Pictorialism Transformed Photography into Art

Late-19th-century innovations in photography produced a simplified technology, sharper lenses, roll film, more light-sensitive emulsions and manageable cameras.

These developments resulted in hundreds of thousands of new practitioners, amateurs as well as professionals, which led to a deterioration in quality and visual superficiality. The good reputation of photography was destroyed. A new movement of devoted pictorialists worked to re-establish photography as a fully-fledged art form.

Influenced by the new movement, Henry B. Goodwin somewhat provocatively claimed that it was the amateur photographers, not the professionals, who were the artistic leaders in photography.

Goodwin cast a critical eye on professional photographers and concluded that most of them lacked empathy and technical aptitude, and were motivated by commercial gain. The new art photographyrequired much patience and was not commercially viable; consequently the most remarkable images were created by amateurs who were not driven by the need to make money.

The approach of the pictorialists was to distance themselves as far as possible from the camera’s ability to mechanically and realistically record reality. They were instead inspired by the sensitive, melancholy dreamworld of the Impressionists, which involved a time-consuming and demanding process of translating interior images into a physical reality, producing results that resembled established graphic procedures. This form of photogravure offered a virtually infinite variation oftone range, colours and photographic paper surfaces, in which the negative was reduced to a simple score.

The real world was frequently depicted in dark tones with soft contours and the motif was artistically manipulated in a soft-focus haze, free from disturbing details. Certain motivic elements were intentionallyenhanced while others were reduced.

The photographer created an independent, innovative photography that liberated itself from the camera’s technical recording. The aim was to place photography on an equal footing with other art forms. Never before had photographers so clearly emphasised that it was not the camera but the photographer who infused the image with spiritual and aesthetic power.

At the forefront of the pictorial movement were international giants such as Edward Steichen, Alvin Langdon Coburn and Gertrude Käsebier. The metropolises of New York, London, Venice and Paris were depicted shrouded in an eternal impressionist haze.

In Sweden, Goodwin became the most expressive supporter of Pictorialism. Goodwin’s many talents, his determined energy and his challenging self-confidence characterised his undisputed, exceptional position. Although Goodwin’s personality instilled respect and impressed people, it also generated enmity among his colleagues.

Text: Bruno Ehrs