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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

International Pictorialism

In the late nineteenth century, dissension in the ranks of amateur photography societies in Europe began to erupt. The organizations had been formed in the mid-1800s to promote the medium of photography, but there was disagreement as to how this should be done. Some members were interested primarily in the technical aspects of the camera and its capacity for creating accurate reproductions, and some were devoted to the medium’s artistic possibilities. Within this second group, there were two camps—those who preferred to exploit the camera’s detailed description of the world in front of it; and those who wanted to develop its impressionistic and expressive potential. As the turn of the century approached, these divisions became increasingly sharp. One incident that crystallized the problem arose over the hanging of the 1891 exhibition of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain, in which Henry Peach Robinson backed the inclusion of an Impressionist photograph by George Davison. Its refusal eventually led to Robinson’s defection from the group; in 1892, he and several like-minded individuals formally seceded from the Royal Photographic Society and formed their own association, the Linked Ring. The group dedicated itself to the advancement of the art of photography and conducted itself much like a secret society—each member was a “link” and possessed a pseudonym to be used at the meetings, which were conducted as formal, Symbolist-inspired ceremonies. The controversy between the two aesthetic camps—those who insisted that photographs should not be altered at any stage of development and those who believed that such manual intervention was necessary to make clear the artist’s role—was continued in lively debates that clarified the aesthetic role of photography in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century art.

A prominent member of the former section was Frederick H. Evans (68.519), whose expertise with platinum printing was unsurpassed in his day. His compositional ability and exquisite rendering of light made him one of the most well-respected photographers of his day. Alfred Stieglitz, like Evans a devotee of what was known as the “straight” method of photography (that is, not employing elaborate hand manipulation in the making of negatives or prints), championed Evans’ work in America by exhibiting it in his galleries and publishing it in Camera Work, where it had significant influence on the development of artistic photography in the U.S. The other coterie of art photographers included members such as James Craig Annan, a skilled carbon printer well known for his Whistlerian portraits and beautifully composed images of places like Venice (49.55.274), and Alexander Keighley, whose masterful summoning of mood in landscape photography (54.549.20) was much celebrated. Although these two factions of the Linked Ring often disagreed on details of method, they were allied in their heartfelt belief that photography was a fine art, deserving of aesthetic contemplation. In essence, the matter of whether the photographer’s imagination was chiefly at work before the shutter was pressed—while selecting a scene, choosing the point of view, exposure time, and degree of focus—or after, during the development and printmaking stages, was trumped by their mutual faith in the medium’s capacity for creative expression.

The secessionist activities initiated by the members of the Linked Ring echoed throughout the photography world. In France, the Photo-Club de Paris was formed in 1894 with Robert Demachy (33.43.58) and Émile Constant Puyo (2005.100.118) as its founders. Demachy was largely responsible for reintroducing the gum bichromate process to the artistic photographer’s arsenal of skills, and he and Puyo—an expert in the oil pigment process—were world renowned for their knowledge of these processes, as well as for the beauty and serenity of their photographs.

The Viennese also had the benefit of an association devoted to the development of art photography beginning in 1897. Known as Das Kleeblatt, or the Trifolium, Hugo Henneberg (33.43.412), Heinrich Kühn (2005.100.370), and Hans Watzek (33.43.405) worked to present an alternative to the purely technical view of photography in Austria. Like the English photographers and the French Pictorialists, these photographers were members of an important international community of artists that envisioned and actualized a completely new understanding of photography’s strengths. Such groups, which included Stieglitz’s Photo-Secession in New York (founded in 1902), performed an invaluable role in communicating the aims of art photographers by organizing international exhibitions of Pictorial photography and by publishing debates about related issues in the pages of their journals.