Julia and the Photo-Art of Pictorialism

(This page includes excerpts from an ebook and printed book published by us at Dimbola last year. The ebook is available at http://store.blurb.com/ebooks/421837-julia-margaret-cameron-and-the-allure-of-photography)

Henry Peach Robinson’s The Pictorial Effect in Photography (1867) officially launched the idea that photography is not just a means of recording whatever happens to be in front of the lens, it is an art form. Photographers should have as much freedom to manipulate or adjust the captured image as a painter has in creating an oil-painting.

“Any dodge, trick and conjuration of any kind is open to the photographer’s use…. It is his imperative duty to avoid the mean, the base and the ugly, and to aim to elevate his subject…. and to correct the unpicturesque….A great deal can be done and very beautiful pictures made, by a mixture of the real and the artificial in a picture.”

Peach Robinson suggested that  the photographer, like the artist, must study the aesthetics of beauty, and understand the perception of beauty:1862_Peach-Robinson_Bringing-home-the-May_C

“However much a man might love beautiful scenery, his love for it would be greatly enhanced if he looked at it with the eye of an artist, and knew why it was beautiful. A new world is open to him who has learned to distinguish and feel the effect of the beautiful and subtle harmonies that nature presents in all her varied aspects. Men usually see little of what is before their eyes unless they are trained to use them in a special manner.”

At the same time, he warns against the possible blinkering of the photographers vision by thoughtlessly adopting what he calls ‘Art rules’

“I must warn you against a too close study of art to the exclusion of nature and the suppression of original thought…. Art rules should be a guide only to the study of nature, and not a set of fetters to confine the ideas or to depress the faculty of original interpretation in the artist, whether he be painter or photographer…. The object (of rules) is to train his mind so that he may select with ease, and, when he does select, know why one aspect of a subject is better than another.”

I have two favourite examples of Pictorialism in extremis: the first is Peach Robinson’s Bringing Home the May 1862 (above). The National Media Museum describes this:

A romantic and idealised representation of country life, Bringing Home the May, was Robinson’s most ambitious photograph. It was created in 1862 using nine separate negatives, and the composition was built up through drawings and sketches to ensure consistency in perspective and scale. Models and costumes were hired and the individual images photographed over a period of several days, with light levels carefully monitored to ensure parity in the final piece.


What is interesting to me as a media historian especially interested in the back-story (the developing history) of where we are now in the 21st century, Peach Robinson and his colleague Oscar Gustav Rejlander – both famous for their composite images (which had the Royal seal of approval from Prince Albert and Queen Victoria) – were exploring the art of photo-mechanical compositing as early as the 1850s. In the mid-19th century they were developing techniques that are effectively the prototype for the kind of cinematographic compositing that emerged in the 20th century – first by using optical-printing and painted mattes on glass, later using digital layering. Peach Robinson and Oscar Rejlander are the great grandfathers of the post-production special effects industry in the UK and USA. The great grandfathers of Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, 2013)!

Rejlander of course, worked with and mentored Julia Margaret Cameron in the early 1860s.

By the 1890s, the Pictorialists were influencing spin-off movements in the UK (the Linged Ring Brotherhood 1892), in France (the Photo-Club de Paris 1894) and by 1902 in America,  the Photo ~Secession, founded by Alfred Steiglitz. Photo-Secessionists were also dubbed American Links). They all broadly supported the Pictorialist idea, though not so much in its compositing aspect as in the manipulation of the quality of the image. The work of Parisian Robert Demachy is a good example of this kind of manipulation – printing images on hand-made papers with richly textured ‘tooth’ (rough, unpressed surface), using a variety of rather arcane processes including his favourite, gum-bichromate, and photogravure. These techniques were developed by Demachy to consciously give his photographs the gravitas of artist’s etchings, pastel drawing or lithography. This is an example:


Robert Demachy: Etude 1895 (gum-bichromate reproduced as a photogravure print)

Robert Demachy summarised his approach in an article “What Difference Is There Between a Good Photograph and an Artistic Photograph?” (Camera Notes Volume 3 number 2, Oct 1899) . He wrote :

“We must realize that, on undertaking pictorial photography, we have, unwittingly perhaps, bound ourselves to the strict observance of rules hundreds of years more ancient than the oldest formulae of our chemical craft. We have slipped into the Temple of Art by a back door, and found ourselves amongst the crowd of adepts.”

By 1913 in his Photo-Secessionist journal, Alfred Stieglitz features 5 photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron (CameraWork vol 41 1913), firmly establishing Julia as an important precursor of the ‘camera work’ aesthetic:



This is the first of the 20th century revalidations of Julia’s work. She is recognised as a fellow traveller first by the Pictorialists, and the Brotherhood of the Linked Ring, then by Alfred Stieglitz, the first of the recognisably modernist artist-photographers of the 20the century, and the founder of the Photo Secessionists.


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