Pictorialism and the Art Photograph

While portraiture became the core business activity for many commercial studios at the turn of the century, landscape and architecture photography was also high in demand. Highly restricted by genre conventions borrowed from painting and to a degree defined by scientific enquiry – whether ethnographic, historic or archaeological – the photographic landscape became a form of communication. A recently acquired albumen photograph by the …. showing … is a case in point. Romantic and melancholy, the dramatic view onto the see from the mouth of a cave emphasises the sublime power of nature over the insignificant figures of the two humans who gaze at it in awe and contemplation. Images like these draw associations not only with 19th century Romantic poetry but are mechanisms fuelling nostalgia for the virgin environment and the more organic connection between humanity and nature that was quickly disappearing because of the onslaught of the Industrial Revolution.

This sentiment was one of the key elements that fuelled an entire era of photography that came to be known as ‘pictorialism’. It became a predominant style of international photography propagated by the doyens of art photography Alfried Stieglitz and his influential magazine ‘Camerawork’ as well as Edward Steichen, George Seely and Robert Demachy.

‘Pictorialism’ defined the style and subject of many works that filled the walls in countless photography Salons from USA to Japan and Australia well into the 1940s. Essentially an escapist mode of photography that looked at the world through foggy lens, pictorialism strived to cement the status of the medium as ‘art’ by simulating painting, lithography and etchings. Thus contemporary subject matter was often frowned upon as too ‘raw’ to transcend its documentary or mechanical nature. Allegory, symbolism and abstraction – all floating in an ethereally impressionist haze – became de rigueur.

Fine examples of such work were made by minor masters such as the Austrian photographer Adalbert Defner (1884-1969 )whose work forms a particular focus in the collection. His landscapes became hugely popular and were printed and marketed to the masses as postcards. They are timeless, poetic meditations on nature, light and mood which emphasise the ‘spiritual’ qualities of the Germanic landscape. Such innocuous images of course carry a political undertone. Nature is framed and transformed into a symbol for a nation. It’s a particular kind of vision that has influenced the way people see themselves in relation to the land and nature to this day.

The two landscapes by the American photographer Arthur Allan Gray (1884-1976) exhibit a more complex and conflicted view. A sensuous image of an apple orchard with a creek is infused with dreamy nostalgia for a simpler way of life. Meanwhile a shot of a shipyard conveys a much more ambivalent attitude towards modernity. Full of harsh contrast, cluttered objects and a horizon completely overshadowed by industrial build-up, the rusty brown image relays how modernity has subsumed nature for the sake of progress.

During their formative stage, certain factions of modernity looked into the past in order to question or dissect contemporary paradigms. Among these historicist tendencies were movements such the Viennese ‘Jugenstil’, the Russian ‘Silver Age’ and the international ‘Art Nouveau’. Austrian and German photography embraced the delicate and escapist principles of these styles with great enthusiasm. Lotte Springer’s untitled (figure study)1920s is a perfect example of symbolist photography of the time. Her models were usually actors from the German stage and the photographer encouraged them to perform rather than reveal emotions or identity. Ethereal and dream-like, her photographs indulge in the sensual play of creating a persona that is fluid and shape-shifting. A number of Armenian photographers working in Europe and USA during the 1920s also embraced this highly theatrical, literary style. Among these, the New-York based photographer John De Mirjian (Demirtchian) was a major figure. During his short lifetime, De Mirjian rose to prominence as a key chronicler of Broadway’s performers. Thus his ‘portraits’, two of which are part of our collection, never aim to get beyond the mask of the actors. The identity of the actors is merged with the florid fantasies that their faces and costumes exemplify.

This ambivalent approach to what actually constitutes an identity was a hallmark of European art photography (and culture in general) between 1910s and early 1930s. Later, it would spill into the more radical modernisms that rejected the pictorialist aesthetic, yet retained its position of indeterminacy and conflicted attitude towards reality.