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HomeContentsThemes > Pictorialist photography

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From the invention of photography some of its key proponents, such as Oscar Gustave Rejlander (1813-1875) and Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901), saw the potential of using technology to create art works that were the aesthetic equivalent of painting. As early as 1845 John Jabez Edwin Mayall illustrated The Lord's Prayer with a series of ten Daguerreotypes.
The arguments over whether photography is art still continue unresolved today but at certain historically decisive moments the craft of photography has been influenced by the debate with photographers striving to produce unique and irreproducible artworks that are indistinguishable from painting.
The roots of photographic pictorialism
Hill & Adamson
James Nasmyth, 1808 - 1890. Inventor of the steam hammer 
Henry Peach Robinson
When the Day's Work Is Done 
Louis Jules Duboscq
Still life with skull 
1850 (ca)
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce
Cardinal d'Amboise 
1820 (ca)
Early photographers had little stylistic choice but to reference the artistic milieu with which they were aware. The inventors of photography such as Nicéphore Niépce, Louis Mandé Daguerre and Fox Talbot were cultured people who were immersed in both the arts and sciences of their time. Here four examples clearly show how emerging photography was influenced by engravings and paintings.
  • One of the earliest heliographs by Nicéphore Niépce, done on a pewter plate in about 1820, was copy of a print of Cardinal d'Amboise. The early photographers such as Fox Talbot, John Dillwyn Llewelyn and many others copied artworks as a means of testing the fidelity of their photographs and demonstrating their utility.
  • In the still life by Louis Jules Duboscq from about 1850 the layout of objects is far from random and it closely follows spacing rules used to create a harmonious painting.
  • Early portraits were often uninteresting but there are some photographers who seem a hundred years before their time and the partnership of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson in the 1840s is one of these. In this 1844 portrait of James Nasmyth, inventor of the steam hammer, the pose and gaze resemble a painting or engraving with his eyes avoiding the viewer and seemingly deep in thought.
  • With the 1877 photograph "When the Day‘s Work Is Done" Henry Peach Robinson has constructed a set of props where costumed models play roles in a living tableau. Images that showed hard work with nostalgic overtones for a rural past were popular in Victorian Britain. Using people in period costumes to imitate paintings was used by other photographers including Oscar Gustave Rejlander, Guido Rey, Richard Polak, Lejaren a Hiller and more recently with Cindy Sherman and Sandy Skoglund.
The links between photographic subjects and painting are unmistakable and understanding these roots helps in appreciating the rise of Pictorialism that was so important in photography until the 1920s.
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The technology that was available to the 19th century photographer necessitated slow exposure times and this tended to promote the use of studio settings. Here the light could be controlled, the subjects posed and time taken to achieve the ideal composition often based upon classical or allegorical themes. Between 1886 and 1895 Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936) published eight books or portfolios including:
  • 'Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads', 1886
  • 'The Complete Angler', Vol. 1 & 2, 1888
  • 'Pictures of East Anglian Life', 1888
  • 'Wild Life on a Tidal Water', 1890
  • 'On English Lagoons', 1893
  • 'Marsh Leaves', 1895
There was none of the rigidity of the studio in his 'Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads' (1886) which included forty platinum prints of daily rural life in East Anglia (England). The images showed life as it was but at the same time the resulting images taken with a whole plate (6 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches) view camera have the beauty of a painting but lack the sentimentality that was common in contemporary Victorian painting. Although in the angry arguments that followed his assertion that photography is 'a pictorial art' he later changed his opinion and came to the conclusion that because of technical limitations photography was not an art - he had an immense influence on the way 'artist' photography would develop.
Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936)
Peter Henry Emerson
The Reed Cutter at Work 
Peter Henry Emerson
Towing the Reed 
Peter Henry Emerson
Ricking the Reed 
Peter Henry Emerson
Gathering Water Lilies 
Peter Henry Emerson was a highly motivated, argumentative and talented amateur photographer in Victorian England who attacked head on the staged portraiture of Henry Peach Robinson and Julia Margaret Cameron. He argued in his 1889 book Naturalistic Photography for Students of Art for naturalism in photography that took the actual world that was in front of the camera. The image should imitate what the eye actually saw and this was not hard edged but soft and slightly out of focus - this approach had outcomes - firstly it heralded in a type of photography that was distinct from the over sentimental paintings that were in vogue at the time and secondly the softer prints had a profound effect of the pictorialists that followed him.
Emerson changed his views on photography the following year and published the black bordered pamphlet The Death of Naturalistic Photography (1890) that shocked the community by stating that "Photography is a very limited art".
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By 1892 even though Peter Henry Emerson had fallen out with most photographers they were ready to break away from the more traditional technical photography and promote art photography. This they did by forming the Linked Ring Brotherhood which started a global trend that reached maturity with the American influences of Fred Holland Day, Alfred Stieglitz and Alvin Langdon Coburn.
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