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Friday, 08 October 2021


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Wow, Mike. Thanks!

And we shouldn't forget the iconic crystal ball from "The Wizard of Oz" ... The gazing ball is an example of one of the earliest special effects in moviemaking. Artists in 1939 painstakingly hand-painting every frame of film to depict what the Wicked Witch of the West saw in the crystal ball.

Chasing an orb-

Are those orbs a bit like skulls in paintings?

Thanks very much for such an interesting essay, Dave. Clarence White was definitely an early photographer with balls. Use of symbolic props (ex: birds, small statues, etc.) or settings in photos was not uncommon during this short period of pictorialism. In fact, it almost became…(wait for it)… cliché! But I can’t think of anyone who used such a completely inanimate.

“Evening — Mother and Boys, Clarence White, 1905
Art Institute of Chicago

Was pictorialism a “mistake”? No. I agree with your school days disagreement, Dave. I think it’s more accurate to call it a misjudgment. The goal was to legitimize photography as an artistic medium by mimicking the aesthetic standards (i.e. the clichés) of the period...and of other media. It didn’t really work. In fact, it kinda backfired, as you noted. But it did unquestionably serve to broaden awareness of photography and to expand both consumer and producer markets for it more rapidly.

I googled Clarence White’s photographs and (I confess) immediately snickered and giggled a bit at the numerous search hits of his subjects’ staring somewhat doe-eyed, and kind of expressionless, at those silly glass orbs. As if they’d been removed (it seemed, to me) of any critical thoughts.

And then I recalled all the photos I’ve taken lately of the general public (e.g in a national park, etc) staring blankly, maybe mouth-gaped, at their cellular phones. Crap. How will those snaps be received a century from now?

Is an orb a representation of the sublimeness of All There Is? of endless possibility? of an infinitude of facets that cannot truly be comprehended to their fullest array? How about the center of the soul? the God that commands us? when wiped clean, a fingerprint-free door of perception?

[tapped out on my phone]

". . . in photo school I was taught that Pictorialism was a mistake, a dead end that didn't actually advance photography. I think that is wrong."

I agree, although for overlapping, not identical, reasons. Any form of art that's not dead will be used and abused by artists in attempts to realize their personal visions.

To the extent that any movement attempts to restrict use of the medium to a limited range, it is antithetical to creativity.

It seems to me that both Pictorialism and the f/64 movement were more or less restrictive, at least in their words.

There was a small, but excellent, exhibit at the Portland, ME art museum inlate 2010 focused on the transition from Pictorialism to Group f/64; Debating Modern Photography: The Triumph of Group f/64.

It showed that, in practice, the line was not as hard and fast as reading about it would suggest. Weston made the transition gracefully, St. Ansel less subtly.

Very unfortunately, photography of the photographs was not allowed — and there was no catalog. Argument and pleadings proved futile.

Although not in the high-ish photographic culture, much of the spirit/vision of Pictorialism seems to me to live on.

Check out the blogs on the LensBaby site. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that many of those photographers have never heard of Pictorialism; they are just creating what appeals to them.

The interesting thing about Steiglitz's discomfort is that he was feeling it at a moment when photography (or: Photography) was still feeling its way. From today's perspective, it's like: "Giant balls. That's pretty funny. What's next? Tableaux vivants?" But the Pictoralists, or as I will call them now, "The Ball Guys" still thought they were competing with painting as a way of representing Reality. Steiglitz was promoting photography being its own thing, not a replacement for painting. I think he won the argument. Wonder what he'd make of the iPhone?

Hmm. I think they are being used because they look pretty.

What Dave said.

There’s plenty of art I don’t like, or perhaps don’t appreciate, but who is to judge? Without Pictoriialism there probably would have been no f/64 group.

History is written by the victors... er... Beaumont Newhall who was tight with the f/64 crowd. I could be wrong, it's been forever since I looked at The History of Photography, but didn't he just sorta skip over most of pictorialism?

Pictorialism gets a bad-rep probably because of St. Adam :-) And of course Ansel Adam himself did quite a bit of pictorialist stuff before he switched to f/64.

There are plenty of non-f/64 stuff nowadays though. Michael Kenna - minimalist? But aren't they also pictorialist? I don't see people lining up with pitchforks in hands.

How about Don Hong-Oai? If you have not seen his stuff, it's beautiful and pictorialist.

Many other examples abound.

"Without Pictoriialism there probably would have been no f/64 group."

Dare I suggest that a difference between the pictorialists and the modernists was their level of tolerance for bokeh, though neither group would have recognised the term. Without the large format cameras of the day with the inherently longer focal length lenses required to capture the same field of view we now capture with shorter focal length lenses on smaller format cameras there would have been no f/64 group.

If both groups hadn't been using those large format cameras and longer lenses we may have had to wait for Weegee to make his famous response to a question for an aperture to become a rallying cry around which a group could gather. Think of the history of photography without an f/64 group but rather an f/8 group. Who wouldn't want to be there. :-)

Moose: Isn't your statement

"To the extent that any movement attempts to restrict use of the medium to a limited range, it is antithetical to creativity."

both true and untrue? I mean, all movements are about restrictions, ultimately, and through these restrictions comes the New. Though yes, at the same time one would think that Creativity would result from the opposite of this.

I think I need to lie down now.

Fascinating. Thanks

I have to agree about the bad rap the pictorialists got. It really was an unjustified swipe. Putting down the work of others to bolster your own is always unjustified in my opinion. Personally I love the work and wish I could get my hands on more books about it. The Russian and European pictorialists are fascinating. As is the Sydney Camera Circle. Just a few obscure pictorials I have enjoyed exploring.

It all reminds me of their hatred of Mortensen too.

Today I was thinking that there is such a huge difference between defining photography as what it is versus thinking about what it could be.

All movements in art have their place. They all influence each other.

Now. Should I look into getting an orb? ;-)

The Mystique of the Glass Globe in Pictorialist Photography was presented as a lecture by the American Historical Association in 2011 by
Verna Posever Curtis of the The Library of Congress. Alas when I asked there was no record or available notes.
Perhaps a reader was there and remembers.

The only photography I do not like involved what the artist decided to photograph and I defined it as morbid (use your imagination). Other than that, it's all good in my book. Although I do find when photographers reveal too much in nude photography, it crosses the line into porn. Do not like porn, but I do like fine art nudes.

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