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January 31st, 2009

TruthBeauty – Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art

To consider the history of photogravure is to also consider the evolution of fine art photography.  Nowhere is this relationship more evident than the Pictorial period. The photographers that today standout as instrumental forces in this movement are also the names that rise to the surface when examining the history of the photogravure.  And while TruthBeauty may not specifically address the close relationship between Pictorialism and photogravure, it certainly offers a platform from which to explore.  This writer is particularly satisfied to see an Alvin Langdon Coburn photogravure, Wapping, used for the show’s announcement as well as and the cover of the accompanying critically acclaimed book.   

 

Coburn_18_10-1.jpg

 

Rochester, N.Y.  — George Eastman House International Museum of Photography & Film focuses on the masterworks of Pictorialism with the exhibition TruthBeauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art, 1845-1945, on view Feb. 7 through May 31, 2009. Featured will be more than 100 hauntingly beautiful photographs that illustrate Pictorialism’s desire to elevate photography — seen at one time as merely a mechanical tool of documentation — to an art form equal to painting and drawing.

Pictorialist photographs are among the most spectacular photographs in the history of the medium. TruthBeauty will reveal Pictorialism’s rich aesthetic, diverse approaches and technical innovations. Pictorialism was simultaneously a movement, a philosophy, an aesthetic, and a style. While its undisputed role in shaping our idea of the photograph cannot be overlooked, critical opinions on the movement’s artistic importance and historical significance have been deeply divided for at least the last 50 years.

Through photography clubs, exhibitions, and journals, Pictorialism spread from Britain to Europe, Asia, Australia, and North America. Adopting a soft-focus approach and utilizing dramatic lighting, unusual camera angles, and bold technical experimentation, the Pictorialists created highly atmospheric compositions that opened up a new world of visual expression in photography. Like Impressionism, which upset the traditions of painting and to which it is often compared, Pictorialism continues to be highly influential more 100 years after it began.

This exhibition traces Pictorialism from its early influences to its lasting impact on photography and art. TruthBeauty examines the generation of photographers who continued to strive to meet Pictorialist ideals long after the movement had concluded, particularly the transition from Pictorialism to Modernism — with the exhibition featuring some surprising early work by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, on whom the influence of Pictorialism is not generally recognized.

TruthBeauty was curated by Dr. Alison Nordström, George Eastman House curator of photographs, who also edited a critically acclaimed book by the same title as the exhibition (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada: Douglas & McIntyre, 2008, $60).

“It was the Pictorialists’ core assertion that photography could be a vehicle for personal expression — rather than merely a factual description of the world around us — that is now widely accepted despite the changes in style and philosophy that have characterized the medium through its subsequent phases,” wrote Nordström, along with Eastman House archivist David Soures Wooters, in the book’s essay “Crafting the Art of the Photograph.” 

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January 7th, 2009

Is Value Determined by Worth?

CameraWork_28_02.jpgRecently I noticed that an issue of Camera Work XXVIII (28) was on the auction block.  The minimum price was $875.  The lot, in very good condition, did not sell.  This is not surprising considering the current economic climate.  When I consider what was offered, however, I am surprised – if not downright disappointed.  I wonder, is this material not worth this price? Or – does the market just not understand what it is?

Camera Work 28 contains 10 hand-pulled photogravures. Alvin Langdon Coburn himself pulled one of these plates, On the Embankment.  Coburn was one of the few photographers that worked directly in photogravure, making his photogravures, in my opinion, original vintage prints.

In addition to the Coburn, James Craig Annan supplied seven of the plates.  Annan, possibly the finest photographer ever to work in photogravure, is credited with reviving interest in the work of Hill and Adamson. Annan’s connection to D.O. Hill is substantial.  When Annan was a child, his father Thomas was a friend of Hill’s. The Annan’s even lived in Hill’s home for a short period.  Thomas Annan, a skilled photographer himself, made his living photographically reproducing paintings and worked closely with Hill in the reproduction of his monumental and important painting, The First General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland.  In fact it was this work that initially inspired Hill to explore portrait photography as art. And Hill’s portraits inspired James Craig Annan’s pursuit of photography (Janet Burnet, 1893.)

In this issue of Camera Work six of the photogravures made by Annan are from Hill and Adamson’s original collotype negatives.  These prints can and should be considered the best representations available of Hill and Adamson’s work.  A talented craftsman intimately related to the original prints made them.  In fact, in some way, these images are more accurate a representation than the original calotype. Over time Hill and Adamson’s calotypes have faded – subject to the same fate as the prints in Fox Talbot’s, Pencil of Nature (which consequently motivated Talbot to invent the photogravure process.)

Yes I could go on and on about the reasons these images are so important, and in my opinion, of such great value.  The question remains, however, what are they worth?  This collector thinks they are worth preserving, that’s for sure.