Recently my wife and I visited The Phillips Collection in the Dupont Circle area of N.W. Washington, D.C. We went to see the photography exhibit, TruthBeauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art, 1845 - 1945. I highly recommend seeing this absolutely beautiful exhibit of 120 images ... it was one of the best exhibits of pictorialism I have ever seen. FYI ... the show closes January 9th 2011. Try not to miss it.
Another exhibit worth seeing of pictorial works is at The National Gallery of Art ... The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting, 1875-1875. Some of the works are by Lewis Carrol, Julia Margaret Cameron, Roger Fenton and Henry Peach Robinson. Definitely worth seeing.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, photography was just beginning to make its mark on the art world. I say make its mark sparingly because photography was not really accepted as a true art form, but it was struggling hard to gain acceptance. Consequently, photographs of that period were made to look more like paintings ... the imagery was usually soft focus and poetic in form and subject matter. The prints were beautiful and at the time difficult to craft. Prints were made of platinum, gum, carbon and even gelatin silver prints. Included in the show were examples of prints that were hand colored/painted with water colors.
Over the years I have seen a lot of examples of pictorialism, specifically in shows at The Corcoran Gallery/Museum and The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. to name a few, but never an exhibit encompassing all the "who's who" of pictorialism in one exhibit. Some of the greats represented were Henry Peach Robinson, Edward Steichen, Julia Margaret Cameron, Alfred Steiglitz, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Gertude Kasabier, Frederick Evans and even early pictorial works by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.
I can not stress enough how beautiful the images were ... they were just drop dead gorgeous! The word "conceptual" never really came to my mind. As we drove home, I began thinking about what has been happening within photography. It is all I hear are words like "contemporary" and "conceptual." Photographers such Jeff Bark, Gregory Crewdson, Paolo Ventura, Edward Burtynski, Erwin Olaf and Todd Hido are today's super-star conceptual photographers. Of course their work is beautiful ... but in a much different way. Their prints are huge and graphic ... modern looking as opposed to classic and timeless. The editions are small ... 5-7 prints total ... and they are quite expensive ... in the high five figure and even six figure range ... big buck for living photographers.
The question I ask is, what has happened to the beautiful image? What about images made just for beauty sake ... no real intellectual concept other than showing the grand landscape, or sweeping panoramic views of rocks and ocean. It seems to me that today there is much more emphasis on the concept of the work rather than its sheer beauty. Craft seems to play second fiddle to concept. I suspect the traditional landscape in the genre of Adams and Weston are, for the time being dormant. What do you think?