Term Paper: Pictorialism Is a Photographic Movement

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[. . .] Much like a painting, Robinson decided what would be captured in the artwork. However, instead of painting what would be in the scene, Robinson took photographs and added them together.

Robinson wrote about pictorialist photography, arguing for this technique in his 1867 work, Pictorial Effect in Photography. Robinson is quoted from this work, arguing for the use of photographic techniques and against the necessity of capturing reality:

Any dodge, trick and conjuration of any kind is open to the photographer's use.... It is his imperative duty to avoid the mean, the base and the ugly, and to aim to elevate his subject.... And to correct the unpicturesque....A great deal can be done and very beautiful pictures made, by a mixture of the real and the artificial in a picture" (Leggat, Robinson).

This approach had a significant impact on the pictorial movement, encouraging photographers to experiment and try new approaches.

Oscar Rejlander

Oscar Rejlander was another photographer who came into photography from a painting background. His most well-known work is titled "The two ways of life" and is described as follows:

It depicts a sage guiding two young men towards manhood. One looks with some eagerness towards gambling, wine, prostitution and idling, whilst the other looks (with somewhat less enthusiasm!) towards figures representing religion, industry, families and good works. In the centre appears the veiled, partly clothed figure symbolising repentance and turning towards the good" (Leggat, Rejlander).

This picture also used the combination printing technique, with this photograph thought to be a combination of around 30 photographs.

This photographs is an example of how photography is used not to present reality, but to represent meaning. The scene depicted is not something that happened, instead it is Rejlander's way of representing meaning. Rejlander is showing the choices a man makes and how the correct choice seems like the least enjoyable one. This work can be described as art because it is something unique created by Rejlander, because it is not just a photo of something, but a photo that represents a specific meaning, and because it is designed to be visually appealing. In effect, Rejlander has created a painting, except instead of using paint, he has used photographs to create each part of the painting.

These two photographers both illustrate how pictorialist photography attempts to combine art with photography, creating an artwork with meaning, while using photography as the means of creation. It is also important to note that the photographer's vision and input is as important to the resulting works than the actual photographs.

Impact of Pictorialism on Art and Professional Photography

Pictorialism is an approach that has a focus on creating art, but this does not mean it does not also have significance for what it represents. The photographs may be taken in artful ways and this can be the characteristics that allows them to be called art, but they can still offer images that give meaning to the world and represent things that mean something regardless of whether or not the photograph is considered artful.

One book describes the pictorialist photographers of the late 1800's and notes that,

Although they considered their products as objects of aesthetic composition rather than social documents, pictorialist or art photographers during the late nineteenth century could not help recording real costumes even though they filtered them through a haze of soft light. Whether they concentrated on Whitby fishermen, like the British pictorialist Frank Sutcliffe, or Breton peasants, like Alfred Stieglitz or Charles Lhermitte..., members of art photography clubs perpetuated the pastoral myth of the happy agricultural worker in endless views of silhouetted ploughmen and Milletesque shephredesses" (Lemagny & Rouille 62).

This illustrates how pictorialism created photographs with two meanings. Firstly, they were considered products of art because of the way the photograph was taken. Secondly, they illustrated something real about the world since the subjects of photographs are something real that has been captured.

This nature of pictorialism has two impacts, the first related to what it means to the art world, the second related to what it means to professional photography.

Firstly, as an art form, pictorialism created photographic artworks that represented real people and real scenes. This added a new realism to the art world. This same approach is often taken to other forms of art such as painting and sculpture. For example, a landscape is often painted to represent a real landscape that exists. Similarly a sculpture of a person can be created to represent a real person that exists. The difference is that the viewer of the painting does not know whether this painting or sculpture is based on something real. The painting could be an imagined landscape or it could be a real one. Similarly, the sculpture could be a product of the sculptor's imagination or it could be a representation of a real person. Unless the audience knows the person being sculpted or the landscape in the painting, the audience does not know whether or not it is real. In contrast, photography of the pictorialism movement is always based on capturing something real. The subject of the pictorialist photograph is something real that exists somewhere and the viewer is aware of this. This aspect of photography meant that the pictorialist movement added something new to the art world. This something new was also something viewer's responded to. Photographs are something an audience can appreciate regardless of their knowledge of art, with a photograph first enjoyed for the subject of it, and then enjoyed for the way that subject is captured. This can be seen as either a good or a bad thing. In one way, it means that photographs can be overlooked for their art content, with the focus only being on what they capture. In another way they capture a realism that a wide range of viewers respond to, making photography something that can be appreciated universally.

Pictorialsm also has an impact on professional photography because of its overlap with presenting things artfully while still presenting real subjects. Professional photography is based on capturing subjects or objects for a specific purpose, whether it be for use in the media or as a professional portrait. The art approach based on experimenting with different ways to capture scenes and different effects that can be used adds a lot to professional photography. Professional photography can combine the two approaches, still focusing on capturing the image for a commercial focus but using art techniques to make this a better image. This combination leads to basic rules of composition that still apply today, the most common being the rule of thirds. As one author notes, "the most common aid to composition is the rule of thirds, which was originally devised by painters but applies equally to photography" (Lezano 78). This link between painting and photography illustrates how the viewing photography as an art contributes to its development. The pictorialist movement focused on creating artful photographs that were visually appealing. The techniques used were then applied to commercial photography, to make commercial photographs more pleasing. In the end then, while the pictorialist movement was in opposition to the growing commercialization of photography, it also managed to contribute to it, with the techniques of the pictorialist movement becoming techniques common to all photography.


The history, development and impact of the pictorialism movement has now been described. This has shown that pictorialism continues to be a focus on creating art, while attempting to combine the fields of photography and art. At the same time, pictorialism has also managed to impact on professional photography and art.

Works Cited

Leggat, R. ROBINSON, Henry Peach. 1999. Retrieved December 3, 2002, URL: http://www.rleggat.com/photohistory/history/robinson.htm

Leggat, R. REJLANDER, OSCAR GUSTAVE. 1999. Retrieved December 3, 2002, URL: http://www.rleggat.com/photohistory/history/rejlande.htm

Lemagny, J., & Rouille, A. A History of Photography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Lezano, D. The Digital Camera Handbook. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999.

Martinez, R. "The Rise of Pictorialism in Europe." Camera 12 (1990): 8-10.

Link to Images:

Robinson, Henry Peach. Fading Away. 1958. Retrieved December 3, 2002, URL: http://www.rleggat.com/photohistory/history/robinson.htm

Rejlander, Oscar. The two ways of life. Retrieved December 3, 2002, URL: http://www.bradley.edu/exhibit96/about/twoways.html [END OF PREVIEW]

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