“The Possibilities of Expression”—Stieglitz and the Birth of Photographic Pictorialism

Note: This is the first in a two-part series, which continues with Paul Strand and the Birth of Modernism.


The arts equally have distinct departments, and unless photography has its own possibilities of expression, separate from those of the other arts, it is merely a process, not an art.

—Alfred Stieglitz


Alfred Stieglitz, Gossip—Katwyk, 1894 (published in Camera Work 1905)
half-tone reproduction, approximately 5 x 8.”

Photographs are widely viewed as a veritable record of reality, if only a brief moment of reality. This view conveniently dismisses the contradiction inherent in the photographic act: that an agent with editorial inclinations operates a mechanical instrument without editing aptitude.  Thus, at the most basic level, a photographer composes the reality a viewer sees.  Beyond that, technical manipulation has existed since the photographic medium was invented.  And yet, photographic doctoring, when outed, is still denounced as deceit. In any other medium, it would be accepted as artistic license.

There was a time when photographers eschewed objective or “straight” photography and actively sought artistic expression. The “pictorialism” movement came into vogue beginning around 1885 following the widespread introduction of the dry-plate process. It reached its apogee in the early years of the 20th century under Alfred Stieglitz and his colleagues in the Photo-Secession movement.

No one person was more instrumental in establishing photography as a medium of fine art than Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946).  His body of photographic work might have accomplished this on its own, but Stieglitz also tirelessly promoted the artistic attributes of the photographic medium through a range of activities, including gallery exhibitions and two journals. Curiously, the eventual acceptance of photography as a fine art medium played a large part in pushing painting beyond its representational boundaries.


Edward Steichen,Portrait, published in Camera Work 1903,
half-tone reproduction, approximately  6 2/3 x 5 1/5″

Breaking away from the established New York Camera Club in 1902,  Alfred Stieglitz organized the exhibition, “American Photography arranged by the Photo-Secession,”  which brought together like-minded photographers, including Eduard (later Edward) Steichen, Gertrude Käsebier, Clarence H. White. They would soon formally establish the Photo-Secession movement. With an objective to free their medium from its status as the “handmaiden of science and commerce,”   it’s not a surprise that they turned to emulation of the painting and print-making styles of the day—primarily the Impressionists.  The “painterly” photograph was achieved through several means—laborious hand coating of papers with metals and chemicals to enhance the gauzy and stipple effects, as well as by manipulation of the negative or print through double exposure, softening of the focus, and over drawing. The Photo-Secessionists chose to work within the thematic categories already staked out by painters—portraits, landscapes, nudes, mythical/historical scenes, and everyday activities.

In 1903 Stieglitz launched his journal Camera Work, the vehicle through which he showcased the work of the Photo-Secessionists (including new members like Alvin Langdon Condon), as well as European colleagues, such as Baron Adolf de Meyer (both of whom formally joined the group later).  From the body of work that was presented on the pages of the magazine, the photographers’ debt to painting is well-illustrated. How closely Stieglitz’s “Gossip” above resembles certain Impressionists in composition and theme. Steichen’s portrait below bears a striking similarity to Matisse and Degas portraits.

Incredible as it seems, Camera Work, published quarterly from 1903-1917, was the first photographic journal to be visual in focus; it featured multiple reproductions per page, although the scale of the originals was obliterated by the identical sizing of the reproductions.  Stieglitz was a renowned perfectionist and the magazine was printed according to exacting standards—wherever possible photographs were reproduced from negatives using the photogravure technique (an intaglio process used to reproduce photographs); the photogravures were printed on fragile, translucent Japanese tissue, then mounted on high-quality art paper in a shade complimentary to the tonal variations of the images.


Baron Adolf de Meyer, Still Life, 1908,
photogravure, approximately 6.45 x 8.8″

Stieglitz would continue to publish Camera Work until 1917. The final issue featured the thoroughly modernist work of photographer Paul Strand.

Wider Connections

Camera Work

The Art of the Photogravure

Baron de Meyer / Portrait Gallery

Stieglitz at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set Collection

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