San Gabriel – Hand-tinted Pictorialist Photograph P1399

Gauzily dreamy in the the early twentieth century pictorialist manner, this photograph conveys the charm of California’s long ago San Gabriel.

Pictorialism is the name given to an international style and aesthetic movement that dominated photography during the later 19th and early 20th centuries. There is no standard definition of the term, but in general it refers to a style in which the photographer has somehow manipulated what would otherwise be a straightforward photograph as a means of “creating” an image rather than simply recording it. Typically, a pictorial photograph appears to lack a sharp focus (some more so than others), is printed in one or more colors other than black-and-white (ranging from warm brown to deep blue) and may have visible brush strokes or other manipulation of the surface. For the pictorialist, a photograph, like a painting, drawing or engraving, was a way of projecting an emotional intent into the viewer’s realm of imagination.

Pictorialism as a movement thrived from about 1885 to 1915, although it was still being promoted by some as late as the 1940s. It began in response to claims that a photograph was nothing more than a simple record of reality, and transformed into an international movement to advance the status of all photography as a true art form. For more than three decades painters, photographers and art critics debated opposing artistic philosophies, ultimately culminating in the acquisition of photographs by several major art museums.


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One of the key figures in establishing both the definition and direction of pictorialism in the US was American Alfred Stieglitz, who began as an amateur but quickly made the promotion of pictorialism his profession and obsession. Through his writings, his organizing and his personal efforts to advance and promote pictorial photographers, Stieglitz was a dominant figure in pictorialism from its beginnings to its end. Following in the footsteps of German photographers, in 1892 Stieglitz established a group he called the Photo-Secession in New York. Stieglitz hand-picked the members of the group, and he tightly controlled what it did and when it did it. By selecting photographers whose vision was aligned with his, including Gertrude Käsebier, Eva Watson-Schütze, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Edward Steichen, and Joseph Keiley, Stieglitz built a circle of friends who had enormous individual and collective influence over the movement to have photography accepted as art. Stieglitz also continually promoted pictorialism through two publications he edited, Camera Notes and Camera Work and by establishing and running a gallery in New York that for many years exhibited only pictorial photographers (the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession).

While much initially centered on Stieglitz, pictorialism in the U.S. was not limited to New York. In Boston F. Holland Day was one of the most prolific and noted pictorialists of his time. Clarence H. White, who produced extraordinary pictorial photographs while in Ohio, went on to teach a whole new generation of photographers. On the West Coast the California Camera Club and Southern California Camera Club included prominent pictorialists Annie Brigman, Arnold Genthe, Adelaide Hanscom Leeson, Emily Pitchford and William E. Dassonville. Later on, the Seattle Camera Club was started by a group of Japanese-American pictorialists, including Dr. Kyo Koike, Frank Asakichi Kunishige and Iwao Matsushita (prominent members later included Ella E. McBride and Soichi Sunami).