‘Struggle’ by Robert Demachy

This is not my most favourite photographic print. It is not even my most favourite print by the photographer, Robert Demachy. However, it is possibly the print that has had the most influence on my photographic thinking over the past few years because, in many ways, it was my steppingstone into getting to know and love the Pictorialists.

Seeing this print had an immediate and quite profound effect on me and it did so on many levels, which I would like to explain to you now in the hope that this will help to make it clear why the resonance with me was so instant and so strong. I have broken this explanation into six sections.

1. It Breaks away from The Original Camera Image

There is nothing very new about breaking from the camera image. Even in 1903 when Robert Demachy printed this gum bichromate image this was not uncommon. Back in 1858 Henry Peach Robinson famously used several negatives to create the albumen print of a young woman dying called “Fading Away”. But there is something special about how Demachy breaks away from the original image. The woman has clearly been cut from a photographic image, but she is set against a background that has not.

It was Demachy’s manifest intention to make the backgound discordant and unatural - adding to feeling of tension in the image. I have no doubt that he had the vision of this print when he captured the image in the camera - with every intention of only using a part of the image, that of the subject, the naked lady in the strained pose. He was an important Pictorialist and he was exploring how to use photographic processes to create art. Borrowing from other artist media such as painting and drawing: knowing that he would keep certain portions of the image and competely thow away others.

A big difference between and painter and a Pictorialist photographer is that the painter begins with an empty canvas, whereas the photographer’s image is full the moment the picture is taken.

A big difference between and painter and a Pictorialist photographer is that the painter begins with an empty canvas, whereas the photographer’s image is full the moment the picture is taken.

When painting or drawing an artist builds up the image from nothing. Here Demachy is taking away from the original camera image and adding abstract shapes and swirls. It is not clear, even when looking at the original, if this was done on the paper as it was being prepared or on the negative or whatever he used to expose the bichromated gum.

“King of Coal” 2009. One of my gum bichromate portraits

This was a technique I had been developing for myself using gum bichromate, as you can see in my gum bichromate print below “King of Coal” shown here or in most of my gum prints in the gallery here. The brush strokes from preparing the paper often do not get to the edge of the print and sometimes cut into his face. So when I saw this image I was very excited, I could see the same photographic thought processes, even though Demachy’s were 115 years earlier.

2. Subject is Cut Out of Background

Another big difference between photography and other forms of visual art that Demachy was exploring in this print is accentuating the subject. It is possible to do this with a camera by distinguishing between subject and background (or foreground) through focus, through contrast in colour, or even through a colourful subject with a black and white background. An artist can just leave aspects of a background almost or completely unfinished, often in darkness or drab colours. The eye then does not dwell on them instead it is pulled back to the details and the light. As an example, many of Rembrandt’s portraits do exactly this shown below. This is one of his self portraits from 1669 right at the end of his life and in the National Gallery, London, UK.

We are so used to seeing with our eyes and having them pull a subject out of the field of view, it is easy to think that it is done with little effort. However, the camera itself is not that intelligent; it often needs the photographer, once the camera has finished filling the frame, to coax out and separate the subject from the rest of the image.

This is also something I had been fascinated with for many years before seeing “Struggle”. In this print I saw the simple and effective way that Demachy had achieved this. You can see this in my gum print “King of Coal” shown above, where I’ve replaced the background with a random stiple to draw the eye to the main subject, his face. In fact in the example shown below “Crunched Up”, I have separated the subject by taking the background right down to blank paper, which leads on well to the next section.

3. Part of the Print being Blank

The convention of not leaving parts of a photograph blank is remarkably pervasive. Demachy in this print unashamedly just stops the image long before the edges; great cuts in the image swirl in towards the subject. For me, this really works well. As a Pictorialist, he stated his influences were outside that of the field of photography but from other artistic media where this practice is commonplace. Drawing and painting come immediately to mind, but it is also routine in the ink-transfer printing techniques of intaglio and relief printing.

I started deliberately opening blank areas in my photographic images one day when I attending a monthly photogrphic competition at the Richmond and Twickenham Photographic Society. The judge was looking at an image that had a sun in a blue sky. He stopped talking and pulled out a high-powered loupe from his jacket pocket. He stared through the magnifier for a minute or so, then turned round in announced triumphantly, “I thought so. That sun is burnt out through to blank paper. No photographer should ever let an image burn out to blank paper!”

“Closing My Secrets” Gum Bichromate Print

“Closing My Secrets” Gum Bichromate Print

Even while he was announcing the points he was awarding to the image (reduced because of the blank paper), I was imagining what types of photographs would benefit from deliberately leaving large parts of the print blank. I have several panels of photographs build from this one thought (have a look here).

I do enjoy the freedom that comes from breaking up a photographic image. Here I show a picture where I think it works particularly well. It is called “Crunched Up” and I use the blank edge round the heel to pull the subject right out of the frame, powerfully I feel. Round the other side I love the brushed edge and how it breaks the edge of negative turning darker.

I made this gum print several years before I saw Rober Demachy’s “Struggle” and, although my image here is calmer and in his the subject is wracked and full of anguish, I felt we had come to similar photographic conclusions on how to print an image to get just the artistic effect we wanted.

4. Monochrome, but not Black and White

The photographic commumnity tends to expect either full colour or black and white. In “Struggle” Demachy has chosen to print in a rust red monochrome. He went on to make several prints of this image and some of them are in a deeper Van Dyke brown. He clearly chose these colours to bring out the emotional response he wanted from the viewer of this image. It is a great freedom that the gum bichromate process offers because the colour comes from the pigment added to the otherwise almost-colourless acacia gum.

Again this is something I do with my own gum bichromate prints, I will take quite some time choosing the colour I think most appropriate for the image (have a look at my gum bichromate gallery here). The effect of colour can be quite striking on an image, especially if it is a portrait.

So seeing Demachy’s print in this strong colour gave me a sense of someone having travelled down the same artistic track and coming to a similar conclusion.

5. The Print as an Individual Object in Its Own Right

Nowadays we are used to photographs being digital and being able to fling them across the internet to others with a sweep of a finger on our smartphones. Photographs are now taken, copied and deleted in a click or a flick.

If a photographic print is worth having, it is worth the effort of printing it by hand, preserving it, studying it and loving it over a long time.

Obviously I am showing a digital image of “Struggle” by Demachy and I am extremely grateful for the freedom I have to do this. However, the original in The Met in New York is an object. A photograph of that print leaves the print as it was: it is like taking a picture of a painting or a piece of sculpture. Now for Demachy in 1903 that was all he had, but more and more I find others join with me in a desire for the photograph to have a permanence of its own right. If a photographic print is worth having, it is worth the effort of printing it by hand, preserving it, studying it and loving it over a long time. You get a deeper understanding of an image that sits in front of you, in the real world - not in a virtual world within a screen.

The Met offer an Open Access to much of their photographic collection, which means the digital copies of the image are in the pubic domain. Many other organisations offer the opportunity to see their prints first hand, such as The Victoria and Albert Museum (London, UK) - now houses the Royal Photographic Society’s photographic collection, Harry Ransom Center (Austin, Texas, USA), Musée Nicéphore Niépce (Chalon-sur-Saône, France) to name but three.

6. Gum Bichromate Print

Robert Demachy wrote extensively on the gum bichromate process, which had been invented several years earlier in 1858 (see my Infographic), and he helped rediscover its subtleties and its expessiveness as a photographic medium. He described the process as ‘Photo-Aquatint’ in a book he wrote with Alfred Maskell (ths is now in the public domain so you can download it here). For those of you who do not know the term Aquatint, it comes from the intaglio printing process from around 1650 and is part of the etching process where different tonal qualities are added.

I had fallen in love with the gum bichromate process several years before I stumbled upon “Struggle”, which then lead me a year or so later to reading much of Demachy’s work. I found it immensely reassuring and exciting to read his words that were re-iterateing all those things I had discovered for myself. It gave me a sense of walking down the same artistic path but by more than a hundred years later. Is it not also a source of wonder that in 120 years fom now these prints I am making now will continue to survive? Demachy’s gum bichromate prints still look as if they have just been printed and I use the same, archival materials.

It Went on From There

In that moment of looking at “Struggle’ by Robert Demachy and having all these thoughts and connections with this work, I realised that I needed to find out more about him. This then rapidly expanded out to wanting to know more about The Pictorialists in general and why I felt I had such an affinity with them.

In this website I try share what I have found out, or should I say, what I am continuing to learn from, this exhilerating and stimulating photographic movement.

I hope through this website and my workshops I am able to give you at least some of the joy that The Pictorialists have given me.