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Friday, 22 January 2016


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On the subject of lenses, Mike.
When I took my first job as a photographer's assistant, I dutifully did some much needed cleaning in the studio.
In particular, one of the Dagor lenses on an 8x10 view camera was horribly dusty.
I carefully cleaned the lens until it was nice and bright and shiny.
Imagine how I felt when my photographer boss discovered that I had cleaned the lens and castigated me because it was how he got his beautifully soft images.
(I haven't cleaned a lens since...kidding)
Just mi dos pesos.

"...Except for the low lighting, following the current dumb fashion in alleged conservation at many museums..."

Not just a ridiculously low lighting level on exhibited prints, which is incompatible with our eyes' working range, but uncoated glazing and general lighting of sufficient intensity to ensure that visitors predominantly see reflections of themselves rather than the photographs.

"...which appear to be trying to ruin their own reputation with the public and get people to stop coming to museums."

They have for the most part succeeded with me. Once a particular museum has done this several times and ignores my rational pleas to stop, I stop. Going there and supporting it. If everyone does the same, perhaps we can reverse this trend.

A very interesting article about a photographer who was completely unknown to me.
"All of my pictures are blurred by camera shake; I couldn't hold the camera steady in the low light." As one who recently switched from Fuji to Olympus, that's one of the great improvements I've noted.

Wonderful post, Mike. Would have loved to see this show.

Among the large format crowd, there is still a great deal of love of, and demand for, those older "impressionistic" lenses, especially for portraits. And today's plastic camera aficionados seem also to be going for that look.

For those interested in the F.64 school and their back-and-forth battle with the pictorialists over what makes a good photograph, I would recommend Mary Street Alinder's "Group f.64" (2014), which I just finished reading. Very informative and well-documented.

Thanks again for a history post. Great stiff.

Pictorialism gets a bad rap, in my opinion!

The word itself means, today, "that muddy dark crud with the scratches" but that seems to be a very modern usage. In the 1800s it meant a ton of different things, mainly "photography". Newhall actually uses "Art Photography" and "Pictorial Photography" in precisely opposite senses, switching them between (I think) editions 4 and 5 of his history.

The muddy stuff, what we think of as pictorialism today, was a relatively brief interval, and I like it quite a bit more than is fashionable.

I think it works quite well for landscapes, but then, I live in a chill and foggy land not unlike England. For the American West I guess than an argument can be made that it constitutes an unfair interpretation of the scene.

Mike, I'm speechless. This must be one of the very best, most thought-provoking entries you've written.
Alvin Langdon Coburn came to my attention about one year ago, after I bought a pocket-sized Taschen album of photographs from Ludwigsmuseum of Cologne's permanent exhibition. It prompted me to delve a little deeper into the photography of those days: Coburn, Stieglitz, Steichen. They were poets as much as they were photographers. Yes, it's all too easy to perceive their aesthetics as flawed because of the lack of sharpness, but it was part of their language. I'm pretty sure they'd make sharper pictures should they want to, but that 'unsharpness' served their photographs the best. Would a picture like Stieglitz's 'Georgia's Hands' be any better if it were sharper? I don't think so.
We live in a culture of sharpness. One of the implications of this - besides the sterile and endless arguments on DPReview's forums, that is - is that the eye responds to blurriness by rejecting it. It would be wise to look beyond sharpness and try to understand the photographer's choices. The fact that a picture is blurry doesn't always mean it is flawed, or that the photographer lacked skills.

Dear Mike:

The obvious solution for your low light woes would be an IBIS camera like an Olympus or a Sony A7ii, instead of those Fuji things you keep going on about.



Good field trip! I've seen little of Coburn's work -- it kinda melts into the somewhat mushy pool of pictorialism -- but I think I do recognize the non-pictorial example above. Looks like an excellent show!

Geoff looks like he could be standing in front of a portrait from his youth!

"All of my pictures are blurred by camera shake; I couldn't hold the camera steady in the low light."

Hmmm. Mike, I know that you have a Fuji X kit (along with others). Good ISO 3200 quality (at least for online repro), fast primes and stabilized zooms (not all, but the f/2.8-f/4.0 is, very effective).

Personally, I am not steady-handed enough for the sharp 1/10th second hand-held exposures of my youth, but current camera tech has made that irrelevant. So: what happened? Just curious! No worries!

One of the leaders of the Pictorialists in the 30s was William Mortensen and Ansel Adams was in constant battle with him. They even had a debate via the magazine Camera Craft. One issue was Mortensen and the next month would be Adams.

Mortensen had a successful photo school here in Laguna Beach, Ca for many years.

The book about the f64 group goes into the battle between the pictorialists and the f64 group. Chapter 9 is titled: The Enemy Mortensen.

As a kid growing up in southern California the big names in photography were Weston and Adams. So reading the book was great fun.

The book is: Group f.64 by Mary Street Alinder.

[This issue is much beloved of photo historians and theorists because there is, as you note, such a big fat 'n' juicy paper trail for them to sink their textual-analytical teeth into, but I'm not sure this is relevant here. Mortensen wasn't really a pictorialist. He came later than the high point of pictorialist style; he added manipulation to the point that his pictures were mixed media, only half photography if that much; and he often aimed at allegory (to which photography is singularly ill-suited) and did things like writing labels right on his pictures. Really, he has a lot more in common with pop illustration of later years, like comic book art or heavy metal posters, things like that. His real sin to Newhall and his friends was that his stuff was full-bore, V-8 powered, turn-it-up-to-11 kitsch. We're very used to anything-goes in art nowadays, but it's easy to see how, back then, with Mortensen-like style firmly ensconced as the preferred, "safe" style of hobbyists, reactionaries, and old fogeys, he could be both a thorn in the side of, and a fat target to, people who were trying hard to move photography away from old, played-out modes. Mortensen did a lot more harm to pictorialists than he ever did to modernism, by embodying to such an alarming degree everything that was ever wrong with that style. Pictorialism never really recovered from him, unless you think it has in this millennium.

For those who might be curious, here's a typical Mortensen "photograph":


You can like him if you want to, though. I'm happy to explain my taste, but I have no brief to dictate anyone else's.

But Coburn was a real pictorialist, from when it was current, vibrant and viable, and really has almost nothing at all in common with Mortensen.


Mike, did you not see the irony of apologizing for the unsharpness of your photo of Geoff and Alvin, especially given your explanation that photographers of Alvin's era prized "diffusion" over sharpness? This was no mistake to apologize for; you were simply emulating the style of the times!

Rochester still is the epicenter.

Soft focus lenses are back in vogue by the way. Check the prices on anything by Pinkham and Smith , Cooke, Darlot, or any of the other multiple soft focus manufacturers. The large-format crowd loves them. Most are priced well into the thousands of dollars.

Imagine being able to go to Lomography, telling them what you need, and receiving a DHL box a month or two later, containing your made-to-order lens buried in excelsior peanut foam and bubble wrap, with your name engraved on the lens barrel! If I can do that now, I wouldn't mind if my bespoke lens were as sharp as Alvin Langdon Coburn's.

I always read your blogs with much pleasure.

[Thanks! --Mike]

In the same vein, an exhibition in London.

Thanks for this, Mike. I am heading over to GEM in a couple of hours to catch this before it closes. Living in Rochester, I nearly always delay my visit to nearly the last minute. The exceptions have been Adams and Towell. I'm trying to do better.

Now, if you just had the E-M1 with IBIS and that 17mm f/1.8 lens, there wouldn't have been a camera movement problem. Just sayin'.....

With few exceptions, his landscapes are far more successful than his portraits.

“… at clubs and salons and in photographic journals, they argued about just which lenses were the most perfectly unsharp. (I know it appears that I'm kidding, but I am not.)”

I believe every word of it. I have been spending time in adapted lens forums lately. The quality of out of focus areas of images is discussed constantly, with words like creamy, swirly, busy, dreamy, (Sneezy, Dopey, and Doc).

One adapted lens video I watched mentioned that with focus peaking he could “walk the focus down the eyelashes to the eyeball.” And the rest of the head and shoulders portrait would have that dreamy background look.

Why not just “walk the focus” back up and off of the eyelashes, and have the whole image look dreamy? That's what a Pictorialist would want. Somehow having that one eye, that one pistil in the flower, that one curlicue of hair in focus is very, very important today. That's different than the Pictorialists, but not any more sensible.

Hmmm ... maybe my path to fame lies in not deleting those fuzzy images in Lightroom.

It's really a shame that "pictorialism" has come to mean "Victorian era pictures I don't like". Not only is it ahistoric, it's not a very useful term at that point.

We have Robinson, who wanted everything pretty much sharp, we have Emerson who thought that only the thing you were supposed to look at should be sharp and everything else a bit soft. We have a bunch of other people who wanted things slightly soft, but not too soft. You have nobody whatsoever who thinks that photographs should be uniformly blurry.

But the popular understanding is that Pictorialists, en masse, simply wanted everything to be a blurry mess.

Here's a small bomb I like to toss from time to time: If you spend, as I have done, some years doing the reading and thinking about things and so on, you come to conclude that Ansel Adams was as much a Pictorialist as he was anything else. His compatriots were not, but he was.

It's all there. The sentimental landscapes, the heavy manipulation to bring out "the sublime", trope after trope lifted straight out of painting. There is hardly a well-known Adams picture that JMW Turner couldn't have painted, had he only used grey paints. HP Robinson would have approved of the lot.

[IAndrew...no. This is very confused. Pictorialism is a style not an era. The term was coined in 1869 with Pictorialism proper centered on 1890-1920 or so. Victorian photography (1840-1900) overlaps with it a bit but they're not synonymous. I think of Victorian photography more as it is represented in Helmut Gernsheim's 1951 book "Masterpieces of Victorian Photography."

Adams wasn't a Pictorialist by any stretch of the definition, except very briefly in the very earliest days of his career before he'd found his way. And you can't be thinking of JMW Turner. His work looks nothing at all like Adams's, in color or no.

Alison Nordstrom's "Truth Beauty" is back in print. Recommended on the subject. --Mike]

What a wonderful portraitist he was. His image of Mark Twain in the window light is masterful - hope it's in the show.

Oh man. I like this guy. Thanks for the introduction!

This one


Thanks for pointing out the catalog (duly ordered), and to Bill Poole for mentioning the Group f.64 book, which sounds right up my street.

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