Pictorialism emerged in Europe and North America in the 1880s in opposition to the industrialisation of photography. Its exponents made photographs that imitated the symbolic functions of art, developing techniques such as platinotype or photogravure which suppressed detail and enabled the expressive intervention of the photographer.
Pictorialism’s cliquish membership turned its back on modern life, reproducing natural or romantic subject-matter in the almost heroic pursuit of aesthetic refinement. Rejecting the realism of the commercial photograph, Pictorialists borrowed motifs and effects from painting in order to carve out the status of photography as art.
Scotland’s most prominent pictorialist photographer was James Craig Annan, who aged 14 joined the family photographic business in Glasgow. In 1883, he accompanied his father, Thomas, to Vienna where they met Karl Klíc, the inventor of the photogravure process. Incorporating techniques from etching, photogravure allowed for the artistic manipulation of the photographic image and would become a favoured technique of the Pictorialists. Closely allied with leading Glasgow artists, Annan accompanied the etcher, D. Y. Cameron, on artistic tours to Holland and Italy in the early 1890s. He also developed a fashionable portrait practice in his Glasgow studio, producing photographic portraits which paid subtle reference to artists such as Whistler or Holbein.
By 1900, Annan was heralded internationally as one of the foremost exponents of a progressive Pictorialism, praised both for his modern subject matter and the artistic invention of his skillfully crafted prints. In his best work – such as The Dark Mountains shot high on Ben Vorlich in the Trossachs – he combined a realist intuition with the more mysterious qualities of symbolist art. Annan’s romanticism is enigmatic, hovering at the threshold of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Annan was also a tireless promoter of photography as a fine art and in 1901 organised the International Exhibition of Art Photography at Glasgow’s famous International Exhibition. In a rigorously curated display, he brought together 500 exhibits from Europe and America by 201 photographers, including nine Hill and Adamson prints to represent the origins of Pictorialism. Annan’s construction of an early art history of photography – in opposition to its scientific and industrial development – survived largely unquestioned in Scotland during the twentieth century.
Pictorialists formed international networks to promote their aesthetic programme and in the manner of Art Nouveau frequently broke, or seceded, from established camera clubs. (Annan was a leading member of the Linked Ring formed in 1892 in opposition to the Photographic Society of Great Britain.)
The height of pictorialist expression was the New York journal Camera Work, edited by the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Printed on deluxe paper and reproducing photogravures of exquisite tonal complexity, it soon became the leading organ promoting art photography internationally. Camera Work published photogravures by Annan and also his reproductions from negatives by ‘D. O. Hill’ (the journal consistently downplayed Adamson’s technical role). Annan’s contribution to Camera Work did much to elevate Scotland’s position in the history of photography.
International Pictorialism’s refined aesthetic and elitist posture were obliterated by the horror of the trenches, its essentially nineteenth-century subject-matter out of tune with the destructive spirit of the post-war avant-garde. In Scotland Annan abandoned photography, but others continued to explore pictorialist themes and techniques, usually in portraiture or landscape. Clubs affiliated to the Scottish Photographic Federation shrugged off the call for a new formal purity in photography heard in the centres of modernist experiment like Berlin or New York. Instead they promoted a sentimental Pictorialism that lingered well into the 1940s. Indeed, arguably the romantic and idealised inflection of Scottish photography has encouraged the perpetual return of a ‘pictorialist’ aesthetic, often of pronounced technical virtuosity, between 1840 and the present day.