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12.3: Photography- From Pictorialism to "Straight"

  • Page ID
    232338
    • Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts
    • Washington University in St. Louis, University of Rochester, Stanford University and Harvard University
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    Photography, like other media, went through its own defining encounter with the new century. Some of the challenges it faced were unique to the medium itself. As a very young development, photography had scant history on which to draw. Seen initially as an instrument of scientific and social documentation, it was a "recording angel," but lacked a clear claim to aesthetic status, and eminent commentators still weighed into the debate as to whether photography was an art.

    Did the camera have its own aesthetic? What were the properties that made photography unique as a medium, and different from painting? Photography-at the threshold of modernism- shared with painting a new, self-conscious exploration of its own internal means. Could the camera, itself a product of modernization, rise above its condition as a tool, a machine for investigating the world? Could it be turned back on itself, to consider how photographic vision altered our way of knowing reality? These issues were central to the emergence of a photographic modernism in the first decades of the twentieth century.

    Establishing Photography as a Fine Art

    By the 1890s, photography had inspired a widespread international movement among amateurs whose interests were primarily aesthetic. Forming their own societies, clubs, and juried exhibitions, and including a significant number of women, these amateur practitioners of photography inspired a movement that came to be known as Pictorialism. To distinguish their practice from commercial photography; Pictorialists carefully controlled the environment in which their photographs were seen. They repudiated the utilitarian, documentary, or commercial uses of the camera, reclaiming photography for poetry, imagination, and art. Pictorialist photographs were meant to look like paintings ("paintographs" or "photopaints," as one critic sarcastically called them).25 Pictorialists used a variety of techniques for reintroducing manual skill and aesthetic manipulation into the production of the photograph: staging it, wiping and brushing the photographic emulsion (gum bichromate, introduced in 1894) and painting the plate with pigment, and printing on platinum paper, which produced soft velvety tones. Photoengraved for reproduction in limited edition "little magazines" such as Stieglitz's Camera Work , these photographs disguised their origins in a mechanical apparatus with subtle gradations of tone, and deliberate blurring of optical clarity- techniques intended to mimic painting.

    Figure 12.22: ANNE W. BRIGMAN, The Spirit of Photography, 1907. Platinum print, 7⅝ (19.4 cm) diameter. Royal Photographic Society, Bath, England.
    Figure 12.22: ANNE W. BRIGMAN, The Spirit of Photography, 1907. Platinum print, 7⅝ (19.4 cm) diameter. Royal Photographic Society, Bath, England.

    THE PHOTO-SECESSION. A central figure in this history was Alfred Stieglitz. In one of the many phases of this extraordinary man's career, Stieglitz seceded from the New York Camera Club, which he felt had become overly professionalized and commercial, and formed the Photo-Secession in 1902, opening the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession in 1905, as we have seen (page 403). Stieglitz's Little Galleries offered an aesthetic refuge from the chaotic barrage of images that increasingly characterized the public environment of the city. Like the Tonalist painters, whose aesthetic they paralleled (see Chapter rr), the Pictorialists found their subject matter most often in nature, and in the frequent subject of the woman communing with another world. Anne Brigman's (1869-1950) The Spirit of Photography (fig. 12.22) transmutes the machine vision of the camera into a lens that reveals an immaterial world hovering at the brink of perception. Gazing into glass spheres, or at watery reflections, such figures symbolized mystical communion, and the power of art to transport us beyond the everyday. Artists were thought to resemble women in their power as spirit conductors. As the twentieth century opened, Pictorialists turned increasingly to the subject of the modern city, aligned with the hard matter of the real world and with the male energies of city-building. Here they faced the ultimate test of art's ability to transmute: its power to transform the urban, industrial reality into the stuff of poetry-to change matter into spirit. In the case of photography, the challenge was doubled, as the photograph itself was a technological product of modernity.

    Figure 12.23: EDWARD STEICHEN, The Flatiron- Evening, 1909 (from a 1905 negative). Gelatin silver photograph, 18 3/16 x 15⅛ in (46.7 x 38.1 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Alfred Stieglitz Collection.
    Figure 12.23: EDWARD STEICHEN, The Flatiron- Evening, 1909 (from a 1905 negative). Gelatin silver photograph, 18 3/16 x 15⅛ in (46.7 x 38.1 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Alfred Stieglitz Collection.

    "PICTORIALIST" PHOTOGRAPHY. The Flatiron Building, designed by Daniel Burnham (1846-1912) and completed in 1902, was photographed numerous times in the first decade of the twentieth century. Rising twenty stories to 300 feet, it was not the tallest building in lower Manhattan, but it was among the most striking. Situated at the triangular juncture of Broadway and Fifth Avenue, the building echoes its site by being similarly three-sided. From the north, its mass appeared to Alfred Stieglitz like the prow of a great ocean liner slicing through the urban fabric of New York- a symbol of the titanic power of American business, which the Pictorialists set out to rival. Writing in 1902, the critic Charles Caffin projected the modern artist as a man of business "who puts into a picture as much ... force of mind as another man puts into the building of a great business."26 Edward Steichen's multiple views of the Flatiron (fig. 12.23) approach it across rain-soaked streets; through the delicate tracery of tree branches; or juxtaposed against the silhouetted forms of carriage drivers at twilight or in dim winter light, its looming mass pushed back into the middle distance. The globe lights of the newly electrified city appear like Chinese lanterns, festive pinpricks in the mood-filled urban night. As the Thames Embankment had earlier served Whistler, and as Brooklyn Bridge would later serve modernist poets and artists in the 1920s, the Flatiron embodied the promise of a crude commercial civilization redeemed through visual and poetic metaphor, its massive bulk etherialized through blurring of outline and tonal nuance.

    Figure 12.24: ALFRED STIEGLITZ, The Hand of Man, 1902. Gelatin silver print, 3¼ X 4 7/16, in (8.3 X 11.2 cm). J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.
    Figure 12.24: ALFRED STIEGLITZ, The Hand of Man, 1902. Gelatin silver print, 3¼ X 4 7/16, in (8.3 X 11.2 cm). J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.

    In its struggle to establish itself as an art, Pictorialist photography renounced the very qualities that would come to distinguish photography as a medium: precise detail, sharp tonal distinctions, visual clarity. In place of delineation was suggestion, a retreat from the analytical vision associated with science. Many of the first generation of modernist photographers-Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, Alvin Langdon Coburn-began as Pictorialists. Stieglitz, unlike his colleagues, preferred not to manipulate his negatives or to stage his photographs. But he cultivated a grainy imprecision by making exposures in low light, on foggy, snowy, or rainy days. In 1932, a critic of photography, looking back on Stieglitz's early work, wrote about his 1902 photograph of an industrial railroad, The Hand of Man (fig. 12.24): "a study of glinting rails and a plume of smoke under the pall of an approaching storm, that contains, in its black and gray gamut, the terror and tragedy of an entire era." A good part of Stieglitz's greatness, for his contemporaries, was his critical vision of modernization, and his desire to bear witness, both aesthetic and moral, to the · world it had wrought. The aesthetic beauty of his photography remains in tension with its subject matter-an urban environment robbed of poetry and life, oppressing the human spirit. Stieglitz's early Pictorialism faced decisively toward the new century in grappling with the industrial and urban subjects that were to become one mark of the new American art.

    The Beginnings of Photographic Modernism

    Photographic modernism in the United States rejected Pictorialist staging and manipulation in favor of a "straight" approach. The term "straight" meant that a photographic print was not manipulated: with the rise of modernist photography, it referred to a style of sharp focus, strong contrast, and direct engagement. As a black and white medium, photography conformed with the modernist tendency to see the world as abstract form. It endowed shadows with substance, telescoped and flattened space, and juxtaposed planes of vision. Photography thus helped artists see abstractly.

    Figure 12.25: ALFRED STIEGLITZ, The Steerage, 1907. Photogravure, 12⅝ x 10⅛ in (32 X 25.7 cm). Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
    Figure 12.25: ALFRED STIEGLITZ, The Steerage, 1907. Photogravure, 12⅝ x 10⅛ in (32 X 25.7 cm). Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

    THE STEERAGE. Years after he made his most famous photograph, The Steerage (fig. 12.25), Stieglitz explained its genesis during a trip to Europe in 1907 on board a "fashionable ship." Eager to escape the pall of privilege and money in his first-class quarters, Stieglitz wandered to the end of the deck, where he looked down on the "steerage," the lower deck of the ship reserved for the poorest travelers. He reported that "The scene fascinated me: A round straw hat; the funnel leaning left, the stairway leaning right; the white drawbridge, its railings made of chain; white suspenders crossed on the back of a man below ... a mast that cut into the sky, completing a triangle. I stood spellbound," the photographer wrote, possessed by "a new vision that held me: simple people; the feeling of ship, ocean, sky; a sense of release that I was away from the mob called rich." The relationship of shapes to other shapes at that moment taught Stieglitz to see photographically. This aesthetic impulse-"a new vision"-vied with the social content of the experience: an encounter with class difference.27 For Stieglitz, the internal act of vision took precedence over the act of social documentation that drove the photography of Lewis Hine (see above). The encounter with social realities was merely the point of departure for a subjective experience of aesthetic ordering, seized from the flux of modern life.

    Fast Forward

    Modernist Photography in the 1930s and the f.64 Group

    "TO SEE THE THING itself is essential; the quintessence revealed direct, without the fog of impressionism."29

    The practice of "straight" photography has arced over the twentieth century, and across a range of genres from documentary to art photography. If documentary tended to disguise these choices beneath a veneer of "objectivity" or transparency-the rhetoric of the real- art photography in the 1930s made them quite apparent, highlighting aesthetic choices from lens and camera type to decisions about framing, lighting, and printing. "Art" photography thus refers to the self-conscious practice of the medium as an aesthetic form, having its origins in the modernist photographers around Stieglitz.

    The first generation of American modernist photographers, following Stieglitz's lead, had demonstrated the power of photography to reframe and transform reality. This impulse to renew vision-jolting it out of the rut of custom and returning it to a condition of first encounter-also jettisoned conventional notions of beauty, disregarding older aesthetic hierarchies. Such power of vision has held an abiding appeal for photographers throughout the twentieth century, but perhaps nowhere more so than in northern California in the 1930s. In 1932 a group of photographers, men and women based in the San Francisco Bay area, banded together to form a group they called f.64, dubbed "California Sharp." Members included Ansel Adams (1902-84), Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976), and Edward Weston (1886-1958), all of whom helped reshape the look of American photography; Adams in particular enjoyed considerable popular success in photographs of Californian nature that extended the grandiose vision of such nineteenth-century predecessors as Carleton Watkins (see fig. 9.22). The name "f.64" referred to the camera's focal length of 1:64. The group preferred large-format cameras, small apertures (assuring deep focus), and contact printing. Such preferences unified the group's varied personalities. Like the artists around Stieglitz, in particular O'Keeffe and Strand, f.64 frequently worked in close-up, isolating objects from their context in order to allow a sustained confrontation with the thing itself-its abstract formal properties, its textures, its patterning of light and shade, the ambiguous play of two and three dimensions on its surface. Edward Weston's Pepper, no. 30 (fig. 12.26) tightly frames the object, whose glistening surfaces map subtle tonal gradations, from velvety blacks to reflective highlights. In its sinuous folds and muscular arcing forms, the pepper conjures associations with the human body, suggesting sleek animal shapes, and charging the vegetable with animate, erotic energies. Here, the camera serves imagination through a rigorous process of selection and focus, specificity of form expanding into metaphorical meaning. In the words of Ansel Adams, describing a practice he traced to Stieglitz, the f.64 group taught those who cared "to venture forth from the safe ritualistic shelter of the commonplace and look for themselves." 30

    Figure 12.26: EDWARD WESTON, Pepper, no. 30, 1930. Gelatin silver print, 9⅜ X 7½ in (23.8 x 19 cm). George Eastman House, Rochester, New York.
    Figure 12.26: EDWARD WESTON, Pepper, no. 30, 1930. Gelatin silver print, 9⅜ X 7½ in (23.8 x 19 cm). George Eastman House, Rochester, New York.
    Figure 12.27: PAUL STRAND, Wall Street, 1915, originally published as New York in Camera Work, no. 48, October 1916, pl. 25. Photogravure, 11¼ x 7¾ in (28.5 x 19.6 cm). Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal.
    Figure 12.27: PAUL STRAND, Wall Street, 1915, originally published as New York in Camera Work, no. 48, October 1916, pl. 25. Photogravure, 11¼ x 7¾ in (28.5 x 19.6 cm). Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal.

    PAUL STRAND. A father figure for American photographers, Stieglitz with his overbearing presence inspired intense reaction. Paul Strand, though initially supported and mentored by Stieglitz (who first showed his work at Gallery 291 in 1916), established a different direction over the course of his long career. For Strand, departing from the inward orientation of his mentor, the aesthetic and the social would remain intimately intertwined. Strand's Wall Street, 1915 (fig. 12.27) shows his genius for combining an abstracting vision with social commentary. A view of J. P. Morgan's Guaranty Trust building, Strand's photograph condensed a feeling, widely held by artists around Stieglitz, that America's growing and massively scaled corporate culture was incompatible with a humane social order. Years later, in 1951, Strand wrote about Wall Street, "I was .. . fascinated by all these little people walking by these great big sinister, almost threatening shapes .. .. " He was, he explained, "trying to photograph the 'rushing to work"'; the black shapes reminded him of "a great maw"28 ready to crush the lilliputian humans who walk by. Wall Street gave material form to the unease inspired by the financial giants who were shaping the early twentieth century. For Strand, like Stieglitz, the creative autonomy of the artist developed in resistance to the dehumanizing effects of modernity. To see photographically was to bring an aesthetic organization back into a world in which a sense of underlying order had been disrupted by the forces of historical change. Photographers as artists bridged machine civilization with culture, synthesizing mechanical means and humanist ends. Originating in a similar vision, Strand and Stieglitz would put their practice of straight photography to fundamentally different uses in the next decades.

    Unlike Stieglitz, who worked in thematic series that investigated aesthetic problems of form and used nature to explore shifting interior moods, Strand's energies moved outward, toward new regions of the world, from rural New England and Nova Scotia to Europe and Mexico; from landscapes to close-up studies of objects, elements of nature, machinery, portraits, city views, and photographic essays of village and regional cultures. As early as 1917 he had written that photography's greatest strength was its absolute objectivity. Deeply concerned with modernist formal language, he placed it in the service of social encounter: "I think that what exists outside the artist is much more important than his imagination. The world outside is inexhaustible ... I've always wanted to be aware of what's going on in the world around me, and I've wanted to use photography as an instrument of research into and reporting on the life of my own time .... I'm not trying to describe an inner state of being."31


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