Impressionist Camera: Pictorial Photography In Europe, 1888-1918

by Matt Damsker


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Merrell Publishers Ltd., 81 Southwark St., London SE1 0HX; 49 West 24th St., 8th Fl., New York, NY 10010. ISBN No. 1-85894-331-0 (hardcover); 0-89178-088-2 (softcover); 344 pages. $49.95 softcover; .

If there's an irony to photography's pictorial (or, Aesthetic) movement, it's in the notion that making photography look like painting and drawing brings it closer to fine art legitimacy, when, ultimately, it reduces it to mimicry. Still, the three decades of Pictorialism chronicled in this display and accompanying catalogue resulted in countless beautiful images, and more 140 of them are displayed here. Organized by the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Rennes, France, this is the first comprehensive exhibit of Europe's pictorialist treasures--from Austria and Britain to France, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Russia, and beyond, with 15 scholarly essays included in this book to chart the origins and influence of the movement, along with illuminating studies of technique.

Pictorialism, as Saint Louis Art Director Brent R. Benjamin notes in his Foreword, was one of the first truly international artistic movements, spreading quickly from Europe to America and Asia. From the great and simple nocturnal reverie of Pierre Dubreuil's "Ferris Wheel in the Tuileries Gardens"--with its street-light globes the sole bright notes in a study of shape and shadow--to the autochrome soft-focus of John C. Warburg's "The Japanese Parasol" (autochrome was the first industrial process for color photography, invented by the Lumiere brothers in 1903), this is photography at its most self-consciously evocative, and it conveys a haunting, haunted sense of wonder on the part of these pioneering artists.

Indeed, if one didn't know that many of these images were the result of hand-worked, gum bichromate exposures on fine papers, it would be hard to call them photographs, especially when confronted with something like Georg Einbeck's 1897 print of a mother breast-feeding a baby, with its etched texture and, especially, the classical features of the mother; it's as if Rembrandt were behind the camera. And the outdoor studies of Theodor and Oskar Hofmeister, of boats on a Dutch canal, are masterworks of subtle coloration and tonality coupled with superb composition. If anything, Pictorialism's greatest works are its least phantasmagoric. Constant Puyo's images of spectral women in misty landscapes are lovely, dark, and deep, but the heightened naturalism of other photos--such as Adriaan Boer's "Winter Landscape," with snow lining the thin trees like brushstrokes of white paint--makes a stronger impression. In these images, and despite all the artifice of Pictorial inspiration, it's the real world that shines through--and, as later generations of photographers would show us, that's more than enough.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.