Pictorialism through a plastic lens
Hill, V. (2009) Pictorialism through a plastic lens. In: IMPACT 6 International Printmaking Conference, UWE, Bristol, 16th -19th September 2009.
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Publisher's URL: http://www.impact.uwe.ac.uk
The aesthetic utilised by the early pictorialist photographers in their attempts to get artistic photography recognised as one of the Fine arts, rather than merely a method of mechanical reproduction, was one which relied on the use of soft focusing with the resulting hazing of outlines to produce images which would evoke emotion in the viewer. Printing methods which allowed for the manipulation of the finished image, introducing the notion of ‘handwork’ and therefore a degree of artistic intervention by the photographer, were also heavily utilised by some of these practitioners. Processes such as gum-bichromate, which produced a multi-layered printed image, were used by photographers such as Demachy and Steichen. As a genre pictorialism was at its most popular between 1885 and 1915, and spread through both Europe and North America with the formation of dedicated pictorialist photography groups such as the British “Brotherhood of the Linked Ring” and the American “Photo-Secessionists”. Prior to the outbreak of World War I there was a growing feeling that the genre was becoming dated and insipid, with some of the more established pictorialist photographers moving into new directions such as towards a more “straight” print. During the 1960’s and 70’s there was a trend towards using ‘toy’ cameras, specifically the Diana camera and the many Diana clone models. These were medium format cameras consisting of a plastic body, plastic lens and very basic operational and focus controls. Photographers such as Nancy Rexroth managed to utilise the limited optical quality of these lenses and produce work which was quite ethereal in nature, capturing an almost dreamlike quality in the finished print. This trend has continued with many new models of toy cameras being produced such as the Holga, which has taken over the place of the Diana camera in the medium format market, becoming more and more popular. The question that I am interested in addressing is whether the optical defects inherent in a single meniscus plastic lens make these cameras a suitable medium to reproduce the aesthetic of the original pictorialist images and whether the increased use and popularity of these cameras could be seen as creating a neo-pictorialist genre for the new century.