Pictorialism

This afternoon, we went to the new exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. It is entitled “Truth Beauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art, 1845-1945” and, as expected, covers the pictorialist camera movement from the early days through to two images by that great anti-pictorialist Ansel Adams.

Three Women It is a large exhibition with much to see. Like many of these things, I found images I liked and many that I didn’t care for. I’m sure this is the largest selection of pictorialist images I have ever seen in one afternoon and it certainly allows one to see the essence of the movement. There is a flatness of light and a deliberate staging, there is soft focus, often to a detrimental level, and an importance given to the type of process used to deliver the print. In fact, for me, the most interesting room was devoted to development processes and how they altered the final image.

In the end, there are a few images that will stay with me. But it reminded me all too often that a badly composed dark image with soft focus doesn’t deserve a place on the wall of a gallery just because it was produced in 1910. I am not at all surprised that Steiglitz and the others in Photo-Secession and other groups quickly moved away from pictorialism.

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