Frederick Evans' 1896 photograph Kelmscott Manor: Attics looks for all the world like the work of human hands. Dreamy and soft, we look down from one end of an attic along the trusses and beams of a roof toward an open area where light floats in from our left. Alternating strips of grays remind us that photographs were just complex configurations of light, dark, light. And yet, right around this time, they became something more. They became art.
A group of friends and collaborators known as the pictorialists swept through the photography world. Led by Alfred Stieglitz, they called the chemicals they affixed to paper art, and what we see when we look at Evans' photo -- its use of the camera to obscure reality with light rather than highlight it -- is an argument for the elevation of art by machine. They influenced all photography that came after them from Edward Weston to Ansel Adams to your Hipstamatic snapshots.
As with all important artistic movements, we have to ask: why did this happen? What forces were at work that led this group to do something new in the world?
"Many arguments abound, but I maintain it was a technological invention," said Alison Nordström, curator of photography at the George Eastman House, the country's largest film museum. "In 1888, George Eastman invented the Kodak camera. It was relatively cheap. Compared to the old ways of taking photographs, it was really easy. Suddenly, everyone was a photographer. Anyone with a small amount of money and a little bit of skill could take pictures. Suddenly, your mother was a photographer."
For those interested in using photography to make art for art's sake, this was quite a challenge to their status, Nordström explained Thursday at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. in a lecture timed to coincide with the opening week of a new exhibition, TruthBeauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art, 1845-1945. They had to justify their artistic practice.
"The effort was to claim that this machine, this camera, could make art. And one of the easiest ways to make things that people understood as art was to make things that looked like art," she said. "So unlike snapshots, pictorialists' photographs looked like paintings and charcoal drawings and etchings."
Many works like Edward Steichen's "Flatiron--Evening Camera Work 14" (above) play with fog and smoke. They hide things in the greyscale and even tend toward a hazy abstraction. Everything becomes a little harder to see and a bit more romantic. I'd long, lazily assumed that turn-of-the-century photos looked like this because of technical reasons, that this was just how cameras made photos at the time. That's not true. These photographers were skilled enough and their techniques good enough that they could have made razor sharp portraits, but they didn't. Instead, we have two decades where the best photographs work like memories not recordings.
To my modern eye, they share that impressionism the intentionally digitally degraded cell phone snapshot, all soft-focus and odd-lighting.
Hipstamatic, a popular app for the iPhone, lets users choose old "films" and lenses to create different effects. In a world where anyone with a few hundred dollars can buy a digital camera that will shoot flawless, sharp images of anything automatically, Hipstamatic makes taking photos harder and more subject to random variation. The images it produces are dreamy and imperfect. It's difficult to frame photos well, so canted angles and half-scenes appear regularly in the flickr photosharing groups dedicated to the app's output. Just look at Neema Naficy's photograph of the selfsame Flatiron building in New York.
When you use Hipstamatic, it practically forces you to shoot arty photographs. We can all be cell phone pictorialists now.