The Pictorialists Influence Today - Their Success

The Pictorialists as individuals, and when they organised themselves into groups, had a driving vision that united them. Their dream was to have photography accepted as an art form in its own right. That is so different form today when it is unsurprising for the major galleries and museums to hold exhibitions that are purely photographic. This unquestioning acceptance that we experience now is an important legacy arising from the hard work and determination of these pioneering photographic artists. In our time this embracing of photography is rarely, if ever, challenged or even discussed, which indicates that the Pictorialists success is now complete. I am sure that many of the great names would be gratified if they knew how well established photography now is.

The Pictorialists are still being Discussed

A quick search on the internet will reveal the abiding interest in this movement. Some are attracted to the wonderful story of the struggle and the final achievements of their aims, while others are captivated by the works of art they produced. There are many social network pages on the likes of Pinterest and Flickr devoted to the movement as a whole and to individual Pictorialists themselves.

While the experience of seeing these fabulous prints on a smartphone or computer screen is a somewhat sallow experience when compared with seeing or handling these prints for yourself, it does allow you to see these prints quickly and easily - it is a wonderful way to discover more about individual Pictorialists and their work. I find also that it is such a joy to revisit, even in this small way, these favourite images.

It is also a fantastic opportunity to stack up images of these prints into panels and boards for yourself - or enjoying them in the order and at the time you choose, rather than waiting for curators to make those choices in their large galleries and museums. The modern social networking sites allows you to pull together images from across the internet; for instance from past exhibtions of galleries, hidden museums collections and auction houses. You can create your own virtual collection of images that would otherwise would not be put together.

People are doing this today, pulling images together and alowing them to be studied together. I find I look at these collections it allows a great sense of the Pictorialist movement as a whole. There is something that unifies these works of art that draws you back - and keeps the discussions flowing.

The Pictorialists are Still Being Exhibited

I see major new Pictorialist exhibtions being announced across the world several times a year. The sponsors and curators of these exhibtions clearly see the continued draw. When the large institutions with photographic collections are not putting the Pictorialists on display, most if not all will allow you to explore them online.

It is another joy of the internet that it is relatively easy to find where in the world a particular print is now being held. This is further enhanced by the ability to be able to book a time slot to be able to see that print for yourself first hand. I have done this for myself in the Vicoria and Albert Museum in London UK, Société Française de Photographie Paris France, Musée Nicéphore Niepce Chalon-sur-Saône France, and the Harry Ransom Center Austin Texas USA.

The Pictorialists are Still being Avidly Collected

In 2006 the world record for the most expensive photographic print of all time was broken by a copy of the Pictorialist print “The Pond. Moon-Light” by Edward Steichen being sold by The Met in New York, USA. It sold for $2.9M or £1.6M at the time. Although that record has been broken since, there is still an excitement about the Pictorialists when there prints appear on the market. It is clear that there is a dynamic collector market for Pictorialist prints.

You can get a good idea of the clamour for these old prints by current collectors by looking at the number of auctions around the world that include their prints. We are fortunate to live in a time when wherever these auctions are being held it is almost invariably possible to find out about them through the internet. There a number of websites and apps that allow you to see across many auctions that are coming up. The two I use are LiveAuctioneers and Invaluable - I set up alerts for my favourite Pictorialists and it is rare that there are not prints for sale somewhere in the world, often for of a value in $1,000s or $10,000s. They often exceed the expected price, which indicates just how collectable they are.

You can also see the continuting popularity of the Pictorialists from following individual auction houses - most let you set up alerts for your favourites. There are some notable auction houses that deal routinely in Pictorialist prints, for instance Sotheby’s, Lee Gallery, New York USA, and my favourite Swann Auction Galleries, New York USA (I am a proud owner of a copy of “Camera Works” from one of their auctions).

We shouldn’t be surprised that The Pictorialist prints are so collectable. They do have features that any Auction House would be excited about.

  • They are some of the most beautiful works of art (I would say, that wouldn’t I?)

  • They are old and have survived this long, so they will be able to be resold at a later date

  • It was difficult to make a run of many prints so there are only ever a few prints at most. Even then because each print was handmade and each print is subtly (or not so subtly) different, as can be seen with each of the prints “The Pond, Moonlight” by Edward Stiechen (shown above)

The Pictorialist Still Influence Today’s Photography

I can see the influence of these early photographers today; in subject matter, composition and general feeel of images. However, the biggest influence on me is the work the Pictorialists did on their prints. In this day and age we are used to working on digital photographs after they have been captured in apps such as Adobe Photoshop. I don’t want to give any impression thta I think this is wrong. I have no doubt the Pictorialists would have loved the facilities such apps offer - all my prints go through an extensive process of modification (and adjustment to make suitable negatives). The approaches and processes taken by most if not all the Pictorialist was in the manipulations that the digitial workflow does not allow - in the preparation of the paper, the oiling of the image (in certain processes) and the manipulation of the image after it had been printed and developed. They often wrote about these stages and the extra artisitic freedom that the stages allowed.

“Self-Portrait with Brush and Palette” by Edward Steichen, 1902

Taking as an example onother print by Edward Steichen. This is a gum bichromate print from 1902 and we know from the report of the extensive analysis of this particular print done by The Met that Steichen heavily reworked this image in particular in key areas that this particular image demands: the outline of the figure, around the cravat, next to his ear, and where his fingers meet the brush and palette. All of which are key to this image - bringin out the subject from the background and pulling the viewers focus to the face and active hands. I find it unsurprising that he he spent a year on this work - he clearly had a vision of what he wanted to acheive and it took him that long to reach it. There are and have been many exceptional photographers who take months over capturing, enhancing and then printing an image. In my opinion it is time well spent if the image demands it - I do enjoy as well, though, the extra opportunity that the photographic process used by the Pictorialists for artisitic expression.

“La Foule” (The Crowd) by Robert Demachy, 1904

This print from Robert Demachy is an oil print from 1910, which adds a further opportunity to enhance artistically the image, that of using oil-based pigments. In the hands of an expert such as Demachy the shades of the print are bought out by careful application of inks. This uses the same process as ining a lithographic print. In this picture Demachy was able to further enhance the image through strategic placement of the ink - he very cleverly used this to pull out from this ‘Crowd’ a portion for your eye to be drawn to by contrast. He has soften people in the background at the top right with lighter tones and lower contrast, while he use low contrast in the foreground but with darker tones to achieve the same effect. You can do this in Photoshop (if you don’t know how I can show you in one of my workshops). The joy of doing it in the inking, though, is that each print wil be unique and subtly different from any others from the same negative.

“Sailing Boats” 1907 By Heinrich Kühn

Heinrich Kühn is one of my all-time favourites of the Pictorialists; not least because of his love of the Gum Bichromate process, which I also adore. In this print, a copy of which is currently on display at the Lee Gallery in Winchester, MA USA, done by Kühn in around 1907 he has used another freedom that this process offers, he has not started with white paper - he has used a paper and pigment that are the same hue a salmon / brick colour; ideal for this image.

The quality of the final print has a mist to it that an intaglio printer would achieve through aquatint. No wonder Demachy referred to the Gum Bichromate process as ‘Photo Aquatint’.

Recommended Articles and Videos about The Pictorialists on the Internet

There is such a lot on the internet today on the topic of the Pictorialists. Here I point you in the direction of some of those I find I go back to regularly. I hope you find them as useful as I do.