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A Pictorial Sunset

March 27, 2011
Pictorial Sunset, David Thompson Country

Pictorial Sunset, David Thompson Country

As the winter sun prepares to duck behind a mountain ridge in David Thompson Country in the late afternoon, a high layer of cloud takes on a warm glow. The patch of warmth competes with the chill, dark impression of the lower cloud layer, silhouetted mountain, and trees.

The quality of light is what originally attracted me to this scene, but I wasn’t sure how the results would come out. And indeed, the camera didn’t capture what I was looking at in the way I expected.

What came up when I reviewed the images from the day was a kind of abstract combination of colors, tones and detail that brought to mind vintage gum bichromate prints from early pictorialist masters. This appealed to me, so I took the development further in that direction. This included primarily some tonal adjustments to more firmly establish the kind of mood I was thinking of, stitching a pair of images then cropping the result to a square format to get the framing as I wanted it, and finally applying a bit of abstraction-inducing “spatter” brushwork filter in Photoshop to make the image detail (what there was of it) more suggestive than literal.

Pictorialism was a visual style adopted in late 1800’s and early 1900’s by photographers including Henry Peach Robinson, Peter Henry Emerson, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Robert Demachy and Léonard Misonne. Photography was struggling to achieve credibility as an art form in those days, and the pictorialists felt that by taking a lot of control over image development they could demonstrate that photography was a legitimate vehicle for aesthetics and creative expression, instead of just being a tool for mechanical reproduction. Soft focus & minimization of detail, darkroom processing, brushwork, combination of multiple negatives, and specific printing techniques were used to create images that looked painterly rather than “photorealistic”. The gum bichromate printing process on coarse papers contributed to the style, through which the photographer further controlled the reproduction of image tone, color and detail in pursuit of a more impressionistic rendition of the scene.

(Side note: Out of that early effort, the noted Group f/64 came to disagree with the pictorialist style to such an extent that they formed their movement to promote “straight photography”, and took direct opposition to the methods of pictorialism. This group included such well-known photographers as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Alfred Stieglitz. Yes, Stieglitz (and Weston, too) moved from promoting pictorialism, to criticizing it. Well, it’s easy to argue that their “straight” style went on to far eclipse pictorialism in popularity. Certainly few photographers — perhaps none — who stuck it out with a pictorial style have the level of name recognition possessed today by many of the straight photographers from the same era.)

Despite my own strong tendency towards photorealism, I have a lot of interest in the pictorialist style as well. This is because of the emphasis on interpreting and creatively expressing images from reality, not just trying to exactly reproduce reality. I can remember visiting the Andrew Smith Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico a few years back, and seeing the Steichen gum bichromate print The Black Canyon. If “The Black Canyon” was posted on Internet discussion forums today it would probably be panned for its “lack of technical quality”, “muddy shadow tones”, “lack of realistic contrast & detail” and so on. (See the famous photo critique spoofs at The Online Photographer, part 1 and part 2, for a taste of the possible responses.) However I found “The Black Canyon”, seen in person, was an incredibly powerful print; it made quite an impression on me, one I’m not likely to forget. The reasons for that impact had to do with the print’s abstracted rendition of the scene and its atmospheric mood. I found these qualities very evocative, never mind the absence of other technical qualities we mostly associate with photography nowadays.

Schools and styles of art come and go, but despite the major shifts in the photographic artform there remains a broad range for personal creative expression. In fact, the combination of digital and historical processes is increasing the range of expression that’s available. Distortion-free rendering, high dynamic range, sharp detail and calibrated color palettes aren’t the only things that matter. Emotion, mood, design and aesthetics also matter. That’s a core lesson from the role that pictorialism played in helping establish photography as a valid art form, and the lesson is still just as important today in the digital darkroom. In that respect, I’d say the sun hasn’t really set on the pictorial mode.

Which do you prefer — impressionist or realist style? Is either more valid for photographic art? Is there a proper role for stripping away high fidelity color and detail, or should the true direction be the continued evolution of “straight photography”?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 28, 2011 04:59

    Great read Royce! I like both styles equally but find that when most people are shown pictorial photos they respond more emotionally but not always in a positive way. At least there is a response though!


  2. March 28, 2011 18:38

    Ah, that’s the trick isn’t it — if we aim to evoke (provoke?) a response, better be prepared that it might not be the one that was hoped for! 🙂

  3. April 2, 2011 10:44

    This is a really great set of thoughts, Royce, and a good lesson on the history of photography. Its interesting to see how pictorialism arose, especially considering the struggles photography still has (in some eyes) of establishing itself as an art form.

    For me, its important to keep a sense of realism in the scene, but there are occasions where I find myself pushing the envelope a bit towards a more artistic rendition. Being too faithful to one school would probably limit us in some regards.


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