Pictorialism – DEFINING THE LIMITS OF ART

Overview:

Historically, art has been confined to performance and fine art, such as dance, acting, sculpting and painting. At the turn of the century photographers struggled to “carve-out” an acceptable habitat within the arts community through the art of photography. This residence was met with much aggression from the general public, who rejected the notion of photography as an art.

Through the struggles of our photographer predecessors, we now can state proudly that photography is a true form of art and self-expression, but how did it get to be this way? Are we hesitant to progress into different forms of art? Are we hesitant to accept variant forms and means of photography as legitimate?

I will strongly state in the affirmative, that society is enthralled in many forms of snobbery and bias against innovative forms of technology and art. I will briefly skip through history until our current period, and discuss some theoretic roadblocks that have stunted the growth of arts in the past and what could be stunting the growth of art today. I will also investigate how artists can convince society that their craft is a true form of art and expression. I will concentrate on fine arts, and not performing arts.

Theory of Social Resistance

This resistance can be attributed to societal resistance of new ideas and technologies. In 1947, sociologist Kurt Lewin proposed the idea that social systems have a tendency to maintain a status quo by consistently resisting change and reverting back to the original state (Lewin, 1947). This theory of social resistance can be applied to turn of the century society in regards to what they thought was acceptable forms of art.

Pictorialism

Before the turn of the century, fine artists had been the subject matter experts and brand ambassadors of the arts, and had the power to set the discourse which defined what art was. If you were not a sculptor, painter, or even performer – you were not really considered to be part of the arts. Photography had been on the rise for quite some time, and photographers were crying out to be accepted as artists, and not simply regarded as documentarians whose sole purpose was only to record what existed.

Going back to the mid-1800s, the consensus of photographers understood this barrier to entry into the art industry and compromised their craft. Photography took a new form, which was called “photographic pictorialism”, or for our purposes; pictorial photography. The photographer would shake their camera as they released the shutter, to give the photograph a dreamier and “painted” feel. This was the photographer’s bid into acceptance into the elite clubhouse of artists. The first examples of pictorial photography can be found in the UK in Henry Peach Robinson’s 1969 book, titled “Pictorial Effect in Photography” (Bunnell, 1992).

Below: photographic pictorialism – an “accepted” form of art.

Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB)

TPB is theory of behavioral change which is used as a measure of whether an individual’s intentions to change is strong enough to promote the use of a new belief, product or behavior. TPB is an elaboration upon the theory of reasoned action (TRA) (Ajzen & Fishbein), in which any intervention attempting to change behavior should focus on beliefs, because beliefs influence attitudes and expectations, which in-turn influence intentions and behaviors. In 1991, Ajzen revised the TRA into the TPB, which included the dimension of perceived behavioral control, which makes intention to perform (or not perform) the behavior the main determinant of the individual’s behavioral change (Corcoran).

If we apply the TPB to the past century’s advances in technology in the context of photography; we can find numerous examples of a technological advancement being accepted into the cadre of photographic arts through society’s embrace of such technologies. Take for example the works of Ansel Adams. Ansel Adams – famous for his breathtaking landscape photography, formed a group of photographers in San Francisco named Group F64 (in reference to a small lens aperture which renders subject and background in perfect focus), and refused to accept that photography not was not an art in its own right.

Ansel said “to hell with pictorialism, I’m going to make exceptional art from photography that is in-focus and looks like photography” – this is not a direct quote by any means, but it dictates Ansel’s groundbreaking and innovative art form. Ansel Adams’ photography quickly became world renown, and he was even an integral catalyst in the conservation movement which was the nationalization of American parks.

Advancing Technology

So, now that photography is considered a bona-fide art, we have had the advent of the SLR camera, automatic metering, automatic focus, auto advancing film and many other technological advancements which were met with scrutiny. Incredible, with every technological advancement, came the snobbery of other photographers stating:

That’s not real photography


Anonymous. photo snob

For instance, when auto-metering was invented in the 70’s, there were photographers saying that auto-metering was “cheating” and it was not “real photography”. The same snobbery came about with the advent of auto focus, and the spigot of snobbery especially flowed with the advent of digital photography. It’s easy to point a finger and call others photo snobs, but perhaps we need some introspection into our own snobbery.  

The entry-level DSLR market virtually has been in a downward spiral since 2010 when smartphones began releasing decent cameras. The same demographic that purchased entry-level DSLRs found their go-to camera to be in their phone.

Is smartphone photography, real photography?

If you ask me, I will say – no. I have my reasons that I will disclose, but for the sake of argument; I’ll play devil’s advocate.

Devil’s advocate

Smartphones have completely replaced lower-end cameras. If a millennial was to pick up a DSLR for the first time, it would be completely unintuitive for them to utilize. They would immediately try to “pinch-zoom” the rear display (which doesn’t work on most modern DSLRs), and would never use anything other than live view. They would have the impression that the camera is archaic and backwards.

Instead, they can take beautiful pictures with their iPhone/Galaxy, pinch/zoom, take beautiful video, and even vlog. They can apply filters which eliminated the need for Photoshop, they can download apps, which can make pictures even more dynamic, they can even apply selective focus, bokeh effects and the list goes on.

The most important aspects of photography that a smart phone will teach a new photographer are the arts of composition and storytelling. Although a smart phone does not take any technical mastery, a good photo can still be recognized by the ways in which it is composed, as well as its ability to convey a message, or feeling – two features that are not included in the menu of a DSLR.

No more devil’s advocate:

A smartphone will never replace a professional DSLR. This is due to sheer physics (which will always exists). A full-frame camera sensor is more than fifty times greater in size than a modern iPhone sensor. Although there are crop sensor Fuji fans who say “sensor size doesn’t matter”, a large sensor will greatly reduce noise, as well as providing a much more shallow depth of field.

A modern smartphone’s ISO taps off at approximately 800 which still shows an ugly amount of noise, while a modern DSLR can be boosted past 64000, and the noise-levels are still relatively low. Interchangeable lenses can be employed for various application such as; macro, micro, sports, astro, and a plethora of focal lengths for portraitures. 

3 Amigos reference

Resistance to technology

When it comes to theories on resistance, there is no unified codex. Many scholars have conducted studies to determine why we reject technology and have produced, but perhaps research needs to be conducted in accordance to the subject. For instance, photography. Perhaps a photographer is heavily invested in a certain technology and a change is not equitable – instead of spending resources purchasing and learning the new tech, it is easier to reject it and advocate against it. This has much to do with ego, and self-preservation. Why else would a wedding photographer not switch to a silent mirrorless system? Perhaps they are heavily invested in incompatible lenses of a different manufacturer. Instead of bashing mirrorless by stating “that’s not real photography”, why not be honest and state “that’s out of my budget right now”, “I don’t know enough about it yet”, or simply “I like my current equipment”.

Laumer and Echardt present a simplified model which include the ideas of many user resistance theorists’ ideas. Laumer and Echardt begin with rudimentary factors such as individual differences, context and social influence as factors which are potential stimulants to change or resistance which also funnel down to beliefs and attitude factors. Finally the human thought process is based upon the equity-implementation model (which I briefly explained in the paragraph above), then finally an outcome of change or resistance will be implemented by the user (Laumer & Eckhardt).  

Don’t pull others down to validate your ego

Wrap-up

To summarize this post, photographic technology has come with much resistance. Photography began as a pseudoscience which wanted to be incorporated into the world of arts. Pictorialism was a means for photographers’ work to be sanctioned into the arts. Change agents such as Ansel Adams and Group F64 had a new approach to photography which popularized it as an art in its own right. As technology advanced through the ages, we can see that it had been met and is met with much scrutiny and rejection, but like always; has managed to prevail into modern times.

As photographers scrutinize smart phone photographers for their use of a much more “inferior” camera to produce their art, we must look back in history and pictorial photography and understand that we cannot be those to judge others for their personal interpretation of the art.  Perhaps the next Ansel Adams will be a smart phone photographer.    

Works Cited

Ajzen, I., & Fishbein, M. (1980). Understanding attitudes and predicting social behavior. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.
Bunnell, P. C. (1992). Pictorial Photography. Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, 2+5-15.
Corcoran, N. (2007). Theories and models in communicating health messages.
Laumer, S., & Eckhardt, A. (2011). Why Do People Reject Technologies: A Review of User Resistance Theories. Our Digital Society, 1-25.
Lewin, K. (1947). Frontiers in group dynamics: Concept, method, and reality in social sciences, social equilibria, and social change. Human Relations, 5-41.

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