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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Pictorialism in America

After the introduction of the handheld amateur camera by Kodak in 1888, patrician gentlemen with artistic ambitions no longer dominated the medium of photography. As an army of weekend “snapshooters” invaded the photographic realm, a small but persistent group of photographers staked their medium’s claim to membership among the fine arts. They rejected the point-and-shoot approach to photography and embraced labor-intensive processes such as gum bichromate printing, which involved hand-coating artist papers with homemade emulsions and pigments, or they made platinum prints, which yielded rich, tonally subtle images. Such photographs emphasized the role of the photographer as craftsman and countered the argument that photography was an entirely mechanical medium. Alfred Stieglitz was the most prominent spokesperson for these photographers in America, and in 1902 he and several like-minded associates in the New York Camera Club—including Gertrude Käsebier (33.43.132), Alvin Langdon Coburn (1987.1100.13), and Frank Eugene (55.635.12)—broke away from the club to form what they dubbed the Photo-Secession. The group held exhibitions of their work in a space donated by Edward J. Steichen called the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession (known familiarly as “291” for its address on Fifth Avenue) and published a quarterly magazine edited by Stieglitz entitled Camera Work. This sumptuous publication—illustrated with handsomely printed photogravures on Japanese rice paper hand-tipped to the pages—became a clarion call to photographers throughout the country, such as Clarence White (33.43.303), who came to New York from Ohio and eventually founded a school devoted to Pictorial photography. Other American Pictorialist photographers, such as F. Holland Day (33.43.158), who had mounted the first important exhibition of American Pictorial photography in 1900—The New School of American Photography at the Royal Photographic Society in England—chose to maintain independence from the group in order to pursue aesthetic goals away from Stieglitz’s opinionated and often overbearing personality. Others, among them Adolf de Meyer (49.55.327), became associated with the Photo-Secession by Stieglitz’s invitation.

By the end of World War I, Stieglitz and Steichen (33.43.39) were shedding Pictorial photography’s painterly facade in order to promote an unvarnished display of the medium’s natural strength—namely, its capacity for producing a truthful rendering of abstract form and tonal variation in the real world. This new chapter in each of these artists’ styles was a step toward the international phenomenon of modernism in art, and both would mine that vein to make some of their best work. Stieglitz dissolved the Photo-Secession and Camera Work in 1917, but Käsebier, Coburn, and White continued to make photographs as they had in the early years of the century and became founders of an organization called the Pictorial Photographers of America in 1916. Although the Photo-Secession members eventually went their separate ways, all of them were instrumental in establishing photography’s expressive potential and demonstrating that its value lay beyond reproducing the outlines of the world around us. Pictorialist works were as beautifully rendered as any painter’s canvas and as skillfully constructed as any graphic artist’s composition. In manipulating the presentation of information in a photographic negative, the Pictorialists injected their own sensibility into our perception of the image—thereby imbuing it with pictorial meaning.