How pictorialism changed aesthetic vision in a search for photographic language


Pictorialism was a successful aesthetical response to the outburst of amateur photographic popularity, which resulted in technically good but aesthetically indifferent photographs (Wilson, 1994: 1). Rejecting the notion of photography as a scientific means, pictorialists were developing styles and techniques with the intention to create images with an artistic merit that could rival painting (Musée d’Orsay: Archives, 2009). That rivalry did not aim to replace the older art for with the new one, but engaged in attempts to establish the young practice, in reference to it, as an art form itself. The movement’s strength was in its weakness. The vast variety of styles and experimentation did not establish consistent notions, however, it unveiled limitless visual capacities of the medium as yet another means of creative report. Pictorialism’s relevance is not commonly vocalised but it is deeply present in contemporary image making ideas and a sort of renaissance or just pure mimicry of the style can be observed nowadays due to the accessibility of technological innovation. In the first part of the essay, I will discus Pictorialism as a collection of ideas in order to target the most significant elements that constituted the movement. Next I will focus on individual approaches to the medium and analyse photographic works of two selected practitioners: Heinrich Kühn and William Mortensen, in an attempt to expose what provoked the change in aesthetic vision and how it manifested itself. Here I will discus the importance of pictorial lighting that I identify as a driving force of the movement.

Pictorialism was the most significant and yet the least consistent search for a photographic language. Largely started purely at the aesthetic level, with the attention to subject matter developed parallel refining its artistic identity at a later stage. The movement did not have a clear manifesto and while attracting many practitioners, who refused to mechanically record reality, it contained many theories of what it meant. Multiple statements on what photography should be and what is the role of photographer was, were the driving force for most of the relevant practices. The statements were mostly rooted in attempts to position photography as an art form and a creative medium, therefore the attempts were directed at working with techniques that would prove that the medium required the same creative energies and skills as those observed in established art forms (Hirsch, 1999: 186). Somewhere at the border of Pictorialism and Naturalism, Emerson advocated the idea of soft focus “just as sharp as the eye sees it and no sharper”. Images produced this way were pleasing and became popular, the style attracted amateurs for whom Kodak offered around hundred exposures at the disposal of mimicking the effect. Many confused the results of an unfocused camera with an artistic approach and collectively produced a number of content lacking images that at best could possibly be labelled as a study of blur (Hirsch, 1999: 187). This could be frustrating for trained photographers who were fighting to establish their role as artists and validate their work, however it shows that the movement found public favor and the aesthetics they were presenting were acknowledged and changing the common vision. The shift did not seem to affect how society should perceive the surrounding visual data, but it created ideas around how anyone with a camera could record and represent society. Weston wrote that contemporary man, even if he wasn’t using camera himself, surely was showing interest in the photographs (Weston, 1930: 315).

Amongst the chaos of opinions and definitions of Pictorialism, it can be surely acknowledged that the practitioners:

…rebelled against the convincing nature of photography and strove to prove that it could produce artistic effect, elicit delicate feelings in the spectator, and bespeak a romantic, ideal world intrinsically opposed to the crystalline and sometimes sordid products of 19th-century documentarian (Leighten, 1977: 134).

In order to do so pictorialists adapted certain attitudes and attention to light. To engage in the aesthetic style one had to understand it on several levels. Firstly the illumination that can be captured and possibly controlled, the one that defines the object, its form and a reference to the dimensionality of the surrounding. Next the liquid light, this is dictated by photosensitive emulsions, the ones that can be applied in brush strokes in order to create, or rather recreate, painterly image and delicacy of tone (Leighten, 1977: 134). Finally the light that never existed at the scene but could be created by stripping down layers of pigments to enrich the tonal range and emphasise the impact of dramatic techniques like Chiaroscuro or Notan; or simply increase the illusion of three dimensionality and depth within the image.

Amongst common notion that pictorialists focused on were alterations and manipulation of the film and print: the practitioners were developing a progressive view on the medium. Heinrich Kühn’s works stand out with an incredibly contemporary look. The photographs carry a similar warm aesthetic look to the one found in impressionists’ works, although it is argued that he hints at a modernist attitude (Mulligan et al., 2012: 384). His works are a fascinating study of light and experimentation with rendition of tonal range. His photographs are a careful observation of people as emotionally charged ‘forms’ even if those forms are limited to members of his family. His mastery in Lumiere’s autochrome and gum bichromate processes allowed him to find freedom in capturing the beauty that pictorialists where striving for. The compositions were daring and only seemingly simplified by achieved by understanding of the conditions dictated by light (Musée d’Orsay: Archives, 2009).

Kühn broke the boring conventions of photography and challenged both photographers’ and viewers’ ideas on portraiture. The understanding of nuances of illumination guided him to create unusual perspectives, often photographed from above eye level, and combine them with signature arrangements of the subject in the frame (Hirsch, 1999: 191). His vivid images refreshed ideas on aesthetic vision in photography and inspired practitioners to explore the possibilities to record the light reflected in a colour tonal spectrum.

8c510a31c45a408d2e18c6930b59f768Tonwerstudies (1929) Heinrich Küh

Maybe due to his processes his stills look as if they were frames taken out of a movie picture. One may argue that all the photographs could carry this similar illusion, however there is an unusual sense of time flow in Kühn’s works. It may be hidden in this haunting feeling of secrecy that seems to be attributed to the presented subject. The light arrangements guide sight around the frame in a way, that no matter which direction you allow it to lead you, it will trap curious eyes inside the image. This is due to clever lighting design that challenges us to discover new clues exposed in highlights or feelings isolated in shadows. The image Tonwertstudie (Tonal Value Study) from 1929 is an excellent statement of his craft. The photograph can be perceived as an image of a young woman in a white dress facing away from the viewer. Once we follow the light starting with its hottest point on her bare shoulder, sliding down the creases of the dress we arrive at her clenched fist hidden in shadow and at the same time pointed out by strokes of light values. From there we can examine, subdued in darker tones, details of the background with a mere suggestion of walls and a window with a view on the street. A perfect example of pictorialist style emerged in eye opening aesthetics, ambiguity and story telling. His play with light opened new possibilities to propose compositions with allocated field for shades instead of the breathing space.

Kühn had an unusual ability to balance what should be “well-lighted” and what he felt calls to be “plunged in shade” (Mulligan et al., 2012: 384). The often-featured heavily sun-washed scenes are infused with peace and arrested moments; subjects of beauty as if their task was to anthologise the world filled with people sharing purest qualities of humanity (Sontag, 2008: 110). In simplicity and lightness of expression Kühn set the tone for aesthetical values in photography and presented us with a creative narrative born in the act of preserving memories. The theories in photography that stand out the most for me and are relevant today are those of Mortensen’s. Despite continuous criticism he focused his career on the development of the medium through consequent reflective practice.


Stillleben mit Veilchen (1908) Heinrich Kühn

Mortensen wrote a several bodies of work dedicated to the approach and techniques in which he presented a great social awareness of the impact of the images on the viewer’s perception. Mortensen was exposing us to images that could possibly desensitise us or adjust us through the medium of fiction to the environment. He was creating at the time when Pictorialism became marginalised and dismissed by opposition from professionals; however his theories on pictorial lighting, techniques and aesthetics vision created a foundation of photography for generations to come. Mortensen was an advocate of simplicity in lighting and composition. Despite his excessive experiments with chiaroscuro he was much more interested in photography’s abilities to engage with  graphic arts technique of Notan, which do not hide the dimensional limitation of the medium. A lot of his stylistic theories are influenced by Botticelli’s paintings and embrace techniques of “modified notan” or a combination between that method and chiaroscuro. Since the key to his theories was the idea of balance, modification and subtlety of light, he refused to use harsh shadows and “cheap sensationalism in lighting effects” as an unskilful exploration of which he strongly criticised (Mortensen, 1937: 23-27).


The Pit and The Pendulum (1935) W. Mortensen

Mortensen worked as a photographer in Hollywood and had an impact on creating the standard iconic film star look in images. During his time at the studios he gained an insight into elements of cinematography, which later on he used in his theatrically lit staged narratives that combined both Pictorialism and “Hollywood magic” (Ehrlich, 1996: 77). He was studying paintings and graphic arts in relevance to techniques of the medium of photography and that was potentially the reason why he became a true master of lighting. He understood the phenomenon in a sense of its physical characteristics, which he identifies as basic, contour, semi-silhouette, dynamic and plastic light. Those were categorised based on their emotional qualities as balanced or unbalanced in reference to their basic or dynamic significance. He argued that all the lighting effects ever needed, could be executed using two 500 watt electrical units without filters and diffusion (Mortensen, 1937: 71-73).

Mortensen strongly encouraged practitioners to acknowledge light as “the very essence of the medium”, stressing that photography was a means of chemically recording relative luminosities (Mortensen, 1937: 24). His practice with illumination was a search to expose even the minimal changes in tonal values and resulted in subtle portraits that were exposing the figure’s features through contour as opposed to defining its dimensional properties through shadow. Possibly, Mortensen was one of the most progressive photographers of his time. This can be noticed in the dramatic stylistic changes executed in his works that has its roots in his understanding of photography as a graphic art and the limitless possibilities it brings to pictorial effect, supported by development in electric lighting. Noticeably, two distinct ideas on photographic illumination are predominant in his works. Strong use of chiaroscuro is present in his series depicting witchcraft and ‘satanic’ themes that stands as a contrast to his methods in portraiture, where the light is used subtly to suggest the features. The second idea can be considered as a combination of a strong tempering with print, resulting in a graphic look showcasing even the smallest changes in tonal range. Mortensen can be criticised for the subject matter of his photographs, objectifying women and picturing them in the power of men (Hirsch, 1999: 251), however he deserves a highest recognition for “the level of craftsmanship and obsessive energy that he invested in rendering his artistic visions” (Coleman, Moynihan, and Lytle, 2015: 9).


Pictorialism changed people’s aesthetic vision as could be observed in the popularity of the style amongst both professionals and amateurs. During this movement photography as a medium generated a lot of attention and created a foundation for editorial imagery. The biggest shift, however, occurred in the sphere of pictorial lighting. No matter what light source we use, whether it is a street lamp, candle, sun or the moon, we are able to generate a variety of inexplicable atmospheric ambiences in support of our narrative agenda. Light functions as a mediation between what is visible and what is not and as such creates moods that essentially are a driving force for the lens based media (Hochleitner, et al. 2005: 151). The aesthetic vision that was proposed and cultivated by generation of pictorialists suggested to viewer’s that reality and perception of it are separate and subjectively constructed through sensitivity to external factors. Illumination, colour and line are possibly there to serve the purpose of recreating: surrounding us with a visual world with simpler and selective composition of meanings, those that we can process and accept (Lippmann, 2015).

Pictorialism stretched the borders of what was socially acceptable in photography and by impairing its scientific position, proposed to treat it as form of expression that also has possibilities to realistically present a fictional data with a conviction of the medium’s original purpose of documenting reality. A. D. Coleman insisted on using the entire spectrum of available tools, materials and processes, also not to treat negative and print as ‘sacrosanct’ objects. I will go as far as to say that I believe that they did not treat any element of photography as sacrosanct. That was noticeable in practices of both of my selected artists. Kuhn studied the world through its visual representation on paper with all its beauty exploding in colors and light, as such, constant study could not be bounded by any limiting beliefs. Mortensen seemed not to treat anything in the ‘untouchable’ categories. He was bold in his practice and utilized both themes and techniques to explore his expressive abilities with an emphasis on an appeal to emotion and imagination. Movements that came shortly after Pictorialism and replaced the style were born out of that changed aesthetic vision, even if it was manifested in opposing views.

In the second decade of twenty first century it seems like we are experiencing a sort of renaissance of the elements rooted in the painterly style. Since appearance of IPhone and mobile software like Instagram, we change the way we communicate and shift towards visually orientated societies. Amongst the chaos of camera users and photo enhancement applications selection one can conclude that Pictorialism is still relevant and continues to have a visual impact on how we preserve our memories.



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