Photography is the artform that has most in common with comedian Rodney Dangerfield. Historically, it got no respect. It was all right in its way, critics said, but was it art? Late-19th/early-20th-century Pictorialist photographers said, “Yes!”
The Pictorialist exhibition at the Taft Museum plants their flag immediately with its title, Truth/Beauty, echoing a phrase from poet John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn. On view through Aug. 8, it's drawn from the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester and was curated by the Vancouver Art Gallery, where a larger version of this exhibition originally appeared.
Charles and Anna Taft, who lived in the house that became Taft Museum from 1873 until their deaths in 1929 and 1931, had excellent but markedly conservative tastes in art. So they didn’t add photography to what eventually became the Taft Museum’s permanent collection. If they had, however, Pictorialism surely would have been their choice. Its aesthetic aims would mesh with theirs.
Even before the term Pictorialism had been coined, photographers were busy showing the artistry of what the world termed craft. The first gallery of the exhibition is given over to these precursors. Julia Margaret Cameron’s narrative-laden work can carry titles like short stories: “Wist Ye Not That Your Father and I Sought Thee Sorrowing?” is one. Peter Henry Emerson’s “Poling the Marsh Hay” is in the same spirit as then-recent French realistic painting (think Millet) and three extremely early, romantically conceived works by the Scottish photography firm Hill and Adamson are salted paper prints that must be viewed by lifting a curtain as direct light will destroy them.
By the 1880s the process had become easier but serious photographers, now calling themselves Pictorialists, invented new and time-consuming ways to emulate painting. They took on the subjects of fine art — religion, picturesque architecture, portraiture — and, using ingenious and resourceful methods, produced many quite beautiful photographs.
They were a tight-knit group. The exhibition includes a portrait of Alfred Stieglitz, founder of the influential American Pictorialist movement called Photo-Secessionism, made by his sometime-collaborator Clarence White. White’s own portrait in the exhibition is by Paul Anderson, whose “Woman Boarding A Double-Decker Bus” is one of the livelier works on view.
An advantage photography had over painting was easier reproduction for publication, a trait put to notable use in Stieglitz’ quarterly Camera Work. Several issues of the magazine are on view in the exhibition, including the April 1906 edition open to Edward Steichen’s well-known “Flatiron — Evening.”
Women, an integral part of the Pictorialist scene, are prominent in this show. Gertrude Kesebier, who had studied painting at the Pratt Institute, had her own portrait studio and exhibited regularly at New York’s Camera Club. Kesebier understood Pictorialist aims perfectly and in works seen here, including “Happy Days,” “Woman Seated Under a Tree” and “Dancing School,” was said to “pull a veil over domestic life.” She was the first woman member of the British invitation-only group of Pictorialist photographers known as the Brotherhood of the Linked Ring, straining the “brotherhood” concept but paving the way for other women members.
Anyone with a serious interest in the many forms of photographic printing could spend hours in this exhibition comparing photogravure prints, platinum prints, gum bichromate prints, gelatin silver prints and more. A quick rundown might be seen in Paul Anderson’s series of five photographs from a single negative, “Vine in Sunlight,” each print unique because of differing printing techniques.
Eventually, sometime shortly before World War I, the soft-focus, dreamy approach favored by Pictorialists began to seem old hat. Stieglitz, for one, renounced it in favor of Modernism. Photographers began to realize they didn’t need to imitate painting, that photography can do things no other medium can. Exploration of these interesting options continues today.
TRUTH/BEAUTY is on display at the Taft Museum of Art downtown through Aug. 8. The Taft has an interesting series of accompanying programs surrounding the exhibition; get more information at www.taftmuseum.org/calendar.