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  1. #1
    CPorter's Avatar
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    Straight Photography or Pictorialism

    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. #2

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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. #3
    Whiteymorange's Avatar
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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. #4

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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. #5
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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. #6
    Michel Hardy-Vallée's Avatar
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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.
    Using film since before it was hip.


    "One of the most singular characters of the hyposulphites, is the property their solutions possess of dissolving muriate of silver and retaining it in considerable quantity in permanent solution" — Sir John Frederick William Herschel, "On the Hyposulphurous Acid and its Compounds." The Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, Vol. 1 (8 Jan. 1819): 8-29. p. 11

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  7. #7
    Michel Hardy-Vallée's Avatar
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    Scott, you beat me to the politics vs. artistic aspect! I was typing for too long while you said that.
    Using film since before it was hip.


    "One of the most singular characters of the hyposulphites, is the property their solutions possess of dissolving muriate of silver and retaining it in considerable quantity in permanent solution" — Sir John Frederick William Herschel, "On the Hyposulphurous Acid and its Compounds." The Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, Vol. 1 (8 Jan. 1819): 8-29. p. 11

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  8. #8
    JBrunner's Avatar
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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.
    Last edited by JBrunner; 03-08-2007 at 12:35 PM. Click to view previous post history.

  9. #9
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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. #10
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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.
    Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. In velit arcu, consequat at, interdum sit amet, consequat in, quam.

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