Pictorialism is an approach to photography that emphasizes beauty of subject matter, tonality, and composition rather than the documentation of reality.
I have read before that Pictorialism is a way of projecting an emotional intent into the viewer's realm of imagination. That description really strikes a chord with me because it essentially captures the essence of my creative intentions.
Prior to the Pictorialism movement, photographs were mostly seen in the realm of science and as a tool for documentation.
The founding father of Pictorialism, Henry Peach Robinson, realized something no one before him. Based on his experience as a painter, he used his knowledge of composition and tonality (light against dark) to help elevate photography to a form of art versus being viewed as a tool for documenting reality.
I describe Pictorialism as a way of seeing the world. By using 19th century large format view cameras with soft focus lenses and a 19th century negative medium, the photographer has the proper tools to portray its subject in dramatic light and elevate the image to an atmospheric and emotional experience for the viewer.
Pictorialism thrived from about 1885 to 1915 which is a time in photographic history that in unlike any other time before. British painter and photographer Henry Peach Robinson was producing the very first Pictorialist photographs in the 1850's. In America, the transition from wetplate collodion to silver gelatin dry plates and ultimately to panchromatic film changed the world as we know it.
Modern digital cameras and lenses that are commonplace today create razor sharp images that feel sterile and lifeless to me in many cases. While I appreciate the modern advancements in 21st century photography in many ways, it simply doesn't support my creative vision for many of my fine art projects.
Pictorialism is simultaneously a movement, a philosophy, an aesthetic, and a style that created a space for photographers at the time as well as in the future to express emotion through photography.
The Pictorialist perspective was born in the late 1860s and held sway through the first decade of the 20th century. It approached the camera as a tool that, like the paintbrush and chisel, could be used to make an artistic statement. Thus photographs could have aesthetic value and be linked to the world of art expression.
This was a fascinating time in photography because mediums like wetplate collodion and silver gelatin dry plates were in their prime and the transition from ordinary (only sensitive to blue and UV light) to orthochromatic (not sensitive to red) and eventually panchromatic (full spectrum) emulsions was produced on film as a medium for the first time in history.
"Dawn and Sunset" was created by British painter and photographer Henry Peach Robinson in 1885. Robinson was a master of emotion and in this special image, he illustrates the passage of time in a subtle and impactful way using Pictorialist methods.
Henry Peach Robinson was the original pioneer of the Pictorialist movement. Robinson literally paved the way for photography being recognized as art.
Robinson was a painter before he became a photographer and this training and experience helped him realize the rules and guidelines associated with painting could be applied to photographs as well. In "Dawn and Sunset" he borrowed compositional formulas from his training as a painter and he used tonality (light against dark tones) to achieve things no one before him had been able to do. Robinson carefully composed an emotional tale of the flowering and fading of life, a child, at the beginning of life, rests in its mother's arms bathed in sunlight, while the grandfather, at the other end of life, rests in the shadows, lit only faintly by the waning light. The softer aesthetic along with the emotional use of light and dark tones creates an emotional experience for the viewer that is timeless.
One of my most sought after fine art gallery prints "Vintage Lilies" was inspired by 19th century Pictorialists and Impressionistic painters like Claude Monet.
I used a 19th century large format camera and lens with a paper silver gelatin negative to create this modern Pictorialist style fine art photograph using the same principles pioneered by Henry Peach Robinson in the 1850's.
I used natural light to spotlight a single lily using Impressionist painting principles, while purposely leaving the other lilies were out of focus serving as a metaphor that can be embraced many different ways by viewers.
The use of dramatic lighting and my intentional application of tonality (light against dark) helped create this emotionally evocative image that is timeless.
When I created this image, my thoughts at the time were that we all have our moments in life to shine while surrounded by many other people. The other people would also have their moment to be in full bloom and shine, but not until the proper elements were in place to allow it. The message I hope to convey in this image is that we need to embrace and appreciate when it is our moment to shine because we know it is precious and we will fade away, just like flowers post their prime.
It has taken me two decades to find and collect large format cameras and lenses that were used to create the original Pictorialist style photographs and I continue to explore and pursue this aesthetic because it speaks to my soul in a way that no other form of photography can.
I find myself drawn to historic 19th century architecture like the grist mills of the Missouri Ozarks because the subject matter is directly aligned to my Pictorialist vision.
These mills were built from the 1840's through the turn of the 20th century and the few remnants left from this important part of American history call out to my soul. I feel compelled to photograph the historic mills and create Pictorialist style handmade fine art prints like the one you see of Hodgson Mill below this text.
Famous 19th century photographers like Alvin Langdon Coburn, F. Holland Day, Gertrude Käsebier, Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, and Clarence H. White helped shape the global movement and continue to inspire me to this day.
The name itself derived from the thought of Henry Peach Robinson, British author of Pictorial Effect in Photography (1869). In his desire to separate photography as art from the scientific ends to which it had been applied, Robinson suggested appropriate subject matter and compositional devices, including the joining together of sections of different photographs to form a “composite” image.
In the 1880s the British photographer Peter Henry Emerson also sought ways to promote personal expression in camera images. While critical of composite photographs, Emerson and his followers, looking to models provided by artists such as J.M.W. Turner, the painters of the Barbizon school, and the Impressionist painters, attempted to recreate atmospheric effects in nature through attention to focus and tonality.
Emerson’s book Naturalistic Photography (1889) was immensely influential in the last years of the 19th century. American and European photographers who followed its precepts organized associations and mounted exhibitions designed to show that the medium was capable of producing works of great beauty and expressiveness.
Before 1900 the Linked Ring in Great Britain, the Photo Club of Paris, the Kleeblatt in Germany and Austria and, after the turn of the century, the Photo-Secession in the United States all promoted photography as fine art.
Toward this end, some photographers condoned hand-work on the negative and employed special printing methods, using—among other chemicals—gum bichromate and gum bromoil. In addition to these procedures, which insured that each print was differentiated from others from the same negative, Pictorialist photographers also favored the inclusion of monograms and the presentation of work in tasteful frames and mats. Frederick H. Evans, Robert Demachy, and Heinrich Kühn were among the notable Europeans who participated in the movement.
In the late work of Alfred Stieglitz, and that of Paul Strand and Edward Weston, American Pictorialism became less involved with atmospheric effects and beautiful subject matter, but for some years after World War I, the older ideals of pictorial beauty were retained by the group called Pictorial Photographers of America. By the late 1920s, as the aesthetics of Modernism took hold, the term Pictorialism came to describe a tired convention.
If you are interested in digging deeper into the technical aspects of Pictorialism, the PhD thesis by William Russell Young, III "The Soft-Focus Lens and Anglo-American Pictorialism" is an incredible resource.
I have included the Young's abstract for you in the section below:
"The history, practice and aesthetic of the soft focus lens in photography is elucidated and developed from its earliest statements of need to the current time with a particular emphasis on its role in the development of the Pictorialist movement.
Using William Crawford's concept of photographic 'syntax', the use of the soft focus lens is explored as an example of how technology shapes style. A detailed study of the soft focus lenses from the earliest forms to the present is presented, enumerating the core properties of pinhole, early experimental and commercial soft focus lenses.
This was researched via published texts in period journals, advertising, private correspondence, interviews, and the lenses themselves. The author conducted a wide range of in-studio experiments with both period and contemporary soft focus lenses to evaluate their character and distinct features, as well as to validate source material. Nodal points of this history and development are explored in the critical debate between the diffuse and sharp photographic image, beginning with the competition between the calotype and daguerreotype.
The role of George Davison's The Old Farmstead is presented as well as the invention of the first modern soft focus lens, the Dallmeyer-Bergheim, and its function in the development of the popular Pictorialist lens, the Pinkham & Smith Semi-Achromatic. The trajectory of the soft focus lens is plotted against the Pictorialist movement, noting the correlation betwixt them, and the modern renaissance of soft focus lenses and the diffuse aesthetic. This thesis presents a unique history of photography modeled around the determining character of technology and the interdependency of syntax, style and art."
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