Pictorialism: Photography as Art

Most of the photographers participating in the salon exhibitions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were known as pictorialists. This classified them as interested in creative artistic expression. The style had its advocates in both professional and amateur circles, but the technique was controversial, and photographers disagreed about what qualities defined a good photograph and whether photography should be considered an art.

Pictorialism was aesthetic and thus different from documentary or realistic photography. The talent of a photographer combined with the understanding of an artist to produce photographs similar to paintings. To those attempting to achieve the most descriptive images, the pictorial photograph was outrageous--sharpness and clarity were deliberately avoided. Slightly out of focus images seemed to duplicate human vision by softening hard lines. Special camera lenses, developing techniques, and the rich tones of platinum prints allowed the creation of soft tranquil quality in the images.


JudgesPictured left to right are five photographers chosen as judges for the Second Philadelphia Photographic Salon(1899): Frances Benjamin Johnston, Clarence White, F. Holland Day, Gertrude Kasebier, and Henry Troth. Johnston, Day and Troth displayed their work at the 1896 Washington Salon. Courtesy private collection

National Arts Club in New York CityUnlike many of today's shows, salons and exhibitions at the turn of the century often placed framed photographs clustered close together and above one another, as in the March 1902 American Pictorial Photography exhibit at the National Arts Club in New York City. Courtesy Beinecke Rare Book Room and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Step Left to see the previous panel in detail. Step Back to see the whole wall again. Step Right to see the next photograph in detail.