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Henry Peach Robinson: Fading away
George Davison: The Onion Field
Gertrude Käsebier: The Heritage of Motherhood (around 1904)
Hugo Henneberg (1863–1918): Motif from Pomerania , 1895–1896, printed in 1902
Frank Eugene: Nu au bord de l'eau
Clarence H. White (1871-1925): Raindrops (1903)
Miron Sherling (1880–1958): Portrait AJ Golowin (1916)
Ogawa Kazumasa alias Ogawa Isshin (1860–1928): Samurai in historical armor , around 1880

The pictorialism is an art photographic style . The aim of the style was not just to create a mere image of the motif that captured a moment in reality, but to achieve a symbolic representation of states of mind or fundamental values. Pictorialism found its heyday between the end of the 19th century and the First World War , and in Japan until around 1925; However, some pictorialist photographs were still being made until the end of the 1950s.

Techniques and stylistic devices

The declared aim of Pictorialism was to establish photography as a fully-fledged means of artistic expression. Stylistically, the focus was initially on naturalism in painting, but then also on impressionism and symbolism .

Frequently used stylistic features of pictorialistic photographs are reduced contour sharpness, fog-like scattered light guidance, careful selection of the section, flowing transitions, preference for night and foggy scenes, 'artistic' subjects (landscapes, portraits, nudes) and intensive post-processing of the prints, but sometimes also of the negative before the positive was produced (e.g. by Frank Eugene ). Despite the often low impression of sharpness and tonal richness that pictorial positives leave on the viewer, most of the negatives of the images that have been preserved are recorded with the full possible tonal range and sharpness that is state-of-the-art.

A prop that is conspicuously often used in pictorialist photographs, for example by Alice Boughton , Anne Brigman or Clarence Hudson White , is the crystal ball, also modified as e.g. B. Glass bowl, which should symbolize a state of spiritual perfection and unity.

Development of the pictorial style

The discussion of whether photography is or could ever become an art has occupied art theorists since the invention of photography. While the new medium for portraits and reports quickly established itself, artistic application remained rare. The main argument in favor of photography cannot be art was that photography was a technical process in which the photographer had nothing to do but press the shutter release; photography is a simple representation of nature, while true art has to be a processing. The visual artist has to choose from the wealth of colors and shapes offered by nature in order to make the intended statement. This selection should also be achieved in photography with the stylistic devices of pictorialism.

Pictorial Effect in Photography by Henry Peach Robinson , published in 1869, and Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Arts by Peter Henry Emerson (1889) formed the theoretical basis of Pictorialism . The main thesis of the second book is that art is the reproduction of the optical impressions that our consciousness receives. Photography can do this just as well as painting. In order to imitate the sensory impressions, however, the picture must show the main subject in focus, while the foreground and background must be slightly blurred. For this theory, Emerson relied on physiological knowledge, especially on the work of Hermann von Helmholtz on human vision. Shortly after the publication of his work, which generated considerable echo, however, Emerson revoked his theses and now claimed that photography could never become art. However, this revocation was hardly noticed; Most Pictorialists referred to Emerson, although they often knew little more about him than the term "artistic blurring".

Groups of photographers joined together with the declared aim of helping artistic photography achieve a breakthrough (“pictorialistic” was used in the sense of “artistic”). The main centers were in London ( Linked Ring ) and New York ( Photo-Secession ), but clubs sprang up all over the world; Pictorialism is considered the first global photography movement. The clubs were often spin-offs from the existing photography societies, which the Pictorialists were too preoccupied with technical and commercial issues. Many of the pictorialist associations published magazines that contributed to the worldwide networking of photographers.

The visual language of pictorial photography is to use photographic means to create an image effect similar to a painting. In order to avoid the accusation of simply documenting reality, many of the photographs are blurry and atmospheric. All traces of industrialization were avoided, the Pictorialists prefer to show landscapes, idyllic scenes, with a person romantically placed in the foreground, portraits and nudes. A labor-intensive technique was often used, many prints are unique to differentiate themselves from mass photography. The pictorialist photographer, who controlled the entire process of image production, often resorted to retouching and other direct interventions in the print. For some, the negative was just a sketch that only became art in the course of development and printing. Most of the time, very elaborate fine printing processes were used for the elaboration, which additionally underpinned the artistic effect.

After the First World War, pictorialism was often harshly criticized as a mere imitation of painting, which denied the actual properties of photography. However, it is pictorialism that established photography as an art and made these later reviews possible in the first place.

Pictorialism in the recent past

Art theory assumes that traces or influences of a style are repeated cyclically without the basic elements being copied. In the recent past, the influences of pictorialism in the style of reflectionism have experienced a revival, with the style elements of the originally competing New Objectivity flowing into it.

Important representatives


  • Anne Hammond. In: Michel Frizot (Ed.): A New History Of Photography. Könemann, Cologne 1998, ISBN 3-8290-1328-0 , pp. 293–333.
  • Franz-Xaver Schlegel: Pictorialism. In: Lynne Warren (Ed.): Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography. Volume 3: O - Z, index. Routledge, New York NY et al. 2006, ISBN 0-415-97667-7 , pp. 1262-1266.
  • Franz-Xaver Schlegel: The life of dead things. Studies of modern object photography in the USA 1914–1935. 2 volumes. Self-published “Art in Life”, Stuttgart et al. 1999, ISBN 3-00-004407-8 (also: Göttingen, Univ., Diss., 1997).
  • Peter Tausk: The history of photography in the 20th century. From art photography to photo journalism. 2nd revised and updated edition. DuMont, Cologne 1980, ISBN 3-7701-0813-2 , p. 14ff.

Web links

Commons : Pictorialism  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. PC Bunnell: For a Modern Photography - The Renewal of Pictorialism. From: Michel Frizot: New History of Photography . Könneman, Cologne 1998, ISBN 3-8290-1327-2 , p. 311 f.
  2. ^ Anne Hammond in: Michel Frizot (Ed.): A New History Of Photography . Könemann, Cologne 1994/1998, ISBN 3-8290-1328-0 , p. 315 f.
  3. ^ Anne Hammond in: Michel Frizot (Ed.): A New History Of Photography . Könemann, Cologne 1994/1998, ISBN 3-8290-1328-0 , p. 302
  4. Peter James, Tessa Sidey, John Taylor: Sunlight and Shadow: The Photographs of Emma Barton 1872–1938. Birmingham Libraries and Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, Birmingham 1995, ISBN 0-7093-0207-X , pp. 65, 71 (there fn. 7) and the statement of the painter James McNeill Whistler quoted there , which adherents of pictorialism like to quote was: "Nature contents the elements in color and form of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick and choose ... "
  5. ^ New York Photography. From Stieglitz to Man Ray , buceriuskunstforum.de, accessed on May 18, 2012