing the science of the photographic methods of the time, also taught at the college. Steiglitz bought his first camera, and began taking pictures of rural scenes in the countryside of Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. His subject influenced by the artists, Adolf von Menzel and Wilhelm Haussmann . On completion of his studies in 1890, Stieglitz returned to his native America, to publish a book of photographs depicting New York. In his book, ‘Picturesque Bits of New York’(1887), Stieglitz presents scenes of the urban landscape at different times of the day, buildings and objects within the scene are altered by mist and rain, and the light of evening, or early morning. ‘Night Reflections’(1896), and ‘View From My Window’(1907), the scenes are affected by the force of nature, by rain, in one, and snow in the other, there is the influence of Corot and Pissarro, in their scenes of avenues of trees, and roads and gardens, the hardness of the lines of buildings broken down by the intersection of the branches of trees, and natural forms. Stieglitz was to develop or form, the movement or group, known as the Photo Secession. This simply was an association of photographers and artists who would promote the photograph as an art form in relation to fine art. Stieglitz edited and wrote for the New York camera club’s magazine ‘Camera Notes’(1903-1917), he also opened a number of galleries, The Little Galleries, known as ‘291’, and exhibited work influenced by the European photographic and art societies.
‘Night Reflections’(1897) Alfred Stieglitz
‘View from My Window’(1901) Alfred Stieglitz
The members of the Secession Group were united in their beliefs that photography be recognised as an art form and in an improvement of the
general standard of work displayed through exhibition. The record of the Photo secession is held in fifty images of ‘Camera Work’, published by Stieglitz between 1903 and 1917.
An example of the work of Clarence H White, is ‘Raindrops’, (July 1908 Camera Work magazine), which shows selective focusing only the raindrops are in focus, the head is softly silhouetted against a daylight background of a window pane.
Steichen’s photograph ‘Judgement of Paris’, is a landscape arrangement (1903 Camera Work magazine).
This shows a naturalistic scene of young trees saplings growing close together in a slope, the strong sunlight of daytime casts long trailing shadows that converge into the background. (1933, Stieglitz Collection).
In ‘Flat Iron’ (1909), Steichen used Gum bicarbonate over a platinum print. This has fairly strong pictorial elements, using an urban environment transformed by the softening effects of mist and the tracery of branches from an avenue of plane trees. The pavement becomes a shimmering watercolour of reflections and shadows with just a few silhouetted city dwellers. Small lamps punctuate a the street level to suggest either early morning or twilight.
Henry Peach Robinson’s ‘Lady of Shalott’, (1861) recreated scenes from paintings by using a series of different negatives unlike Emerson who disagreed with this method. Following classical themes, but using natural environments such as lakes and woods, Robinson used costumed people to re-enact the narratives of classical poems, and dramas.
The Linked Ring
In a similar fashion, another movement in England called the Linked Ring, began to make waves, under the direction of H P Robinson, and George Davison. From around 1901, the group held ‘salons’, exhibiting annually photographic prints, which had taken the art form into new territory. Other members included, Clarence H White, Harry C Rubincam, both of whom favoured the style of Stieglitz in the expression of naturalism in the photographic printed image.
Other photographers, such as Edward Steichen and Alvin Langdon Coburn, followed the influence of the soft focus school in imitation of impressionism and experimented with new materials such as the new gum print process. This technique gave the photographer increased control over the whole process of
print making. They coated watercolour pigment of any tint mixed with gum Arabic and potassium bicarbonate. On exposure to light beneath a negative the pigment became insoluble, according to the amount of light received. The print was ‘developed’. Simply by bathing it in water. Areas could be eliminated by brushing them with hot water or by drawing on them.