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Photographers in 'Truth Beauty' at Phillips exposed the form to new perceptions

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; C01

In 1917, when Marcel Duchamp took a lowly urinal and declared it a sculpture called "Fountain," he made one of the most original, important moves in all of modern art.

The strange thing is, he'd been beaten to the punch by an artistic movement that was just fading out at that moment and seemed to stand for everything he didn't.

"Pictorialism" was the name of the movement and, unlike Duchamp's objects, its works -- photos only -- were often sentimental, nostalgic and obsessed with fussy craft. But all that was just superficial detail. What truly made pictorial photography matter was a gesture of almost Duchampian daring. The pictorialists insisted, against most people's intuitions, that the apparently mechanical techniques of photography, available to anyone with basic skills and equipment, could also produce art. That, in their day, was a truly radical proposition. When before had objects as "low" as photos made the shift to "high"?

A new show called "Truth Beauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art, 1845-1945," at the Phillips Collection, surveys the turn-of-the-century movement, its Victorian antecedents and its aftermath in later, more modern photography. It is on tour from the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., one of the world's great photo museums, which helps spread its name through such shows.

The exhibition's 130 photos show that all the sentimental blur and overwrought emotions we expect from the movement, and that can sometimes seem its downfall, may be just a way to clearly signal that they are works of art. In those early days, the best way to claim a photo as art was to make it look and feel like art that existed already, in other media, and that meant getting rid of photographic crispness and detail.

That's why a great pictorialist such as Edward Steichen would shoot a straight portrait of the American painter Frederic Porter Vinton, then treat the print to make it look almost exactly like a mezzotint or soft-ground etching of the sitter. It's why the French photographer Robert Demachy worked up his landscape photos so that they looked so very much like the dotty paintings of the impressionists. (Or at least like their black-and-white reproductions.) It is why Julia Margaret Cameron, a Victorian predecessor whom the pictorialists claimed as their own, posed her sitters as religious and allegorical figures -- just as painters had done for so long.

If the pictorialists had merely rehashed the cliches of what already counted as art, they'd deserve the bad reputation they've often had. Partly, they still deserve it. When Demachy revisits impressionism around 1910, 40 years after its heyday, he tamps down all the hard radicalism of its original, ultramodern subjects and techniques, and turns it into nostalgia for a softer rural life. He and others make their photos read as art only by making them look arty. You could say Demachy's landscapes are where impressionism went to die of old age. (It is buried in today's placemats and shower curtains.)

* * *

Things get interesting with pictorialism, however, when its photographs refuse to look like any art that came before. The best of the pictorialists achieve a powerful tension between the soft focus that flags an image as art and the realities in it that refuse to be softened. That's true even for Cameron, whose focus and subjects are about as soft as they come -- and yet we sense the real people who sat for her, the real flesh they were made of, the real playacting they are doing.

Cameron's photos don't seem to give us direct visions of distant sacred scenes, the way Old Master paintings can. They show us a much more quotidian, very Victorian reality, present before the camera and dressed up to seem remote and ideal. Their brilliance lies in the gap that we can always feel between their hallowed subjects and their real sitters.

Reality can't creep into paintings against their maker's will, so they don't have access to pictorialism's signature tensions. Those tensions get even stronger once the movement finds its legs.

In a stunning 1909 image by the little-known American photographer Paul Anderson, this show's great revelation, an Edwardian woman is shown climbing onto a bus mid-street. There's the usual pictorialist blur, but in this shot it feels more like the high-speed smudge of modern life than nostalgia. Reality hijacks what ought to read as sentiment; old artiness becomes new art.

Alfred Stieglitz's 1896 image called "The Street -- Design for a Poster," one of the most famous photos ever, is equally soft in its edges and tones. And it is plenty arty: Its composition and title link it to the graphic works of famous Parisian painters such as Toulouse-Lautrec and Vuillard. But photographed reality keeps intruding on its painterly artifice. Its blur is snow and fog as much as pictorial effect. Its composition isn't imposed on a scene with a brush and paint, it is found in what is there already, in front of the camera.

At least that's the impression the image gives, as most photographs do. In fact, to get the houses at far right to line up, Stieglitz would have had to use some clever camera shifts and cropping that never seem to get noticed. His camera lets him manipulate reality to get artistic effects -- but that's a very different thing from fleeing the world into art, as pictorialism, at its worst, could do.

There are accidents left over in almost any act of photography, and these give Stieglitz's image a strangeness and complexity that help it escape most of the cliches about what art ought to look like -- even cliches such as soft focus, that help establish that it's art. (Stieglitz built his reputation as one of the great proponents of pictorialism, but after 1910 he became its fierce opponent, converting to European modernist approaches that broke with old ideas of art. Interestingly, his polemics -- he ran several pioneering photo journals, and wrote in others -- changed more than his images did.)

In some cases, the genteel distortions of pictorialist blur can veer into the full-blown illegibility we associate with radical modernism. A fabulous Steichen snow scene, from around 1897, looks like a picture shot by accident with a hiker's snapshot camera. A scrap of pond creeps in on one side; bits of tree trunk intrude at odd angles on the other. Why? Because they were there -- not the answer we expect from a classic pictorialist picture, with its manufactured artiness.

Not only does Steichen's image not look much like earlier art, it doesn't look much like anything at all. And yet we know that it is art, because of its arty haze, and its exquisite platinum printing, and the handcrafted care that went into its making -- a care that evokes the hand-touched paintings of the Old Masters, rather than the quick, mechanical click of a shutter. The marks of the maker's hand on a pictorialist photo may be like the signature on Duchamp's "Fountain" -- a sign of art, rather than a necessary feature of it.

* * *

As this show moves forward in time (it's mostly chronological) it becomes clearer and clearer that pictorialism's trademark techniques and gestures aren't crucial to its images. In many cases, if you sharpened a pictorialist's shot, and printed it straight, you'd get an image that could have come from almost any decade in the century.

Clarence White's 1903 "Boys Going to School," with its schoolkids cropped at the neck, could be a "decisive moment" out of Cartier-Bresson, from after World War II. There are complex, unsentimental landscapes by Imogen Cunningham and Georg Einbeck that almost recall the tough-eyed photographs of Washingtonian John Gossage shot in the 1980s. The best of Alvin Langdon Coburn's cityscapes, taken in London and New York, are absolutely rigorous and urban. The echoes they still have of Cameron's soft artiness are like a supermarket's loss leaders: They get art lovers to take that first step into Coburn's uncompromising scenes, so they'll buy into whatever they find there.

Coburn's striking image of two California palms is manipulated, in classic pictorialist style: In the darkroom, he added fronds to one of the trees and softened the whole image. But the content of his photo doesn't look much like any earlier art, and it's not soft in any profound way. (The Phillips has mounted a wonderful side show of Coburn's publications, from a recent gift the museum has received.)

Pictorialist photographers took the crucial first step toward asserting that photographs could be art. Eventually, they realized that their photos didn't even have to look like art for that assertion to stick. By claiming their shots as art, art would become something new. Within a few years, plumbing was playing the same trick.

Truth Beauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art, 1845-1945

runs through Jan. 9 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. Call 202-387-2151 or visit http://www.phillipscollection.org.

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