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Modernism The painterly effects of hand-worked gum and bromoil prints and the moody soft focus photogravures of Pictorialism so dominant in the society and exhibition photography from the 1890s through to World War I declined in popularity as more enlightened photographers experimented with the possibilities of reality and abstraction. The sculpture and paintings of the period questioned the nature of composition just as abstraction, symbolism, impressionism and angularity challenged the choice of subjects and ways of seeing in "traditional" art. Photographers such as Paul Strand (1890-1976), Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966), Pierre Dubreuil (1872-1944), the ever-influential Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), and Edward Weston (1886-1958) all created bodies of work that show the transition between Pictorialism and Modernism.
A viewing of the body of photographs in the annuals of the Wiener Photographische Blätter: Herausgegeben Vom Camera-Club In Wien, Die Kunst in der Photographie, the exhibitions of the The Photo-Club de Paris, Camera Notes or Camera Work and innumerable publications such as the A Record of the Photographic Salon of 1895 or the Kodak Portfolio: Souvenir of the Eastman Photographic Exhibition 1897 show the best, and worst, of Pictorialism. At their best the photogravures, portfolios and prints were sublime. But by far the majority were simplistic, sentimental and trite.
When Paul Strand photographed "Still Life with Pear and Bowls, Twin Lakes, Connecticut" (1916) or "Abstraction, Twin Lakes, Connecticut" (1916) the photographs had stylistic elements of Pictorialism and abstraction - this was a radical change and immediately appreciated by people such as Alfred Stieglitz and the few contempories with a deeper grasp of cultural and artistic trends. The horrors of the First World War questioned sentimentality as a generation died in battle and photographs that could grace a candy box were not what was required. The majority of amateur camera clubs carried on in a sentimental vein but the few photographers who understood the cultural changes moved on. Modernism and the schools and movements of the Bauhaus, New Objectivity and F64 were born out of this.
Diverse viewpoints such looking up or down, close-ups, complex patterns of reality, abstraction, photo-montage, blending typography with photographs, use of shadows and industrial forms in photography mirrored what was happening in an increasingly complex contemporary art world in the early part of the twentieth century. This was the period of Constructivism, Vorticism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Symbolism, Abstraction, De Stijl, the Bauhaus and a host of other isms. There was an intellectual exchange between painting, sculpture and photography that can be seen in the different and fragmenting art movements of the time.
Modernism in photography was a part of this rich questioning of artistic traditions.
Alan Griffiths (July 2010)