It always comes as a surprise to recall that there was a time when photography had to prove itself as an art form. Yet when the Pictorialists were working in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, most art critics deemed photography a tool, a mechanical means to render reality in precise and uninflected styles. Inspired to prove photography’s capacity for artistic expressiveness, the Pictorialists first mastered the techniques of the craft—the manipulation of light and chemicals—in order to open up its potential for beauty.

Installation view of “Beyond Pictorialism: Early Twentieth-Century Photography and the Fine Arts” at the Fralin Museum of Art, Charlottesville.

The Pictorialists, it must also be said, were reacting to the emergence of the amateur snapshooter. The arrival of the Kodak camera in 1888—“No knowledge of photography is necessary; you press the button, we do the rest” read one advertisement—democratized picture-taking and threatened to consign it to the commercial and amateur worlds. Striving to elevate photography as an art form, the Pictorialists adopted complex printing processes, such as photogravure, using chemical emulsions of carbon, gum, platinum, and bromoil to create tonally rich images that looked like they had been made by hand.

The Fralin Museum’s small but potent exhibition “Beyond Pictorialism: Early Twentieth-Century Photography and the Fine Arts” opens with images of the collaboration between the photographer Edward Steichen (1879–1973) and the sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840–1917).1 Initially a skeptic about photography, Rodin changed his mind when he saw Steichen’s interpretation of his controversial Monument to Balzac. Rodin had conceived of the sculpture as a tribute to the writer, intending to create a work as noble and humane as the characters Balzac invented in his Comédie humaine novels. But when the statue was unveiled at the Salon of 1898, the response was shock and outrage. Balzac’s leonine head was regal enough, but what was the great one wearing? A dressing gown, a hospital smock? Was he melting like a snowman? A decade later, Steichen’s photographs of Balzac and Rodin himself appeared in Steichen’s Camera Work, a sumptuous magazine dedicated to Pictorialist photography. For the photograph Balzac—the Open Sky, 11pm (1908, 1909), Rodin allowed Steichen to capture the plaster cast of Balzac by moonlight. When he saw the otherworldly image, Rodin exclaimed: “You will make the world understand my Balzac through your pictures. They are like Christ walking in the desert.” 

Installation view of “Beyond Pictorialism: Early Twentieth-Century Photography and the Fine Arts” at the Fralin Museum of Art, Charlottesville.

Steichen’s remarkable Rodin—The Thinker (1902, 1911) is a masterpiece of technique and composition. In the foreground, Rodin’s profile appears as a silhouette facing The Thinker (modeled 1880–81) against a brightly lit background of Rodin’s turbulent Monument to Victor Hugo (1897). Steichen made an exposure of each of the three elements, joined the negatives together, and printed the image using the gum bichromate process. With its painterly effects and complex imagery, Steichen’s creation achieved Pictorialism’s goal of drawing upon traditional, grand forms of art while introducing a new language of artistic expression.

One of Pictorialism’s characteristic subjects, the young woman in nature, appears in works by Anne W. Brigman (1869–1950) and Alice Boughton (1865–1943). Brigman’s The Bubble (1909) has a whiff of staged sentimentality, while Boughton’s The Seasons (1909) depicts four lasses in a glade listening somberly to poetry. Although these images are technically entrancing, their romantic sensibility seems out of step with Pictorialism’s loftier aims.

A handful of images from later in the period shows Pictorialist ideas entering the realm of celebrity photography. Steichen’s Greta Garbo Hollywood (1928) was taken during a Vanity Fair photo shoot, the one that yielded the famous image of Garbo pulling her hair back from her forehead. At the Fralin, we see a more ambiguous pose. Garbo looks away, a light frown on her brow, her hands gripping the chairback over which her black garment is draped. At this point in her career, Garbo was poised to dislodge Lillian Gish as the industry’s biggest box-office star, yet in Steichen’s image she seems furtive and uncertain. 

In 1935, when Barbara Morgan (1900–92) attended a performance of the Martha Graham Dance Company, she was struck by the courage and determination to carve out a place for dance in the middle of the Depression. Morgan spent the rest of her life chronicling modern dance, conveying movement through lighting, costume, and facial expression. In Martha Graham, Letter to the World (Solo) (1940), Morgan captures the sweep of Graham’s bell-shaped skirt and the upward thrust of her elegant arms as well as the dancer’s wistful expression. In these images, Pictorialism provides a kind of bridge between celebrity photography as an art form and the cruder kind of paparazzi shots that make up so much of our modern media.

Today, we accept without question that photography is an art form, whether documentary or expressive. Oftentimes, photography has both qualities. What’s clear is that Pictorialism was an expansive art form, ranging from the monumental images of Stieglitz and Steichen, to the atmospherics of Clarence H. White, to the social realism of Berenice Abbott and Eugène Atget (whose work Abbott saved). The Pictorialists called on painting, printmaking, sculpture, architecture, and dance—and stretched the imagination to encompass a larger idea of art.

  1.   “Beyond Pictorialism: Early Twentieth-Century Photography and the Fine Arts” opened at the Fralin Museum of Art, Charlottesville on February 6 and runs through July 24, 2022.

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