21st Century Ultra Large Format Pictorialism by Tim Layton
Pictorialism is an approach to photography that emphasizes the 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 strikes a chord with me because it essentially captures the essence of my creative intentions.
Before the Pictorialist movement, photographs were primarily 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. 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 their subject in dramatic light and elevate the image to an atmospheric and emotional experience for the viewer.
Pictorialism thrived from about 1885 to 1915, a time in photographic history that is unlike any other time before. British painter and photographer Henry Peach Robinson produced the very first Pictorialist photographs in the 1850s. In America, the transition from wet plate collodion to silver gelatin dry plates and ultimately to panchromatic film changed the world as we know it.
Ultra large format cameras like my 16x20 and 8x20 cameras were not normally associated with Pictorialst photographs. The bigger ULF glass plates at the end of the 19th century allowed photographers to create prints that people felt like they could walk into the scene. I think the fight for recognizing photography as art had already been lost by the reality of the bigger straight prints. Not because they were better, but most likely because the larger straight photographs were innovative and different.
Part of my challenge as a 21st-century ultra large format Pictorialist photographer is most of the period soft-focus lenses were made for 8x10 cameras. There are a few exceptions, but this is a challenge that I must deal with in order to create the type of images that I have in my mind.
Modern digital cameras and lenses commonplace today create razor-sharp images that feel sterile and lifeless to me in many cases. While I appreciate the current 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 and 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 creative expression.
This was a fascinating time in photography because mediums like wet plate collodion and silver gelatin dry plates were in their prime. The transition from ordinary (only sensitive to blue and UV light) to orthochromatic (not exposed to red) and eventually panchromatic (full spectrum) emulsions were 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 remarkable 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 paved the way for photography to be recognized as art.
Robinson was a painter before he became a photographer; this training and experience helped him realize the rules and guidelines associated with painting could also be applied to photographs. In "Dawn and Sunset," he borrowed compositional formulas from his training as a painter and 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. In contrast, at the other end of life, the grandfather 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 photography using the same principles pioneered by Henry Peach Robinson in the 1850s.
I used natural light to spotlight a single lily using Impressionist painting principles while purposely leaving the other lilies out of focus, serving as a metaphor that viewers can embrace in many different ways.
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 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 past their prime.
It has taken me two decades to find and collect large format cameras and lenses used to create the original Pictorialist-style photographs. 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 am drawn to historic 19th-century architecture like the grist mills of the Missouri Ozarks because the subject matter aligns directly with my Pictorialist vision.
These mills were built from the 1840s through the turn of the 20th century, and the few remnants left from this vital 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 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 combining sections of different photographs to form a “composite” image.
In the 1880s, 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 could produce works of incredible 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 handwork on the negative and employed unique printing methods, using—among other chemicals—gum bichromate and gum bromoil. In addition to these procedures, which ensured 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 elegant frames and mats. Frederick H. Evans, Robert Demachy, and Heinrich Kühn were 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. Still, for some years after World War I, the older ideals of pictorial beauty were retained by the Pictorial Photographers of America group. By the late 1920s, as the aesthetics of Modernism took hold, the term Pictorialism came to describe a tired convention.
Suppose you are interested in digging deeper into the technical aspects of Pictorialism. In that case, the Ph.D. thesis by William Russell Young, III, "The Soft-Focus Lens and Anglo-American Pictorialism," is an incredible resource.
I have included 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 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 period and contemporary soft-focus lenses to evaluate their character and distinct features and validate the 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 has presented as well as the invention of the first modern soft-focus lens, the Dallmeyer-Bergheim, and its function in developing 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."