Straight Photography or Pictorialism

Discussion in 'Ethics and Philosophy' started by CPorter, Mar 8, 2007.

  1. CPorter

    CPorter Member

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    I have been reading AA's autobiography and have found it quite interesting regarding the debate in the early 1900's that photography itself was not considered an art form. So photographers began to present images as if they were paintings of some sort. Thus, there was this rebellious split around the 1930's in the photographic world, beginning with the Group f/64, that photography should not ever try to imitate any other art form. Keeping photography true to the purity of the "optical image" was the aim of the group and therefore it was considered "straight" in terms of the image itself and then presented on glossy paper that emphasized and enhanced the clarity of that image to reveal the fine detail of the subject .

    Relationships of tonality within the image was a different thing altogether and perhaps that was where the art existed within the concept of "straight photography". Presenting an image while remaining true to the medium was photography and the art was found in the subject matter, perspective, composition, point of view, and, primarily, in the tonal relationships in the final print that expressed the artistic vision of the photographer. It was simply in "bad taste" to make a photograph only to present it as something more closely resembling a painting-----"pictorialism".

    Edward Weston, a member of that group, was said to have called pictorial photography, the "fuzzy wuzzies".

    I consider myself a "straight" shooter, even before I really even knew who AA was or other photograhers of that vein. Over all the years that I have been looking at photographs I never could find myself stimulated by the alternative processed images and I was always more captivated by pure images. It wasn't until I started diving into some history that I finally discovered why. And it is this concept of "straight photography" that explains it. As I was reading, I was wandering about other APUGers and how they considered themselves.

    Are you a "straight" shooter or are you a "fuzzy wuzzy"?


    Chuck
     
  2. lesd

    lesd Member

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    I understand that Harry Callaghan was a (reluctant) pictorialist camera club photographer until he attended a lecture by Ansel Adams and underwent a kind of (photographic) conversion experience as a result.

    I wonder if one has to be one or the other? I guess I am more inclined to 'straight' photography but can appreciate a more pictorial approach, within certain bounds.

    Les
     
  3. Whiteymorange

    Whiteymorange Member

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    I'm 'bout as fuzzy as they get, I'm afraid. Straight shoters are great- but I just can't seem to do much that hasn't got a bit of a curve to it. Not in my nature.
     
  4. Lee Shively

    Lee Shively Member

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    I'm more a straight shooter than fuzzy. A little romance never hurt anyone, though. I'll tilt to some pictorialism every now and then.

    I'm a big fan of Walker Evans but I also appreciate Sally Mann's evocative photography.
     
  5. TheFlyingCamera

    TheFlyingCamera Membership Council Council

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    I don't know that one has to be one or the other. The whole F64 vs The Pictorialists smacks more of ideology and politics than it does of artistry. I LIKE images from both camps, and I like blending them in my own work too - either in groups of images (a series in the f64 vein, and another in the pictorialist) or even a bit of both in the same image. I like images that have a certain painterly quality to them, be it the light, the composition, or the subject matter. I also like images that have a photographic quality - things that say, "I am photograph, see me roar!". Crisply detailed palladium or other alt-process prints are a thing of beauty and joy, as are images that tell a story or convey an emotion. You want to bore me to tears? Show me another trees-and-rocks photo with infinite depth of field.
     
  6. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    One has to be careful of terms like "pure optical image" and "straight photography." Bokeh is as intrinsic a feature of the optical system than sharpness. It is as pure, if you wish to use this term.

    Berenice Abbott, not known for putting on white gloves, used to refer to the Stieglitz school as "Superpictorialists" and I think she is right. Letting aside the silly debate regarding what is the "true" photographic image, the prints of Ansel Adams and similar photographers exhibit as much pictorial effects as their fuzzy predecessors. The manipulation of contrast, adjacent tones, sharpness, and so on and so forth, are leagues beyond mere snapshot. To call this "straight" is at best metaphorical, at worst, dishonest. And if there is one art that straight photo encroaches upon, it's abstract painting, that "purest" of all paint forms.

    Abbott was annoyed by the extremely plastic considerations of the f/64 because she was concerned about the social, historical, and documentary functions of photography, not with the plastic aspect only. It came to her naturally, but it took years of anguish to Ansel Adams to find a way to articulate a socially relevant message in his photography because he was worried that he was useless to the world. For all their uncompromising sharp edges and realistic images, many of the straight photographers had a lot of difficulty dealing with the representation of reality itself. Probably because they were lyrical rather than dramatic people (the "equivalents" are not about the clouds but about the artist, etc).

    Stieglitz was at first a fuzzy pictorialist and later he just became a sharp pictorialist, but he never ceased to be a plastician rather than a documentary, except for a few photos. His school of followers reproduced a lot of the high art attitude that was so prevalent in the 19th century, but used a different pictorial medium.

    The biggest debate of the early 20th century in photography in my mind is one of status, not an artistic one. The Daguerreotype is as sharp as you can get, leagues beyond silver gelatin. It is the ur-f/64. Yet that is precisely what harmed its artistic appreciation for the era's intelligensia. So people turned to fuzzy pictures in the hope of a better acceptance, and that came close. Once the lessons of Pictorialism were learned, however, they were transferred into a sharp medium, branded as new, and then initiated the category of "art photography," which is painterly in a different way.

    The whole problem rests on interpretations of what the photographic medium is, and on the doctrine of medium-purity, i.e. that a work of art is better if it does not hybridize with another medium, or when it maximizes the use of a specific medium's specificity—Good lord! We should burn the opera-houses immediately because they are impure to music!!

    We always think of medium as being a unified thing, the kind of vaguely defined material in which we do our art. I have a different definition (which I borrowed from scholars I'm not going to cite properly here).

    There are two levels at which medium operate: the vehicular and the artistic. The vehicular medium is the material or manifest thing in which a work of art exists. It's the English language for Hamlet, marble for Michaelangelo's David, and silver gelatin for my photographs. Then there is the artistic medium: the set of shared understandings and practices between an artist and its audience, the conventions. That would be reportage, mise-en-scènes, plastic photography, etc. All of these different practices imply different conventions: in a mise-en-scène, we usually take the photo as fictional, whereas in reportage we take it as a factual depiction. In plastic photography, we observe first the composition, the pictorial effects, rather than social relevance. And all of these different media can exist in the same vehicle of silver gelatin.

    The important thing to understand is that a specific vehicular medium does not entail a specific artistic medium. Many different artistic media can be realized in the same vehicular medium, as I've suggested above, so you won't find an artistic media that is purer than the other one for that reason. Conversly, some artistic media can exist in different vehicular media (Brady did reportage using collodion), so you do not have in the end any relations of implication between the tools you use and what they can accomplish. You have practical limits, local peculiarities (the pouring waves of collodion), but you will not stub your toe on the essence of photography as dictated by its medium simply because a good deal of what constitutes its medium is conventional and subject to change.

    So in light of all that blather, my photography is plastic, realized in silver gelatin most of the time, and it also tries to preserve the reportage convention of "it happened before my eyes." I have no fixed preference regarding fuzzy or sharp, using both when I need to, and I appreciate Mortensen as much as Strand.
     
  7. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    Scott, you beat me to the politics vs. artistic aspect! I was typing for too long while you said that.
     
  8. JBrunner

    JBrunner Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    I think that those of us experimenting with Petvals and other Portrait
    lenses really aren't convinced our work is at this point pictorialist expression. I would submit that pictorialism is more than a function of DOF or focus, and is the result of specific intent.
    Respects to Whitey, who is serious in his undertakings, and I think that there is a distinction between following ones own direction in photography, which may involve the "fuzzy wuzzies", and pictorialism, (imitation of painting) which is at this time undergoing somewhat of a steriodal renaissance with the D crowd (PS filters, printing on watercolor, canvas, etc)
    The most charmingly amusing aspect of the return to pictorialism, is that most of the practitioners think they are breaking new ground.
     
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  9. reellis67

    reellis67 Subscriber

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    I don't care for absolutes, so I will not say that I am a 'straight' photographer, but I do shoot primarily sharp photographs, with the exception of the occasional pinhole. I try to match the methods I use with the idea I am working on such that the result gives the effect I want it to give, and in *almost* all cases this results in something that is very much what you would see with your bare eyes, but not always. I do occasionally use motion blur or hand color a print, and I often subtly change the contrast to suit what I want, in the exposure, developing, and printing stages. I even use historic printing processes when it suits the subject, and sometimes use lenses wide open, but I never montage, re-work negatives, or add things (skies, etc...), or drop in things that were not there at the time of the exposure.

    As to purity of media, I can only say that my personal preference in both viewing and buying is that I tend to be attracted to photographs that look like photographs, rather than those that appear as some other art form, and I tend not to find anything of interest in photographs that are heavily worked so as to appear artificial, or unrealistic. I have nothing against mixed media, but attempts to make one media imitate another make no sense to me. For example, I strongly dislike photographs that have been printed on canvas in order to make them look like paintings – this type of thing makes me think that either someone was too lazy to take the time needed to learn how to paint, or they can't see past gimmicks. If a subject can only be portrayed effectively (in your opinion) by painting it, paint it - don't manipulate it to be 'soft' like a painting, print it on a canvas, and then gallery wrap it. Choose the medium that works with your message rather than trying to make something be what it isn't, or worse, make the medium the message.

    - Randy
     
  10. jstraw

    jstraw Member

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    I view it as a conceit that there is any photograph that's not "pictorial."

    Promoting the illusion that a photograph can be an unfiltered document of reality is not for me. The image one creates is the result of so many choices and decisions, compromises and limitations that to point out that they are all illustrations and not strictly documentations seems like it should be unneccesary.

    Yet, it's not.
     
  11. Vaughn

    Vaughn Subscriber

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    Can gay photographers be straight shooters?

    Sorry, rather silly...as is the use of most lables. As an f64'er in practise, I am slowly allowing myself to use a wide-angle lens on my 8x10 that is not necessarily sharp in the corners...baby steps, but I'm getting somewhere.

    Vaughn
     
  12. Jonathan Brewer

    Jonathan Brewer Member

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    For a while, many folks tried to make their painting look like photos, regardless of whether a painting looks like a photo or the reverse, photography and painting share much of the same technique.

    I disagree w/the premise of straight versus the 'fuzzy wuzzies', a lot of what Steichen and Alvin Langdon Coburn shot had nothing to do with the 'fw'/couldn't be 'pidgeonholed' as 'pictorialism', an example would be Alvin Langdon Coburn's shot of Ezra Pound.

    Ansel Adams and Weston shot pictorials and there was nothing 'straight'/more real/closer to the truth, you get closer to the truth by shooting color than you do b&w cuz most of see in color unless you're color blind, ................................of course there's a handful of folks on these forums who are snakes so they probably ought to be shooting infrared.

    The way we see things is more akin to selective focus than the other way, and I just don't see a valid argument for any style/school being any more right or closer to the truth than any other.

    Ansel Adams waiting until the light was right wasn't any more closer to the truth than what he didn't shoot while he was waiting, what he chose not to shoot was there too. Artists/Photographers PICK AND CHOOSE, the truth isn't like that. A mountain range doesn't stop at the frameline of a photograph, not really, so what's straight about it? You get more realism by putting down a picture of a place(even if it's shot by Ansel Adams), going there yourself, looking around seeing for yourself, seeing the whole place, and then picking out what's important to you.

    We keep going over this, and the bottom line is that what's good is whatever your prefer, which doesn't validate your style/way of doing it over something else.
     
  13. Jonathan Brewer

    Jonathan Brewer Member

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    'I view it as a conceit that there is any photograph that's not "pictorial."

    Promoting the illusion that a photograph can be an unfiltered document of reality is not for me. The image one creates is the result of so many choices and decisions, compromises and limitations that to point out that they are all illustrations and not strictly documentations seems like it should be unneccesary.

    Yet, it's not.'..........................

    ...............................J-Straw, SHO U RITE:D :D :D :D Couldn't have, and didn't say it better myself.
     
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  15. JBrunner

    JBrunner Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    The history of Photo-Secession and Pictorialism, ala Stieglitz, and the West Coast School of photography of Weston-Adams brought forward with the "bessing" of pater Stieglitz are fundamental parts of the development and unfolding of photographic history, and the recognition of photographs as more than just a recordings of an instance in time.

    The type of photography denoted by the term "pictorialism" is well established, and has no more bearing on the abstract concept of photography than the media used.

    Belaboring the definition of pictorialism is semantic.
     
  16. Lee Shively

    Lee Shively Member

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    "Belaboring the definition of pictorialism is semantic."

    Agreed. I prefer "romantic". "Pictorial" is an out-moded description anyway.
     
  17. jstraw

    jstraw Member

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    I understand the historic definition of "pictorialsim" and how that differs from what I'm talking about. And I also realize that from my perspective, that the difference is just a matter of degree, is cultural (if not entirely semantic).

    That to me the work of Adams and Mortensen are more similar to each other than either are to objective reality might have seemed absurd to them. But that's where I'm at.
     
  18. Jonathan Brewer

    Jonathan Brewer Member

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    'The type of photography denoted by the term "pictorialism" is well established, and has no more bearing on the abstract concept of photography than the media used.

    Belaboring the definition of pictorialism is semantic.'..............................

    .................I don't don't agree w/that, 'well established by who?', I don't agree with what some folks call pictorialism versus what they insist to be a straight style, which is why were having this kind of discussion.

    There's been an undercurrent in all of this, a 'dismissive' quality to the tone in which a lot of folks discuss the so-called Pictorialists versus the straight folks. Most of what Ansel Adams and Weston shot, versus what Steichen and Coburn shot, and many paintings, were more similar than they were different, because they shared common technique. The difference in style of the folks mentioned above wasn't a whole helluva lot particularly when discussing landscape photography, and shooting a landscape, closing way down to increase dof, in b&w doesn't make it any less of a pictorial or straighter or closer to the truth.

    I don't care who else has some well established belief, I don't agree w/the original premise.
     
  19. CPorter

    CPorter Member

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    Ok, I have heard several references to Adams, Weston, and others of the Group f/64 that were also pictorialists in how they shot some photographs. Someone provide me with an example of one of their "pictorialist" photos.

    According to the "Group F/64 Manifesto" of which Adams was elected to author, the group defined pure photography as:

    "Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form. The production of the "Pictorialist", on the other hand, indicates a devotion to principles of art which are directly related to painting and the graphic arts."

    Despite how one may think that pictorialism has evolved to this point in time, I still think the main connection of the 1930's pictorialism versus todays pictorialism, is the use of the photographed image, in the end result, to resemble another form of art. Even though we all know that it is a photographed image, its purity as such has been compromised. It's a photographed image, but now it also looks like something else. So, though I can't see that politics has anything to do with it (as previously mentioned) but I certainly do see that there is a definite philosophy being adhered to.

    A philosophy that also did not wish to hold any "deprecating opinion of the photographers who are not included in its shows". I think it was a definite attempt to say this is how we view photography and that it is an art form in its purist application.

    Chuck
     
  20. bill schwab

    bill schwab Advertiser Advertiser

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    The first print in a recent exhibit of Ansel Adams' that I saw was an image done in 1919 in the tradition of the "pictorialists". Quite beautiful, it had that common, out of focus look of the time and genre. Many of his early, non-pictorialist prints had a softer, warmer feel to them as well. It made me wonder what would have happened if he had stuck with that approach. It is just an opinion, but I think it was in a way even more striking than the cold, contrasty, sharp as a tack look most of the world knows him for.

    Bill
     
  21. Kerik

    Kerik Member

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    OK, I'll bite. I think hard-core f64-ists would consider the image below as pictorialist. What other medium am I trying to imitate here?? It is pure photography - albeit with a soft-focus lens. The optical (ie photographic) qualities of this image are not something I associate with painting or anything else.
     

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  22. copake_ham

    copake_ham Inactive

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    Graphic art? Illustration?
     
  23. jstraw

    jstraw Member

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    I'm pondering the fact that this statement seems absurd to me and obviously did not to them.
     
  24. JBrunner

    JBrunner Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    When a tome refers to "pictorialism, or the "west coast school", or "pure photography" I have no more difficulty discerning the difference, than I would where the words "watercolor" , and "oil painting" The existence of one hardly demeans the other. "Truth" has nothing to do with it, but might be used as an expressed concept regarding one particular style.

    These are names used to denote certain styles of photography.
    A simple perusal of any serious minded book on the history of photography as art will aptly illustrate that. Jstraw has aptly explained his point, and it is well taken.

    Beyond Jstraws provincial position, debating the application of the term "pictorialism" as the term applies to photography and photographic history is is quite frankly ridiculous.
     
  25. Kerik

    Kerik Member

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    No and no.
     
  26. Jonathan Brewer

    Jonathan Brewer Member

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    You have to be kidding!!!???? The whole reason why people disucss Adams or Weston, was because of their HIGH DEGREE of technique, their skill, at things like composition/manipulation of subject matter.

    I'll go you one better, put up some AA shots, or Weston's shot of his 'Bellpepper', I suggest that it's impossible not their to scrutinize that or their other work and NOT FIND technique which is shared with painting.


    "Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form. The production of the "Pictorialist", on the other hand, indicates a devotion to principles of art which are directly related to painting and the graphic arts."

    The above statement by these folks is great for a pep talk, great if it gets them going, great if it stirs them on to great things, but photography and painting share a lot, to try to say that they don't, I suggest, is impossible.

    Painters establish a light source, and how it affects tonality, so did Steichen, and Coburn, and so did Adams, talking about technique, he developed that to a HIGH degree, or else what do you call the ZONE SYSTEM.......and he MANIPULATED the zone system in shooting images to where the image ended up not necessarily representing what was really there, that's the same thing you do with a painting.

    Painting and Photography share a lot, the idea of the reference of the above statement about what's 'derivative', is off to me, because one came before the other, and the idea that by some degree that their photographs don't look like those of the Pictorialists, well they do. Steichen had shot landscapes that look pretty close to some the landscapes AA shot, check out his book.

    The F64 folks were good at compositon and technique, in fact they were great at it, even if they inisist that's not what they really did.