The New Pictorialism

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JM Colberg

“During the 1890s,” writes Naomi Rosenblum in A World History of Photography, “serious amateurs as well as professionals deplored the ‘fatal facility’ that made possible millions upon millions of camera images of little artistic merit. In seeking to distinguish their own work from this mass of utilitarian photographs, Pictorialists articulated a dual role for the medium in which images would provide an unnuanced record on the one hand, and, on the other, provoke thought and feeling.” (p. 297) Change a few phrases and the date, and you arrive at what could describe the frequent misgivings voice about photography today. There are too many pictures, we are told; and what good are all those photographs of food for anyway?

What interests me here is not the complaint about the “millions upon millions” (now billions upon billions) of images. It seems this complaint is simply part of photography itself. Instead, I want to focus on the Pictorialists’ solution: If there are too many photographs that look too much like something produced by a mechanical device, then we ought to be making something else, something that looks more like art. Looking back, Pictorialism probably strikes us more as incredibly dated than as very artful, especially given that any photograph can be art as long as someone says so.

But still, the Pictorialist impulse, to treat photographs in such a way that they look like art, and not merely like photographs, is still with us. Consider the way the widely popular photography site Instagram treats photographs. Once you’ve taken a picture, you can manipulate it in all kinds of ways, most prominently by picking one of the various filters for it. In similar ways, Oggl (no, really, that’s the name), previously Hipstamatic, centers on applying very specific filters to your image. Oggl even separates things into types of “film” and “lenses.” You want to take a picture that looks like it was taken with a Kodak Instamatic camera? Just pick your “film” and “lens” (pay for those first, of course), and you’re all set!

There is something utterly amazing about this. What we’re witnessing is the following: photography has developed to such an extent that some of the most popular applications of cutting-edge technology is to make things look like what you would get before said technology existed. The very technologies that made film cameras obsolete are now being used to produce photographs that look like film cameras.

People who have never ever had to deal with trying to get a decent picture out of a Polaroid camera, say, now make pictures that look like, well, as if they were made in such a way. And whereas in the not-so-distant past the various technical problems you’d run into with such cameras were a general nuisance, now the (fake) imperfections are what people are after!

Being one of those people using such procedures – I’ll happily admit that I am a frequent user of Hipstamatic, currently making mostly faux wetplate pictures (they’re called “tintypes,” but they don’t really look like tintypes to me) – I see absolutely nothing wrong with such apps being so popular. I don’t think they degrade photography in any kind of way. On the contrary, if such apps contribute to making photography more popular than ever before that’s perfect.

The popularity of creating photographs that look as if they were made in the past fascinates me: This essentially is a form of Pictorialism, an attempt to make pictures that look like art. Needless to say, just because a photograph might have filters applied to it doesn’t necessarily make it a good picture.

In much the same way, I also approach large parts of the photography that I tend to call New Formalism. If you’re curious about such photography, issue #5 of Conveyor Magazine features quite a few artists engaged in this currently so popular type of work. This is a form of Pictorialism as well. Just to make this clear, I don’t mean this as a criticism.

Of course, when I use the term Pictorialism here, I’m misusing it. In the history of photography, Pictorialism stands for a very specific form of photography (and I’m very aware of that). What interests me here is the impetus behind the original Pictorialism, less its particular aesthetic.

Movements in photography come and go. We’re now solidly post-Düsseldorf-School, post-staged-narrative, post-Sternfeld-School, so something had to force its way center stage. It’s not hard to see the New Formalism work as a reaction against all of these three so popular movements in photography: Here is photography, solidly centered on investigating itself, rather than looking out into the world.

The good news for those who are not so interested in these exercises is that inevitably it will spawn another movement in the opposite reaction (Hey, who knows, maybe at some stage there’ll be a new Social Documentary movement? Our world could use some artists eager to engage in a serious subjective way).

But these developments tell us something about the medium photography. It is, and it will forever be, this strange medium, still so poorly understood, struggling with the conflict between taking something from the world with a machine (of sorts) and imposing the human will and desires upon that. The New Pictorialism expresses this struggle, and our collective unease and fascination with it.