Fine Art Photography Series

History and Characteristics of Pictorialist Photographs.

Pin it

Pictorialism (fl.1885-1915)

Winter, Fifth Avenue, New York (1893)
An Impressionist-style pictorialist
photo by Alfred Stieglitz.

For a brief explanation of
camera and photographic
terms, please see:

Art Photography Glossary.

For the Top 80 len-based
artists and inventors, see:
Photographers: 19th-Century.


History and Characteristics
Origins of Pictorialism
Peter Henry Emerson and Naturalism
The Linked Ring
Robert Demachy
Frederick Evans
Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession Movement
Edward Steichen
Decline of Pictorialism
Influences of Painting on Photography and Vice Versa
Postmodernist Pictorialism

History and Characteristics

In the history of photography, the term "pictorialism" refers to an international style and aesthetic movement that flourished in particular between 1885 and 1915. Involving some of the greatest photographers of the time, pictorialism was a style of fine art photography in which the camera artist manipulates a regular photo in order to create an "artistic" image. The Pictorialist movement emerged in response to the growth of amateur photography caused by the invention of easy-to-use camera equipment, such as the handheld amateur camera introduced by Kodak in 1888. At the time, dedicated photographers believed that the amateur "point-and-shoot" approach undermined the artistic nature of photography and the role of the photographer as craftsman. As a result, in order to safeguard their "art", they adopted a more "professional" approach to photography (with or without manipulation in the darkroom), which involved the use of more complex cameras, as well as labour-intensive processes including gum bichromate printing, homemade emulsions and platinum prints. All of this allowed pictorialists to create a style of artistic photography in the form of a wide range of unusual, tonally subtle images. Another important factor behind the rise of pictorialism was the increasingly close relationship between photography and fine art painting. To begin with, an increasing number of modern artists - including Edouard Manet (1832-83), Edgar Degas (1834-1917), and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) - began to use photographs when completing landscapes or portraits in the studio. At the same time, numerous pictorialist cameramen - like Alvin Langdon Coburn, Edward Steichen, Oscar Gustave Rejlander, Gertrude Kasebier, and Sarah Choate Sears - trained as painters or took up painting while involved in photography. Pictorialism faded in popularity after 1920, although it did not disappear until the Second World War. During this period of decline it was superceded by more sharply focused imagery. Exponents of pictorialism included: (in America) F. Holland Day (1864-1933), Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), Clarence H. White (1871-1925), Edward Steichen (1879-1973), Paul L. Anderson (1880-1956), Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), Edward Weston (1886-1958), Man Ray (1890-1976) and Paul Strand (1890-1976); (in Britain) Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79), Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901), Frederick H. Evans (1853-1943), George Davision (1854-1930), Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936), Alexander Keighley (1861-1947), Alfred Horsley Hinton (1863-1908), Malcolm Arbuthnot (1874-1967) and Francis J. Mortimer (1874-1944); (in Europe) Constant Puyo (1857-1953), Robert Demachy (1859-1936), Leonard Misonne (1870-1943), Pierre Dubreuil (1872-1944), Hans Watzek (1848-1903), Hugo Henneberg (1863-1918), Heinrich Kuhn (1866-1944), Adolf Fassbender (1884-1980), Theodor Hofmeister (1863-1943), Oskar Hofmeister (1871-1937), John Heartfield (1891-1968), Andre Kertesz (1894-1985) and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946).

For a brief guide to the aesthetics and artistic nature of lens-based art, please see: Is Photography Art?


"A Sudden Gust of Wind" (1993) Pictorialist photograph by Jeff Wall.
This photo is modelled on the painting by Hokusai, entitled:
"Katsushika Hokusai Yejiri Station, Province of Suruga" (1832)

May Prinsep, as "Beatrice Cenci" (1866)
One of a series of Pre-Raphaelite-style pictorialist photos
created by Julia Margaret Cameron.



Pictorialist photographers are concerned with making pictures which are said to be aesthetically pleasing - meaning, those which appeal to people's sense of beauty. (For more, see: Aesthetics.) The terms "pictorial photography" or "pictorialism" are used to describe photographs of this kind in which artistic qualities are more important than documenting actuality. For example, people outside a house in a dingy back street might be recorded by a documentary photographer to illustrate bad housing conditions. A pictorial photographer, by grouping the people in a compositionally pleasing shape, perhaps using a soft focus camera lens, and waiting until the street surface glistens after rain, may create a moody atmospheric study. One photograph might be called Victims of the housing problem, Glasgow, the other Dusk. Clearly, documentary photography and pictorial photography can be poles apart.

Attitudes to pictorial photography have changed over the years too. Although difficult to believe today, pictorialism was considered modern and experimental in the late 1880s. This was because it was a break away from the earlier 'high art' photography of the mid-19th century, towards art pictures direct from nature. Once again it is important to try to see these photographs from the standpoint of what good art was considered to be at the time.

Beginning in Britain, pictorial photography soon spread to Europe and America. It became very much the concern of photographic clubs and societies for the serious amateur. Like-minded pictorial photographers also formed break-away groups; exhibitions were battlegrounds over which reviewers argued and fought. Eventually a newer approach - "straight photography" - was to take over during the 1920s and 1930s, leaving pictorial work repetitive and diluted.
Pictorialism made Britain the centre of new ideas in the 1880s and 1890s then seemed to hold back the progress of its serious amateur photography. It was left to American and European cameramen to move on into newer and more experimental approaches.

Origins of Pictorialism

Like art groups, the photographic societies which had sprung up in many cities during the latter half of the 19th century ran regular exhibitions of members' work. The camera was the new way of making pictures, but photographers were extremely conscious of its being only 'a mechanical recording medium'. Naturally they wanted to be considered as good as accepted artists. So in an attempt to give authority to 'the mechanically produced', the early photographers followed the content and style of paintings of the time. This meant going for a romantic approach, strongly expressing the emotional and the dramatic, and often using subject themes from history or literature. The Pre-Raphaelites style of painting - by painters like Rossetti (1828-82), Frederic Leighton (1830-96), Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) and John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) - dominated British Royal Academy exhibitions during the 1850s. Lofty, poetic and religious themes were treated sentimentally but painted in great detail and with careful regard for accuracy. They worked in a manner similar to painters before the High Renaissance painting of Raphael (1483-1520).

Art critics sent to review exhibitions of photography naturally compared this new pictorialism with painting. They advised photographers to avoid ordinary everyday scenes, draw a veil over 'ugly truth' and beautify their subjects if they were ever going to elevate photography to a high art. This was not easy to achieve when you consider the detail and accuracy the camera gives. To solve the problem (and help with technical difficulties like long exposures) subjects and scenes were specially staged. People dressed in costume and posed artistically in arranged settings. Photographs had to be contrived to be beautiful, just as the professional studios stage-managed portrait art at this time.

Choice of theme for a 'high art' photograph was also very restricted. It was safest to pick episodes from the bible, or a telling phrase from a modern poet like Tennyson or Longfellow, or some dramatic scene from life, such as 'Home From the Sea'. The Victorians loved pictures which narrated stories and had morals, like flowery novels of the time. They preferred scenes which unfolded before their eyes in clear precise detail, thoroughly worked and finished. In some ways therefore painting had a story-telling function like movies or TV today, particularly for the large number of people who could not read.

Imagine visiting the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition in 1857. Full of Rembrandts and Van Dycks, there were also over 500 British and European photographs organized by Philip Delamotte (1821-89). The photograph which created the greatest stir was Oscar Gustav Rejlander's Two Ways of Life, a large storylike composite-photo containing more than 21 character-portraits. A father leads two sons into the wide world. One, looking rather self-satisfied, turns towards the worthy things of life - knowledge, industry, married life, religion. The other turns away from his father's guidance towards 'bad' influences, including idleness, drink, sex and gambling. This photograph is comparable with the famous picture The Painter's Studio (1855, Musee d'Orsay, Paris), painted two years earlier by Gustave Courbet (1819-77).

Rejlander was an ex-painter who ran a studio in Wolverhampton, mostly producing reference photograph figure studies for artists. In a sense Two Ways of Life was a catalogue of his wares. He had used over 30 separate negatives to create his tableau - photographing the artistically posed figures singly or in groups. The background was photographed in a friend's garden; the draperies in Rejlander's own studio. He sold full-size prints for 10 guineas (£10.50) each, an enormous sum, equivalent to 3 month's average wages. Reduced size copies went for twelve shillings and sixpence (62p).

Other high-art photographers such as Henry Peach Robinson also used combination techniques, but mostly they stage-managed the complete picture in front of the camera. Settings were made up using whatever bits and pieces could be found around the house. Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79) indulged in many such flights of fancy and these results were much more appreciated by fellow-photographers than her blurred portraits.

The imaginary, literary themes these photographers chose were extremely difficult to portray with something as realistic as photography. (Even today it is difficult to illustrate a magazine story or novel with photographs.) Among artists, photographers began to be sniggered at as visual morons - upstarts who merely knew how to use a mechanical device. Among photographers, high art photography during the 1870s and 1880s was a cosy and enclosed world. Henry Peach Robinson wrote books laying down what was or was not permissible. Apart from better technical skill it really all repeated photographic work done back in the late 1850s, which was itself a copy of academic painting 10 years earlier.

Peter Henry Emerson and Naturalism

As one writer described it, "it was like a bombshell dropped at a tea-party". The tea-party was the restricted world of Robinson and his followers. The bombshell was an 1889 book "Naturalistic Photography for Students of Art" by Dr Peter Henry Emerson, a physician turned photographer working in East Anglia. Emerson argued that photographers were foolish to imitate the themes and methods of academic painting. It was wrong to use the camera as a convenient machine to construct pictures. Photography was a much more independent art form - fully deserving the status of other fine arts.

He urged photographers to study the appearance of nature rather than paintings. Look at the beauty of the image of natural scenes given by the lens on the camera's ground glass focusing screen - and the moods and emotions it arouses. Use essentially photographic effects such as focus and lighting rather than false techniques of combination printing to give pictorial qualities.

Photography should also be true to human vision. With his science background Emerson pointed out that the eye concentrates on one part of a scene at a time. Vision is indistinct towards the edges of the viewed scene and is most detailed near the centre. 'Overall' sharpness (considered important in high art) is therefore unnatural. By making some objects less sharp than others and having soft focus effects at the corners and edges of photographs the result was more natural, closer to truth. Emerson added the advice that every photography student should try to produce one picture of his own, showing that the author has something to say and knows how to say it.

Emerson was not just a forceful writer and lecturer, he was a brilliant photographer of the natural landscape. Already, in 1886, he had published a picture album "Life and Landscapes on the Norfolk Broads" containing 40 actual prints (Emerson contact printed his large negatives on platinum paper which gave an extremely permanent image in a soft silver grey colour). Altogether he published eight collections - either with pasted-in platinum prints or reproductions in ink from photogravure-etched metal plates. His un-retouched interpretation of 'real' scenes - helped now by faster and more convenient dry plates - had an immense influence on young photographers frustrated by 'accepted' photography.

Robinson and his followers of course attacked the new trend. Emerson, they argued, has a total lack of imagination and 'healthy human eyes never saw any part of a scene out of focus'. Photography can never be truly naturalistic. After all a negative exposed for land detail gives an overexposed, featureless sky. But one negative exposed for sky and another for land detail which are then combination printed give results much truer to original appearance.

At the height of his influence Emerson suddenly renounced his Naturalistic Photography - partly due to the newly published research of Hurter and Driffield which he saw as proving that photography gave a fixed range of tones over which the user had quite limited control. In 1891, in a dramatic pamphlet titled "Death of Naturalistic Photography" Emerson took back all he had said about photography being an art form. But by then it was too late. The idea of a more direct form of aesthetic photography had broken in on the rules and pretensions of high art.


The Linked Ring

Every pictorial photographer saw the hanging of his work in an exhibition as a great goal. Exhibiting was taken very seriously. Britain in the 1880s was the world centre for pictorial photography, based on the Photographic Society of London (soon to become the Royal Photographic Society). But in 1891 a serious debate arose between members, due largely to the society's hanging of scientific and trade (professional) photography together with pictures of artistic intent. There was also disagreement over prints from younger members showing soft focus and diffusion, to which older traditionalists objected.

Eventually in 1892, a group of photographers left to found their own breakaway movement "for the better encouragement of pictorial ideals". (This was a great time of upheaval in art, with small groups or 'brotherhoods' splitting from formal establishments). They called themselves "The Linked Ring", a name which relates to the way these photographers organized themselves, with membership by invitation only, and no President or exhibition hanging committee - the group being organized in turn by each 'link' for one month only. Early members included George Davison, Frank Sutcliffe, editor of Amateur Photographer, A. Horsley-Hinton, Frederick H. Evans and most followers of naturalistic photography except the self-renounced Emerson. The next year they ran their first annual pictorial exhibition, calling it The Photo Salon of The Linked Ring.

Much the same thing was happening in Europe. During the early 1890s, exhibitions limited to pictorial photography were held with great success by the Vienna Camera Club, the Photo-club of Paris, and clubs in Hamburg and Turin. The sort of work you would find hung in these 'salons' did not differ greatly country to country. Many photographers had elaborated Emerson's theory of limited sharpness in vision into overall soft focus effects. Spreading the highlights of a picture by diffusion also gave it an effect resembling the style of a relatively new movement in art known as Impressionism which flourished around 1873 to 1893.

New variations of photographic printing processes were devised which gave an image in gum bichromate. By daubing this with pigment you could build up a picture by hand with complete control over tone values - defying the grey tone relationship which Hurter and Driffield proved existed in ordinary papers. Various other techniques were used to make photographs lose their sharpness and detail and take on the qualities of painting. People used pin-hole cameras, printed on rough drawing paper coated with emulsion. Images were toned to resemble chalk drawings or crayon drawings.

This movement was not a return to high art - the subjects in front of the camera were now mostly genuine and natural. Contrivance was directed to making the process look as little like a photograph and as much like a painting as possible. Perhaps this was also reaction against the army of snap-shooters newly at work with their Kodak cameras. It became important to be something different, more serious, of more advanced status and conscious of painting aesthetics.

Not that all the new pictorial photographers worked in the same way. Some were noticeably 'straighter' in their methods. This is shown, for example, by the difference between the work of Robert Demachy and Frederick Evans, two pictorialists at opposite extremes of manipulated and straight approaches.

Robert Demachy

Robert Demachy was a banker, amateur painter and photographer, and a leading member of the Photo-club de Paris. Almost all the pictures Demachy exhibited used some form of manipulated process to eliminate the 'uninteresting and unnecessary'. Most were figure studies, printed by a gum or oil process. He wrote persuasively explaining why he worked this way. A work of art must be a transcript, not a copy of nature, Demachy argued. The beauty of nature does not itself make a work of art - this is given only by the artist's way of expressing himself. Slavish copying of nature, whether by brush, pen, or camera, can never be called art.

Demachy had no time for fellow pictorial photographers who used the 'straight' method. He pointed out that in all the best paintings you can see that the artist intervened between commonplace reality and the final work. Did Turner's sunsets exist just as he painted them? Were Rembrandt's scenes just as they would have appeared to the eye? A straight photograph cannot possibly be a work of art even when taken by an artist, for it may be repeated exactly by someone else who is no artist simply by setting up a camera immediately in the same spot. Straight prints may suit documentary photographers who have special factual interests in the subject, but the whole idea of the pictorial photography movement was surely to break away from recording.

Frederick H. Evans

Frederick H. Evans became a member of The Linked Ring a few years after it began, but he believed in a 'straighter' approach to pictorial photography. Evans was a London bookseller and amateur photographer, turned professional. His subjects mostly ranged from portraits to architectural studies for Country Life magazine. A typical photograph for which he was well known at salon exhibitions is called "Sea of Steps" and shows the Chapter House steps at Wells Cathedral. The fact that the subject is a particular 13th century staircase is less important than the way Evans communicated his feeling for wave after wave of worn steps.

Evans believed that seeing was the most important single aspect in photography. Picture making was best carried out on the focusing screen or viewfinder of the camera, using factors such as choice of viewpoint and the direction of light at a particular time of day, or the softness or hardness of shadows given by different weather conditions. Having spent hours walking about a cathedral deciding the area he would portray, Evans would return at different times to see the changing effects of light and shade. All this was done before his large plate camera and 19-inch Zeiss lens were even unpacked.

Frederick Evans believed in plain, simple, straightforward photography although he took great care technically to ensure his negative reproduced all the delicate tone values he saw as important in the subject. Printing was equally straightforward - prints were made by contact onto platinum paper, using the whole picture area and with absolutely no handworking of the image.

Evans' idea of making the creative decisions behind the camera instead of in the darkroom, was directly opposed to Demachy. He argued that it would indeed be possible for two photographers to occupy in turn the same spot with the same size camera, but only one might produce a picture perfect in proportions, atmosphere and sense of space. The other would fail owing to the wrong choice of lens, camera height, moment in time etc., but above all by not responding to the mood and delicacies of what he actually saw. Too many photographers tried to fake results into a work of art by disguising its photographic qualities later.

Stieglitz and Photo-Secession

In 1887 Peter Henry Emerson was the judge for a competition run by Amateur Photographer magazine. He awarded first prize for a naturalistic study of street urchins sent in by Alfred Stieglitz, a young American student at Berlin Polytechnic. Stieglitz was in Germany to study engineering but had become increasingly interested in photography. He attended classes in photochemistry and made his own study of the work of artists. The photographs taken by Stieglitz were pictorial but straight and generally un-manipulated, although he was less obsessed by the importance of this than Emerson. Mostly they featured simple scenes from daily life. Many were hung at the 1891 Vienna Salon and were greatly admired.

It was therefore a shock for Stieglitz when he returned home to New York to find the American photographers there were still struggling with a high art approach - years behind Britain and the Continent. For a time he worked as a partner in the new business of photo-engraving, making printing plates of photographs. He continued taking pictures mostly with a hand-held plate camera in and around the New York streets. But unlike Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, Stieglitz saw the city as a source of beauty and form, even in the most commonplace daily scenes. He was particularly interested in the visual effects of weather conditions, sometimes waiting hours for the right juxtaposition of people and objects.

The idea of a pictorialist using a hand camera was unusual, but Stieglitz also dared to crop his images, often printing only the part of the negative which gave best composition. Some of his photographs at this time had the softness of detail and delicate use of tone similar to Impressionist paintings he had admired in Europe.

By 1894 Stieglitz's work had won him election as one of the first American members of "The Linked Ring". The following year he left the engraving business with a small private income, determined to encourage creative photography in America. Appointed editor of American Amateur Photography Stieglitz wrote knowledgeably on both creative and technical matters, as well as setting high standards for the pictorial photography he chose to print. In fact this was his undoing, for he insulted readers in turning down their work and had to leave.

Soon he was editing a house magazine, Camera Notes, for The New York Camera Club, of which he was vice-president. Stieglitz was determined that the magazine should crusade for modern pictorialism. He discovered and reproduced work by unknown young American photographers such as Clarence White, Edward Steichen and Gertrude Kasebier, but club members complained he failed to devote enough space to their own photographs.

Squeezed out for being too ambitious, in 1902 Stieglitz was offered the chance of exhibiting his own work and the work of his discoveries at the prestigious National Arts Club. On the spur of the moment he called this show the work of the "Photo-Secessionists" (secession in art means breaking away from accepted ideas, see for instance: Vienna Secession). At first Stieglitz was the only secessionist in existence, but he quickly persuaded the other exhibitors to become founder members of the new Photo-Secession group, whose aims were to "hold together those Americans devoted to pictorial photography and exhibit the best that has been accomplished by its members". Many of their ideas for advancing photography were similar to "The Linked Ring" - one closely knit group, membership by invitation only, and emphasis on exhibitions. However they had a much broader acceptance of style - from straight photography to the diffused manipulated gum print processes used at the time by Coburn and Steichen.

In Stieglitz they also had a very dictatorial leader. He only permitted photo-secessionists to show their work as a group and then only provided that all work (approved by him) was hung without submission to any exhibition selection committee. Despite this arrogant attitude, Stieglitz's brilliance in maintaining high standards across a wide range of pictorial styles paid off. Group work hung at most of the major European exhibitions proved what a distinctive medium of individual expression photography could be.

From 1903 Stieglitz financed, published and edited the secessionists' own quarterly magazine called Camera Work, to show contemporary pictorial photography. It contained work from all over the world, written criticisms, exhibition reviews, and articles on trends in art and photography. The gravure-printed illustrations, on the finest paper, were of outstanding quality (Stieglitz's photo-engraving experience no doubt helped). By 1905 Stieglitz had also opened a small gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue to show and sell photographs, and later modern drawings and paintings.

Both gallery and magazine helped to introduce the work of British and European photographers to America. Within the first year this ranged from retrospective photographs by Hill and Adamson, to the current work of Frederick Evans. Once again Stieglitz insisted on selecting exactly which prints he would hang, however distinguished the photographer. He also showed his own work which included portraits of fellow artists and photographers as well as his city scenes - sombre, atmospheric, full of rich tone values. In many ways one man's efforts as critic, writer, art dealer and photographer had shifted the centre of new ideas in pictorial photography from Britain to America.

Edward Steichen

An important contemporary of Stieglitz was Edward Steichen. An apprentice lithographic artist and amateur photographer, he had been born in Europe but brought up in the USA. Some work he submitted to an exhibition judged by Alfred Stieglitz led to their publication in Camera Notes. After a period studying in Paris, mostly with the idea of becoming a painter, Steichen's soft-focus low-key portraits and landscapes were included in the first 1902 Photo-Secessionist show of which he was a founder member.

Having designed and helped set up the 291 Gallery for Stieglitz, he returned to live in Europe. Here he both painted and photographed, including portraits in colour using Lumiere's new Autochrome plates. From Paris he arranged for drawings and paintings by then unknown artists like Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) to be sent for hanging at 291.

Later, after experience during the First World War as a photo-reconnaissance officer with the US army, Steichen abandoned painting and totally changed his earlier manipulated style of photography. He taught himself to use images with crisp hard edge detail and full tone range. By the 1920s he had become chief fashion and portrait photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines. Steichen was to end his career as curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York during the late 1940s and 1950s.

Decline of Pictorialism

Meanwhile, in the period just before World War I, time was running out for what had been the new movements in pictorial photography. By 1909 "The Linked Ring" had become the establishment, stifling rather than encouraging new ideas; lack of leadership now generated considerable argument and in-fighting between the 'links'. Within the Photo-Secession many members had turned professional and drifted away by about 1912. The group's sense of purpose seemed to be lost.

The 291 Gallery and Camera Work now featured modern paintings and drawing more often than photographs. The last two issues were devoted to the strikingly direct straight approach of a young American photographer Paul Strand, but already subscribers had dropped to less than 40. In 1917, Stieglitz closed both the publication and gallery, left his wife and set up home with a 29-year old artist, Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) - whom he married in 1924.

In the general state of change which followed World War I Stieglitz rather dropped out of sight. His own photography was changing and he was exploring a more personal form of image, expressing feelings about life through symbolic pictures of trees, clouds, etc., which he called "equivalents". He went on to open the Intimate Gallery in 1925, and its successor An American Place which he ran until he died in 1946. Always these were meeting places for creative people working in photography or painting. He remained dedicated to the new and the emerging, always opposed to institutions which had a repetitive deadening influence. Thanks to pioneers like Stieglitz, seeds were sown from which public recognition of photography as an aesthetic medium separate and different from painting would slowly develop. In fact, a few American art museums - such as MOMA, the Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum - began buying photographs on the same basis as other forms of art as early as 1910. It took almost 50 years for British museums to follow suit.

Influences of Painting on Photography and Vice Versa

It is difficult to prove the two-way influences between painting and photography. However, the period of the formation of "The Linked Ring" and Photo-Secession also witnessed revolutions in other areas of the art world. In France back in 1874, the painters Claude Monet (1840-1926), Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) and others formed themselves into a 'secessionist' group. They exhibited their work in a recently vacated Paris studio. One of Monet's waterscapes entitled "Impression: Sunrise" was used by the critic Louis Leroy (1812-1885) as the basis for a name for the new painters, who were known thereafter as Impressionists.

The movement was against established painting of the time and aimed to achieve the greatest possible naturalism by trying to depict the play of light on object surfaces, with the perfect control of tone and colour. Most Impressionist paintings have an atmosphere of light, while objects lack a firm outline. Many were produced out of doors in the plein-air painting style, where fleeting changes in natural conditions could be observed and rendered. All the Impressionist Exhibitions in Paris between 1876 and 1886 (when the group disbanded to allow members to work separately) were received with a downright lack of enthusiasm if not outright hostility. The first exhibition of Impressionist painters to appear in London did not take place until 1889, three years before the formation of "The Linked Ring". At the same time Photo-Secessionists admitted that they were influenced by the styles of painters of their day like Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) or Whistler (1834-1903).

Painters on the other hand preferred not to admit to the use of photographs, although they often took or commissioned them for reference. Nor could they afford not to notice the new kinds of images adventurous photographers were producing. Look at the way Monet painted moving figures in city streets, or the shimmering leaves of trees. The general growth of black and white photography as an art form must have encouraged Impressionist painters to emphasize the use of colour in painting. In fact the general movement among painters towards more personal expression and less realism was probably influenced by the need to distance themselves from photography.

One odd feature of the pictorial movement is that, whereas Britain in the 1890s provided probably the most important breakaway photographic movement of its day (The Linked Ring), twenty years later there was little further development - in fact British photography had lost the initiative to America. Much of this was due to the importance in Britain of tradition, of avoiding novelty. New ideas were considered threats. Some photographers working in Britain just before World War II, such as A. L. Coburn, still managed to be adventurous - but in general the pressures were strongly against individuals stepping out of line.

Postmodernist Pictorialism

From about 1970, the era of Postmodernist art has witnessed a resurgence of 'staged' pictorialist photography. Famous postmodernist artists who have taken up this style, include: Cindy Sherman (b.1954) who explores surrealism; Jeff Wall (b.1946) who created A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) (1993, Tate Collection, London); and Andreas Gursky (b.1955) whose contribution to contemporary art includes Rhein II (1999) - a photograph of the River Rhine, which was enlarged to a huge size and then digitally altered to erase all visible buildings and people. In November 2011, it sold at Christie's New York for $4,338,500 making it the world's most expensive photograph.

Pictorialist photographs and prints are regularly shown in several of the best galleries of contemporary art across America.

• For more about pictorialism in fine art photography, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.