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Shadows and Dreams

American Pictorialists elevated photography to a fine art
August 10, 2016
Riverside Drive and 83rd Street, New York

Barbara Tannenbaum Curator of Photography

Andrea Wolk Rager Jesse Hauk Shera Assistant Professor of Art History, Case Western Reserve University

Riverside Drive and 83rd Street, New York 1914. Paul Strand (American, 1890–1976). Platinum print; 9-9/16 x 12-7/16 in. Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund 1983.201. © Aperture
Foundation, Inc., Paul Strand Archive


Photography was largely considered a commercial trade rather than an art form in the 19th century. Since a photograph was produced by a mechanical device—the camera—many people believed it was limited to a factual transcription of what fell before the lens and offered no opportunity for imagination or creativity. The Pictorialists, a turn-of-the-20th-century international photographic movement, set out to prove them wrong. Theirs was the first concerted, widespread effort to elevate photography into the realm of personal expression—that is, to the status of a fine art.

At the time, sharp focus and accurate informational content dominated commercial photography, portraiture, and the snapshots produced by amateurs using the Kodak camera, which was introduced in 1888. The Pictorialists, in contrast, gloried in soft focus and emphasized formal values such as composition and tonal balance. They either staged idyllic scenes or sought out new visions in the natural world. Emphasizing the hand and eye of the artist, they derived their inspiration from painting and drawing. Subtle adjustments of dark and light during printing were and remain standard photographic practice, but some Pictorialists went further, drawing on and manipulating their negatives so that they ended up with prints that looked like paintings or drawings rather than photographs. A number also experimented with new media for reproducing photography in ink on paper to more widely disseminate their work. This panoply of approaches taken by the artists is well represented in Shadows and Dreams, which is the first exhibition to explore in depth the museum’s extensive and unique collection of American Pictorialist photography.


The Orchard

The Orchard 1902 (printed 1905). Clarence H. White (American, 1871–1925). Photogravure; 8-1/8 x 6-1/16 in. Gift of John Flory, Elizabeth Flory Kelly, and Phoebe Flory 1980.149


At the heart of the show is a large and unusual group of prints by Clarence H. White, a leading Pictorialist who made Newark, Ohio, an important center for art photography from 1893 until his departure for New York in 1906. It was not possible in those days to earn a living by making fine art photographs. When White first began his photographic practice, he was working long hours as a bookkeeper for a wholesale grocery and had a growing family to feed, so could spare only limited time and funds for his photography. He enlisted his friends and family to pose for him in the early morning or evening, including most notably Julia Hall McCune. His first student and one of his favorite models, McCune was the best friend of his sister-in-law. White paid for her services with photographs, which her children donated to the museum in 1980.

White’s images are constructed rather than captured. The McCune photographs, which contain several groups of process or work prints of the same image, provide rare opportunities to study the development of the artist’s thought as he converted the pictures he took into the perfect compositions of darks and lights he had imagined in his mind’s eye. White could afford to shoot only two glass plate negatives per week, so he fine-tuned his images by painting and drawing on work prints. When he arrived at his ideal composition, he would make those changes on the negative. That manipulated negative would then yield a finished print.

White staged his photographs, fastidiously fashioning idealized views of small-town life in the pre-industrial age. His models were usually women and children, and most wear clothing that had belonged to their grandmothers. His images associate women with nature, beauty, and intellectual pursuits: they are seen strolling, writing, ruminating, or leisurely picking apples rather than performing the arduous domestic duties of cooking, scrubbing, and child care that actually filled their days.

White carried the constructed narrative to an extreme in several commissions to photographically illustrate short stories for popular magazines, a somewhat novel practice at the time. An example, a tale of lost love entitled “Beneath the Wrinkle,” is represented in the exhibition by both White’s original photographs and their halftone reproductions in a 1904 issue of McClure’s Magazine. This commercial printing process simulates the continuous tone of photography through the use of a screen that breaks the image down into dots of ink.


Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon 1911. Alvin Langdon Coburn (American and British, 1882–1966). Platinum print; 12-7/16 x 16-3/8 in. John L. Severance Fund 2002.51


A far more elegant and expensive magazine, Camera Work, served as the focal point of the American Pictorialist movement. This prestigious art journal was published from 1903 to 1917 by the pioneering Pictorialist and eminent gallerist Alfred Stieglitz. The museum is lucky to own a complete set of Camera Work; several volumes are included in the exhibition. Personally supervising the journal’s printing, Stieglitz brought to new levels of excellence two photomechanical printing processes for reproducing photographs: the halftone and the photogravure, which produces even more detail and subtler tonal transitions. He and Alvin Langdon Coburn considered photogravure a medium of such accuracy and aesthetic subtlety that they produced publications and exhibition prints using it.

Thanks to Camera Work, people in London, Paris, Berlin, New York, Cleveland, and Newark, Ohio, could sit in their parlors and peruse portfolios of photogravures by the leading Pictorialists, including White, Coburn, Anne Brigman, Gertrude Käsebier, Harry Rubincam, George Seeley, Ema Spencer (another Newark resident), Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, and Karl Struss, all of whom are represented in this exhibition by original prints. Their images run the gamut from idyllic tableaux, soft-focus portraits, and evocative figural studies to striking views of urban life and even the western landscape. The exhibition features depictions of the Grand Canyon by three artists—Coburn, Struss, and the West Coast Pictorialist William Dassonville—that approach that vast chasm as studies of light, atmosphere, and geometry. Struss also experimented with a very short-lived early color print process, and his Hicrome print of a costumed dancer will be on view here for the first time.

The exhibition concludes with works that lead from Pictorialism toward modernist abstraction by Coburn and Jane Reece, a portraitist from Dayton, Ohio. Both images were shockingly innovative, radical works for their time. By the early 1920s, Pictorialism began to be eclipsed by modernist photography, which retained the earlier movement’s credo of photography as fine art and its interest in formalism, but swung the pendulum back toward sharp focus and documenting contemporary life.  

Cleveland Art, September/October 2015