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Artful artificiality: Steichen’s The Black Vase (1901), from the collection of the Troob Family Foundation.

The Feeling Is Real

By Meisha Rosenberg

Pictorial Vision: American and European Photography

Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass., through Aug. 17

From photography’s beginnings in the 19th century, its relationship with painting has been much like a sibling rivalry. As this exhibition shows, at times the two forms have aped one another, with photographers borrowing painting’s conventions, and painters, even before the invention of the Daguerreotype in 1839, using photographic images to make drawings. Sometimes the two forms have threatened to undermine one another: In 1859, Charles Baudelaire called photography a “great industrial madness” and argued that it was “art’s most mortal enemy.”

From the 1880s until the end of World War I, photographers such as Eduard Steichen, Peter Henry Emerson, and Alvin Langdon Coburn defined photography as an art form as capable of aesthetic harmony as painting. Practitioners of pictorialism emphasized techniques such as the use of soft focus, platinum printing and photogravure (photographic etching) to distinguish their work from straight, unenhanced photography. The invention of the Brownie camera and roll film in the early years of the 20th century suddenly meant that anyone could use a camera. As Coburn (whose portrait of Steichen is here) wrote, “Now every nipper has a Brownie. . . . What we need is more respect for our medium.” Pictorialism was at its weakest a nostalgic—even elitist—look backward as the technology zoomed ahead. But this exhibit, organized by Sarah Hammond, a student in the Clark/Williams graduate program in the history of art, concentrates on its strengths.

Pictorialism was an international movement, and this nicely balanced, small exhibit includes photographers from America, Britain, France, and (what was then) Czechoslovakia. As different as these artists were, theirs are almost all photographs you can get lost in: Gorgeous tones, striking details, and artful compositions emphasize the drama of the moment.

This exhibition distills pictorialism through 15 sublime, not-often-seen works from the Clark collection and the Troob Family Foundation. Either through the framing of a scene, the printing technique (exemplified by the lush platinum print Marshman Going to Cut Schoof-Stuff by Emerson, 1886), or the artificiality of the setting (as in the dark, mystical portraits of women, The Black Vase by Eduard J. Steichen, 1901, and The Black Bowl by George H. Seeley, 1907) these works show us the importance of the photographer’s eye.

There’s an undeniable tactility here, as in the Portrait of Eduard Steichen by Coburn (1901), with a young, sensuous Steichen seen against a textured wall patterned with ivy. From a distance, Marshman Going to Cut Shoof-Stuff (a thatching material) looks like a charcoal drawing, it’s so smoky and moody. The grooves in the mud, rain clouds and tall, lined boots of the marshman as he walks toward his boat all evince a careful framing. The exhibition text relates that Emerson was influenced by French realist painter Jean-François Millet, some of whose scenes of village life hang right around the corner in the Clark collection.

Moodiness dominates other works, such as George H. Seeley’s small works, Barn and Factory (both 1917), part of a portfolio he made of life in Stockbridge. Barn merges all shapes into darkness so that a tree looks as if it is growing right from the middle of the building.

Manipulating effects was what most pictorialists liked, and what better new effect than color? Alfred Stieglitz (his quarterly, Camera Work, published some of the best works of the pictorialists) wrote in 1907, “Soon the world will be color-mad, and Lumière will be responsible,” adding his pictorialist concern that “The difference between the results that will be obtained between the artistic fine feeling and the everyday blind will even be greater in color than in monochrome. Heaven have pity on us.” The autochrome, developed in 1904 by the Lumière brothers, was the first practical photographic process to use color: the humble potato provided the chemical (starch) that held colors in tiny grains on a glass plate. Pushing a button lights up two autochromes on display here. Maybe because the technique was still new, these autochromes are more impressive as technology than as art, although Seeley’s Still Life With Grapes (1908) plays up an almost surreal contrast between tangible shiny grapes and an impressionistic haze.

Pictorialists also borrowed from painting’s new preoccupation with abstraction, as in Pierre Dubreuil’s Venetian Rhapsody (1912), showing a grouping of the steel prow ornaments typical on gondolas. In the marvelous River Scene, Winter (1920s) by Czech photographer Jaroslav Krupka, a geometric arrangement of canoes sinks into the water, echoing a long perspective of the course of the river as it flows under a bridge.

One of the most compelling works here is the photogravure Brigitta (1910) by American Frank Eugene. Brigitta, seated at a low table with an embroidered tablecloth, wears a large bow and an intense expression. The result is a riveting blend of painting’s formal composition with photography’s visceral presence. Similarly striking is Alice Burr’s Portrait of Harry Overstreet (1915), showing her handsome, jaunty brother-in-law in profile. These subjects impress us with their timebound realness—an effect unique to photography.

By the end of World War I, pictorialists realized that photography had gifts of its own and were abandoning any strict adherence to painterly aesthetics. A vigor and freshness animated photography in the following decades; and the pictorial aesthetic continues to influence photographers today, for whom manipulation and artifice can yield astonishing artistic truths.


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