Pictorialism—Or is Photography Art?

Theodor and Oscar Hofmeister, The Solitary Horseman, 1904

This question came up with pictorialism around the early 20th century, when Alfred Stieglitz established a group called the Photo-Secession. In this group Stieglitz was advancing and promoting pictorial photographers like Gertrude Käsebier, Eva Watson-Schütze, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Edward Steichen, and Joseph Keiley. The idea of the pictorialists, as they called them, was to create an image instead of just capturing it. Therefore pictorial photographs often have a soft focus and are printed in one or more colors other than black-and-white. Other elements are the manipulation of the surface or visible brush strokes in the image, like in “Struggle” from Robert Demachy.

Robert Demachy, Struggle, 1904

Due to the slow lenses at that time long exposures were common. So,  motion blur is another component that was used to give these images a pictorial feel. There are also stylistic elements as glas spheres that were used. Anne Brigman was an american pictorialist who used such elements widely in her images. That in addition with the human form interacting with nature gave their images a fantasia like effect.

Anne Brigman, Heart of the Storm, 1912

Another well-known representative of the pictorialism was Edward Steichen. He was the most frequently featured photographer in Alfred Stieglitz’ magazine Camera Work. Together Stieglitz and Steichen opened the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, which later became known as 291 after its address. He is famous, among others, for his image of the Flatiron Building in New York.

Edward Steichen, The Flatiron, 1904
Edward Steichen, Rodin-Le Penseur, 1906

So the question remains. Is photography Art? There are still a lot of debates around this question and I can’t even answer it for myself. I think it depends on the intentions of the photographer and what he or she is trying to achieve with it.

If you are curious about this topic and want to learn more or look at some of the images in print, I can recommend you the following books:

  • Alfred Stieglitz: Camera Work. The Complete Photographs 1903 – 1917
  • Edward Steichen: The Early Years
  • A Poetic Vision: The Photographs of Anne Brigman