Art: A Certain Chimera

CAM's Pictorialist Photographs documents a burgeoning art form

Aug 30, 2006 at 2:06 pm

A small exhibition of turn-of-the-century photography currently hangs upstairs at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM). The images included in the exhibition, Pictorialist Photographs, say much about the aesthetic ideals of that time period. All are black and white, of course, made with standard early photographic techniques such as the photogravure.

The images might seem whimsical at first glance, with the misty scenes and sentimental figures, but there is substance and argument behind that pretty curtain. Early photographers fought against the tightly held belief that photography was documentation, not art. As such, pictorialism was born.

Pictorialist photography aims to present a photograph as if it were a painting. Artists manipulated both the negative and the print itself to capture the Impressionist style that was the rage in 1900s America — the blurred edges, the balanced forms, the dreamscapes.

The CAM exhibition, though tiny, is a crucial examination of Pictorialism. Included in the museum's selection, which comes from its own permanent collection, is a perfect example of an Alfred Steiglitz photograph.

Steiglitz's "Winter on Fifth Avenue," is all mist and snow, horse and buggy, men in topcoats. The artist's aesthetic determination is clearly stated here. Steiglitz co-founded the influential artists' club, The Photo-Secession, in 1902; his aim was to bring European modernism to the United States and to validate photography as a visual art. "Winter on Fifth Avenue" does both.

Herbert Greer French's photograph "Winged Victory" is another example of Pictorialism. French juxtaposes a fashionable woman and the famous sculpture from the Louvre. In doing this, he presents a kind of ghostly image of pain and rapture, an image dedicated to emotion and sensation. He manages this with a trick of the camera.

The tricks pulled by the artists here are proof that the camera is more than a machine to document wars and weddings. Tricks show that there is an artist's hand at work, a point of view, which even today we often forget.

Often exhibitions of turn-of-the-century art have no female perspective. A striking fact in the CAM exhibition is the number of women artists included. Anne Brigman, Jane Reece, Gertrude Kasebier and Imogene Cunningham all have photographs in this small show.

Perhaps even more striking is the fact that had we not known the names of each photographer, we would not have realized that there was a difference. In other words, the photographs are visually, aesthetically and compositionally similar. Such a fact might seem unimportant, but during the earliest years of the last century — and even, arguably, until today — women have tackled different subjects in their work than men.

The CAM does a nice job in balancing the male and female work, and yet leaves that part out of the curatorial presentation — a mistake.

All in all, however, the CAM's collection of photographs argues for Pictorialism, not gender equality, and in that it has succeeded remarkably well. Grade: A-

PICTORIALIST PHOTOGRAPHS is presented by the Cincinnati Art Museum through Oct. 1.