A 19th century movement among photographers who explored the artistic potential of the new technology, looking to paintings for stylistic models.
An early photography movement that emerged in Europe and North America in the 1880s which explored photography’s role as an art form, prioritising beauty, mystery and atmosphere over accurate, scientific record. The style echoed popular painting styles of the era including Romanticism, Impressionism, Symbolism and the Pre-Raphaelites.
Scottish Pioneers: Hill & Adamson
Just four years after the invention of photography was announced, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson formed a hugely prolific partnership that would steer the development of Pictorialist photography, focussing on the medium’s painterly, atmospheric properties. Two types of photography were in circulation by the 1840s – the Daguerreotype, invented by Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre in France and the calotype by Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot. The calotype, introduced to Scotland by scientist Sir David Brewster, fascinated Hill; trained in fine art with an established reputation as a landscape painter, he saw the experimental and unpredictable possibilities of the medium, likening it to the act of painting, writing, 'The rough and unequal texture throughout the paper is the main cause of the calotype failing in details before the Daguerrotype… and this is the very life of it. They look like the imperfect work of man … and not the much diminished perfect work of God.'
Between 1843 and 1847 Hill and Adamson produced a vast body of work, documenting the people and places of Scotland with great sensitivity. Adamson had trained as an engineer before learning photography from his older brother, Dr John Adamson, an interest that bled through into his depictions of Scottish cityscapes with Hill, including their famous depictions of the Scott Monument in construction, which lend the building a ghostly, macabre quality. Among their most famous work is the documentation of the Scottish fishing village of Newhaven, capturing deeply atmospheric studies of the local workers who kept the place alive.
English photographer Henry Peach Robinson was one of the first to describe the rising trend for aesthetic, art photography as 'pictorial', in his book Pictorial Effect in Photography: Being Hints On Composition and Chiaroscuro For Photographers, 1869. Robinson argued that painterly, chiaroscuro effects in photography could lend them a greater sense of mystery and gravitas to rival any form of art. In Scotland the legacy of Hill and Adamson lived on; Adamson died young, but Hill passed his knowledge on to the next generation, working with rising voices including Thomas Annan, and later his son, James Craig Annan, who would become Scotland’s most prominent Pictorialist photographer.
Annan learned the photography trade from his father, and travelled with him to Vienna to learn the photogravure process from its inventor Karl Klic. With close parallel to etching, the technique had a hand-made end result that proved hugely popular as Pictorialism expanded into international circles. Annan travelled widely throughout Holland and Italy in the 1890s, soaking up influences from the artistic avant-garde, particularly Whistler and Holbein, whose resonant tonalities are echoed in his photographs, including the moody and haunting work The Dark Mountains, 1890. By 1900 Annan had established an international reputation as a leading Pictorialist, celebrated for his artistic invention, which transformed contemporary subjects into dreamy, symbolist scenes. In 1901 Annan curated the International Exhibition of Art Photography in Glasgow, including 500 artworks from Europe and the United States. Nine Hill and Adamson prints were included, celebrating their role as the original founders of the Pictorialist movement.
By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Pictorialism had become an international movement, with ideas spreading across Europe and the United States. In 1891 The International Exhibition of Art Photography in Vienna displayed over 600 photographs, while the work of English photographers Henry Peach Robinson, Alfred Maskell, Lydell Sawyer and George Davison stood out. This group of English photographers later established a group known as The Linked Ring, celebrating what they called, 'the development of the highest form of Art of which photography is capable.' Pioneering various experimental techniques, they produced Impressionistic images with unusual lighting, carbon prints, darkroom manipulation and pinhole cameras. The group expanded to include various American members as their reputation grew. Similar clubs sprang up in other cities, including Paris’ Photo-Club and Photo-Secession in New York, led by Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz.
Stieglitz also edited the world-famous luxury journal Camera Work, printing richly tonal photogravure prints on premium quality paper, which soon became recognised as the era’s leading voice for fine art photography. Annan made various contributions, including a series of reproductions made from Hill and Adamson’s negatives, raising the status of Scottish photography worldwide and influencing a new generation; American photographer Paul Strand’s moving, sensitively observed practice was profoundly shaped by Annan’s presentation of Hill and Adamson’s work.
As the first true art photography movement Pictorialism was instrumental in defining photography as an experimental art form. Yet by the advent of the First World War more serious forms of photographic documentation seemed better suited to the horrors of the times. The language of geometry and order that infiltrated painting practices also came to define early twentieth-century photography, which increasingly focussed on modernist designs. Even so, various regional Pictorialist clubs continued to exist well into the 1940s, while the 1960s saw a renewed interest in ‘vintage’ photography techniques, including many of those practiced by the original Pictorialist groups. Contemporary photographers also continue to reinvent the Romantic, symbolist language of Annan and Stieglitz, including Francesca Woodman and David Williams.