When photography was first invented, it was hailed as a new artistic advance. Then, in a few years, it was descried as a mechanical process with no soul. It was no longer an “art,” but instead a craft. As one of the first attempts to justify photography as a visual art some photographers explored pictorialism. They would use soft focus, scratch their negatives, or use photographic processes that allowed them to manipulate their images. For example, gum bichromate printing allowed the photographer to wash away part of the image. The goal was to make their images more “painterly.”
These practices fell out of favor at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Alfred Stieglitz, a vocal exponent of pictorialism, began to champion the “straight” print about 1914. In the 1930s, photographers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston where among the founders of f/64, a short-lived but very influencial group that promoted sharp prints with full tonalities. By the 1940s pictorialism had all but disappeared, though there have always been a few advocates.
What made me think about this? I had recently purchased–on sale, of course–a set of plugins from Topaz Labs. Plugins are small programs that allow a digital photographer to manipulate an image. While some of them are used to do things like convert a color image to black & white, sharpen an image, or remove noise, many of them are designed to enhance–some might say over-enhance–characteristics such as color saturation. These later are similar to the “filters” you can find on your smartphone.
Just for the heck of it, I applied one of these plugins, Impression 2, to a straight image I had taken a few years ago. The result is above. And it came to me. Pictorialism is back, exemplified on the computer and iPhone. Once again we want to make things “painterly,” and once again it’s as fake as it ever was.
At least I have hope that a digital incarnation of the f/64 Group is waiting in the wings.