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Pictorialism

Click on one of the small images to start the slideshow

	George DavisonThe onion field 1890, printed 1907 from Camera Work, no 8, April 1907photogravure
  • 	George DavisonThe onion field 1890, printed 1907 from Camera Work, no 8, April 1907photogravure
  • 	Mathilde WeilAcross the fields c1900gelatin silver photograph
  • 	Clarence H White and Alfred StieglitzExperiment 27 (lady in white with crystal ball) 1907, printed 1909 from Camera Work, no 2, July 1909photogravure
  • 	Cecil BostockDay breaks-cold-shrieking-bloody 1918gelatin silver photograph
  • 	Harold CazneauxShadow play c1919gelatin silver photograph
  • 	Henri MallardUntitled (The Sydney Harbour Bridge in construction: girder on Milson’s Point side) c1928gelatin silver photograph
  • 	Olive CottonInterior (my room) 1933gelatin silver photograph, pencil and ink

In the late 19th century, some photographers worked to advance photography into the realm of fine art by taking an aesthetic approach to the medium. The movement, known as pictorialism, emphasised photography’s artistic, evocative and interpretive qualities rather than its documentary ones.

Reacting to the widespread commercial and domestic uses of photography for recording people, events and places, pictorialist photographers sought to evoke emotional sensations and states of mind. They depicted commonplace scenes in ways that suggested psychological and spiritual meanings.

By focusing on the patterning of light and shade, blurring detail and compressing space, the pictorialists reinforced photography’s status as an art alongside painting and drawing. Photographers such as George Davison, Mathilde Weil and Alfred Stieglitz and Clarence H White embraced a variety of artistic influences, including Symbolist literature and art, Impressionist and Pre-Raphaelite painting, art nouveau and Japonisme. They employed new technologies and printing processes to create painterly, tonal qualities. Soft-focus lenses were used to produce atmospheric effects; platinum printing allowed delicate tones to be created on matte, textured papers; and gum and carbon bichromate and bromoil were used to manipulate the negative, allowing detail and tone to be adjusted.

The movement reached a peak of activity between 1890 and 1930 and included artists working in the USA, Europe, Asia and Australia. In Australia, artists including Harold Cazneaux, Olive Cotton and Cecil Bostock took pictures of everyday spaces, figures and objects, but simplified form, played with light and shade, and explored surface effects to elicit feelings, memories and ideas.

Questions and activities

  • Describe the mood of each image listed here. How has the artist made you think or feel a certain way? What elements in each work provoke your response? Consider the use of light and shade as well as the subject matter, titles and composition.
  • Choose an artwork listed here. Describe the lines, shapes, textures, focus and tones. What makes this photograph 'pictorial’?
  • Use a digital camera to photograph different textures in the landscape around you. Record these textures and patterns. Experiment with the placement of the horizon line, sky and land. Create a collage that reflects your experience of this place.
  • Experiment with natural and artificial light as well as taking images at different times of the day. How does light create an emotive quality in your work? Create a photograph that evokes a certain emotion. Consider artists listed here as inspiration for your work.
  • Compare pictorialism to realism. How do they each play an important role in imaging the world around us?
  • Research the styles that influenced the pictorialists: Symbolism, Impressionism, art nouveau, the Pre-Raphaelites and Japonisme. Discuss how they are referenced in the images listed here.

Works from the collection

  • George Davison The onion field 1890, printed 1907 from Camera Work, no 8, April 1907, photogravure
  • Harold Cazneaux Shadow play c1919, gelatin silver photograph