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

The new exhibit Truth Beauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art, 1845-1945 surveys the turn-of-the-century movement that elevated the apparently mechanical techniques of photography to "high" art.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 12, 2010

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.)

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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.

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