Pictorialism's Legacy


I’ve been enjoying our recent Eyes of a Nation exhibition, which provides a rich survey of American photography from 1870-1970. While I expected to be particularly drawn to the images selected to represent Modern and Social Documentary photography, I find myself lingering in the Pictorialist corner the most. These images, created between the 1880s and the 1920s were shot in soft-focus, represent allegorical themes, have a painterly quality and were instrumental in promoting photography as a fine art.  Pictorialism sought to expand the scope of photography beyond documentation to include elements of aesthetic pleasure and artistic expression.  Looking at these photos I am surprised to see some connections to current trends in visual imagery.  The popularity of toy cameras and various apps for camera phones over the past few years have allowed us to easily document our lives while also adding creative and painterly touches to each image. I’m not sure photography has actually come full circle, but its fun to witness the legacy of pictorialism seeping into the images we take tod.