Pictures from another era

The Age 27.7.1993

In A New Light revives a long neglected movement in photo­graphic history – Pictorialism.

Thanks to the ascendancy of Modernism, Pictorialism was rele­gated to the status of an embar­rassing family secret. In the Utopi­an fervor of the 1920s and ’30s, when photography was being rein­vented as a democratic Machine Age medium, Pictorialism was seen as something from the dis­credited past, from the era of priv­ilege and pomposity before World War I.

Despite having been the pre­eminent style of art photography from the 1890s to the 1930s, Picto­rialism became regarded as deca­dent, silly and unworthy of serious consideration. Now that Modern­ism (at least in its old form) has run out of steam, it is possible to reassess the movement: the National Gallery exhibition helps us to see some of the magic.

‘In a New Light’ is a broad sur­vey of Pictorialism in Australia, where it had many practitioners and a long-lasting popularity. The exhibition does it justice with some breathtaking pictures. Some of the Australian artists – Kaufmann, Casneaux, Brown and Cato – were the equal of almost any­one in the world for sheer picture-making ability, and many of their best pictures are in the show.

Jack Cato’s ‘Through a Collins Street Window’ is a stunning dreamlike image that links tradi­tion and modernity with the sim­plest ingredients, church pillars and a sporty looking car. Brown’s ‘Portrait of a Man’ is a charcoal black image where a face in the softest possible greys emerges out of deep shadow. These were art­ists devoted to the nuance, to lyri­cal expressions of feeling.

One of the characteristics of the period was the importance given to the aesthetic experience; the savoring of visual beauty was al­most an end in itself. It was the era of art for art’s sake. Pictorialist photography was part of the same ideas as the Arts and Crafts Move­ment, Symbolist painting and Art Nouveau.

The exhibition conveys the im­portance the photographers gave to the creation of atmosphere, often one which evokes fiction. A narrative is implied in many of the pictures, as though the photograph is setting the scene tor an exciting tale about some exotic places. This was often achieved by exploiting light effects, as the title of the ex-hibition suggests. William T. Owen’s amazing image of Far-ringdon Street, with shafts of sun­light penetrating the smog to re­veal a grand city street, reminds one of the London of Joseph Con­rad and of the early Alfred Hitch-cock, a metropolis full of intrigue and excitement.

The city was not usually inter­preted as signifying the future. The old was preferred over the new; modernity was considered vulgar and, if tackled, it had to be given a sugar coating of nostalgia. For example, Harold Casneaux’s view of factory buildings shows he was trying to reconcile modernist vigor (industry, a necessary evil) with the safety of tradition. He photographed it horizontally as a landscape, not, as the American modernist Charles Sheeler did of the same subject, as a vertical, cubist-inspired celebration of technology.

The Pictorialists were great craftsmen and had an enormous array of darkroom techniques, which they used to camouflage the technological origin of their im­ages. Many photographs in the ex­hibition look more like prints and drawings, which is what they want­ed. If photography was to be an art on a par with the other art forms then it should resemble them.

In a curious way, that is where photography is now in the arts. After 50 years of having a privi­leged separate position (along with cinema) as an industrial medium in an industrial world, photography has become just one more medium that an artist might choose in making fine art.