Pictorialism vs Modernism
Pictorialism vs Modernism; Two important schools of photographic thought.
Pictorialism vs Modernism
The act of taking a photograph involves many decisions. The best way to frame the image and whether to have a blurred or sharp background are just two examples of decisions that must be made. The ability to make these decisions well comes from both and understanding of composition and a sound technical knowledge. This much is common sense.
There is another consideration that can play a huge part in understanding photography and that is the historical and philosophical. Pictorialism and Modernism were the two opposing philosophies that dominated photography from its inception until the 1940s. I think that these two schools of thought underpin most photography, whether the individual photographer realizes it or not. There is some experimental and conceptual work that goes beyond these two schools but the percentage is small.
The more that I look into the history and the philosophy of photography and try to apply what I learn, the more it always seems to come back to the relationship between Modernism and Pictorialism.
I don’t want to give long descriptions of Modernism or Pictorialism here. For the purpose of this post though I’ll use very simple working definitions. These definitions are as follows:
Pictorialism – where anything is permitted with regard to the creation a photographic image. The image did not have to look ‘real’ it had to look beautiful in a decorative way. This philosophy gained prominence due to early photography’s relationship with painting.
Modernism – where the intention of the photograph is to represent reality as closely as possible. It is useful to know that Modernism was largely a reaction to Pictorialism – hence the title, Pictorialism vs Modernism.
Modernism, Pictorialism, and Now
It is all too easy to see artistic movements as being somehow divorced from the process of making art in the present and this is especially true of photography. Of all the millions of words written about photography only a tiny percentage relate to the aesthetic history of the practice. The vast majority of writing is about gear and technique. I think that it is important to link the past with the present so terms like pictorial and modern form part of the working vocabulary and are not compartmentalized away from the act of photography. The following provides an example of how thinking in historical terms can be applied to the act of making a photograph. I could have chosen from literally dozens of such examples.
Currently, one of the most hotly debated subjects in photography revolves around whether shots taken with cell phones using various apps and effects should be taken seriously. The arguments against cell phone photography tend to fall into two categories. The first, technical quality, is easily dispensed with. If not now, then in the very near future, this will not be an issue due to ongoing improvements in the hardware. The second, the use of various filters and effects that distort and change the original image, is a much more interesting one.
The choice to use a filter indicates intent to move the image away from being a strict representation of the object or scene photographed. Other than rarer cases, say when the photographer is going for shock value, the use of filters is intended to make the image more decoratively appealing. In other words Pictorialism trumps Modernism, at least in this case.
In truth, my favorite contemporary photographers combine elements of both Modernism and Pictorialism. Modernism provides the bones of an image so to speak, a solid framework upon which the photographer can go on to further express him or herself. This further expression can be anything from slightly increasing the orange color saturation in a sunset say, to blurring and darkening all bar a tiny portion of an image to direct the viewer in a very obvious way.
It is worth noting that increasing color saturation beyond what was seen by the camera is every bit as much of a pictorial act as applying the gaudiest Instagram filter. Both of these move the image away from what the camera actually saw with the intention of making the image more memorable to the viewer.
We live in a world where we are inundated with images. Within little over a century we have gone from being a society where individuals were exposed to very few human-made images to one where they are ubiquitous. We have gone from the image being a rare thing it being one drop in the fire-hose of visual information that assaults us on a daily basis. A hundred years ago we would have studied every image that came our way but today the images have to fight for even a few seconds of our attention.
This change does not help the cause of the out and out modernist image which, by definition, is not flashy but is just a plain representation of something. The moment that it is dressed up to draw attention to itself as an image it ceases to be an example of modernism. Pictorialism fares much better as blur and vignette can be used to direct the focus, bokeh balls can provide extra shiny objects and just about everything else is permitted.
To put it another way, photographers who makes work that is uncompromisingly modernist would have a really time getting their work noticed in the current photography ecosystem. An image now must have the power of stopping the viewer in their tracks even when placed among tens or even hundreds of images by other photographers. The days of an image holding a viewer’s attention just because it is an image have long gone.
Photographers have egos and/or financial needs just like everyone else and so work towards getting noticed. The options for the modernist are pretty limited. Just about the only way he or she will draw attention is to compromise their modernism by making their photographic objects just shiny enough to gain an audience. The question becomes whether the Pictorialism should be just tacked on or whether it should become an integral part of the image. Instinct tells me the latter.
My Own Photography
With regard to my own photography I would say that I am 60% pictorialist with an underpinning of 40% modernist. On the one hand I do believe that it is all about the image and that the original object/scene is only of secondary importance, (after all, the viewer will never see the original scene) but on the other I like the simplicity and clean approach of Modernism.
If there is one single thing that defines my photography it is the tension between these two ways of seeing. I also see this in the work of a lot of other photographers that I admire.
If I give the impression that I think that I think that Modernism is superior or more important than Pictorialism or the other way around then that was a mistake. I do tend to see them as two sides of the same coin and I think that very few photographers, whether consciously or not, use aspects of both in their work.
Just as Modernism superseded Pictorialism Modernism itself gave way to Post Modernism which has given way to New or Post Post Modernism or something else with Modernism in it somewhere (depending upon which art critic or historian is writing). One thing seems to be a constant though, and that is the word Modernism and it could be this use of language that means that despite the fact that the majority of people who pick up a camera are pictorialists at heart art history will keep giving the impression that Modernism (and its descendants) are the only relevant visual art philosophy.