Archive for Pictorialism

Venetian Red Notebook: Don Hong-Oai’s Arresting Photographs

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Contemporary Art, Liz Hager, Painting, Photography with tags , , , , , , on November 6, 2009 by Liz Hager


Don Hong-Oai, Only Me Yellow Mountain, 14×11,”
sepia-toned gelatin-silver print (courtesy Gallery 71).

Though the landscape genre has long been appreciated in Western art, “nature art”—the depiction of nature and her species—has struggled to be taken seriously as a fine art form.  Not to be confused with domesticated animal portraiture, essentially a form of still life (i.e. animals as possessions), “nature art” is most often categorized as “illustration.” Perhaps that’s because, in the West, the depiction of the natural world has historically served science.  Even Audubon thought of himself as a scientist first; drawing and painting were just the means of documenting his findings.

John James Audubon, Belted Kingfisher, Havell plate no. 77, ca. 1812; 1822 (courtesy New York Public Library).

Asian masters seem to have been free from such constraints, no doubt because of the long tradition of purposeful reverence for nature there. Taoists believe that harmony with the Tao can only be achieved by living in accord with nature. Nature should be understood, befriended, not conquered or exploited. Additionally, Sung Dynasty (960-1979) Confucianists sought knowledge through “things,” reflecting their interest in observation and understanding of the world through nature.

Fan K’uan (990-1030), Sitting in Contemplation by a Stream, ink on silk.

Long before the Impressionists then, Chinese tradition dictated that a painter actually observe nature for long periods—notice how animals behaved, interacted with flora; record how the landscape changes with the seasons, distances, and times of the day—so that it would deeply resonate with him. In China’s tradition ofbird and flower painting,” which dates from the Tang Dynasty (8th/9th centuries), the birds and flowers are but one among many elements in an overall composition. The image isn’t meant to convey specifics, but the emotional impact of nature. Eventually two main trends evolved, one, Gong Bi, in which artists focused on small details, careful application of color and meticulous technique, giving their art a realistic and ornamental feeling; the other,  Xie Yi, looser and more expressionistic.

Don Hong-Oai, Winter Fog, 14×11,”
sepia-toned gelatin-silver print (courtesy Photo Eye Gallery).

With the rise of photography as a fine art medium at the dawn of the 20th century, it was only natural that photographers would at first imitate the motifs and techniques of painting. Stieglitz and his contemporaries did much to champion American “pictorialism, ” recognizable through its soft-focus, painterly style. (See Venetian Red’s The Birth of Photographic Pictorialism).

In the 1940s, possibly in Hong Kong, photographers popularized a style of composite image, which came to be known as “Asian Pictorialism.”  The images, based on the motifs of the “bird and flower” paintings, made extensive use of double negatives and montaged elements, all assembled in a vaguely realistic way.  Like the paintings, realism was not the goal; these photographic images were supposed to communicate the emotive power of nature.

Don Hong-Oai, Hoops, 11×14,”
sepia-toned gelatin-silver print (courtesy Photo Eye Gallery).

Don Hong-Oai (1929-2004) was one of the last photographers to work in this tradition.  Although the influences are recognizable (down to the “chop,” or calligraphic signature on the photographs), Hong-Oai’s images are truly unique. The photographer managed to create idealized scenes through hauntingly-specific details. He’s suggested whole worlds through the sparsest of details. His images are often atmospheric, although never overtly sentimental. However, the penultimate magic of these images lies in their alluding to the passage of time without being rooted in any specific time. Time passes; time is arrested.

Don Hong-Oai, Returning at Dusk, 11×14,”
sepia-tone gelatin-silver print.

Born in Canton, China, Hong-Oai was the youngest in a family of 25 children. His early life was dominated by poverty. As a young child, after the sudden death of his parents, he was sent to live in Saigon. Beginning as a seven-year old, Hong-Oai apprenticed to a photography studio, where he learned the basic techniques of photography. He nurtured an interest in photographing the landscape, which he did on his time off with the studio camera. (Who knows how long it must have taken him to save the $48 necessary to buy his first camera?) Later, he studied at the Vietnam University College of Art, eventually becoming a teacher there.

He studied with an earlier master of the Asian pictorial style, Long Chin-San. Chin-San had been trained in the techniques of “bird and flower painting,” and searched for ways to translate the overall effect into photography. He is reputed to have perfected the negative layering method around 1939.

Long Chin-San, Longevity, 1961, photograph.

Hong-Oai remained in Vietnam through the war. In 1979, however, because of disturbances between China and Vietnam, the photographer fled the country by boat, arriving at the age of 50 in San Francisco speaking no English. For years, he lived in Chinatown, where he had a small darkroom. He sold his prints at local street fairs.  Periodically, he returned to China to replenish his inventory of images.

Don Hong-Oai, Solitary Wooden Boat, 11×14,”
sepia-tone gelatin-silver print.

Only in the last decade of his life was Don Hong-Oai discovered by a wider public. These days, print of his work often start at $2,600 and a first edition of his book, Photographic Memories, now out of print, was recently offered on Amazon for $1,242.

Photographer Don Hong-Oai

Wider Connections

Utata—Don Hong-Oai biography

The Nonist—The World According to Chin-san Long

Birds: The Art of Ornithology

The Dreamy Images of Heinrich Kühn

Posted in Female Artists, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , on February 22, 2009 by Liz Hager



Heinrich Kühn, Miss Mary and Edeltrude Lying in the Grass, ca. 1910, autochrome (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art).

In July 1907 inveterate scientific tinkerer and photographer Heinrich Kühn (1866-1944) rendezvoused with Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Frank Eugene in Bavaria, where the four of them tested a new process called autochrome. Commercially introduced by the Lumière Brothers in 1906, autochrome is an additive color plate process, whereby a glass slide is coated with starch and silver halide granules, exposed to light, and processed into a coloured transparency on glass, which can be viewed by holding up to light or projecting onto a screen.

Through continued experimentation with the autochrome process, Kühn created some of his most striking images—the dreamy, romantic photographs of his family and friends.  Like other Pictorialists, Kühn believed in manipulation of the photographic negative to achieve painterly ends. While others chose to manipulate the image through the negative, no hand is overtly present in Kühn’s photographs. With their soft-blur focus and steep compositional angles, these images of Miss Mary (Mary Warner?) and Edeltrude (his daughter) are as beautifully rendered as any painting. Kühn has imbued the scenes with idyllic charm; absent the distraction of details around them, the two women exist in a reverie all their own. Further, were it not for the clues provided by their costumes, these photographs with their large abstracted shapes might be mistaken for more contemporary works.

Largely as a result of these works from the period between 1907-1910,  Kühn has become known as the foremost representative of the Pictorialismus (photographic pictorial) movement  in Austria.


Heinrich Kühn, Miss Mary and Edeltrude at the Hill Crest, ca. 1910, autochrome (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Not too long after 1910, however, Kühn abandoned the Pictorial style for a straight-forward approach that would show off the medium’s strength for capturing the “real world.”   By the end of World War I, Stieglitz and Steichen too had moved on. The movement officially died when Stieglitz dissolved the Photo-Succession and his Camera Work magazine.

Wider Connections

Elizabeth Pollock—Heinrich Kühn: An Exhibition of 100 Photographs

Heinrich Kühn in the Art Institute of Chicago

Anzenberger Gallery—Heinrich Kühl portfolio, images ca. 1910

Imagon lens, a Heinrich Kühn invention

20th century autochromes

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

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , , on November 8, 2008 by Liz Hager

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

%d bloggers like this: