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Toward a New Art: Pictorialist Photographs from the Permanent Collection

“The earnest and untiring search for the beautiful…lifts photography above the levels of a mere pastime, it makes it an inspiration; an interpretation of the thoughts of God.”
—Unidentified author, American Amateur Photographer 1, July 1889

 “Photography can never be an art, though it may be a valuable adjunct! Yes. But if it ever is used by an artist instead of his pencil where he could use his pencil, it will prove to be the destroyer of art instead of being, as it should be, an aid.”
—W. B. Richmond, The Studio, vol. 1, 1893

These two comments on photography at the end of the nineteenth century clearly explicate the controversy that was developing around photographers’ claims that photography was, indeed, an art form, and should be created, exhibited, and collected as such. One of the greatest champions of this thinking was the artist and entrepreneur Alfred Stieglitz, and he would almost single-handedly change the public’s attitude about the photographic medium through the exhibitions he held in his gallery “291” and through his publications, Camera Work and Camera Notes.

The first exhibition of art photography, the “New York, Philadelphia and Boston Joint Exhibition Series,” was shown in 1886. This was quickly followed by annual juried shows in many of the major art centers, and the Photo-Secession was inaugurated in February 1902. But probably the most persuasive event occurred the previous year, when Stieglitz was invited to show his work at the Arts Club in New York. Recognizing the importance of the moment, Stieglitz proposed a comprehensive show of American works, rather than a one-man exhibition. As was noted in The Studio (vol. 41, 1907), he hoped “to show that a vitality, which was his own, stamped the work of each, so that it would lead to the recognition of its author unaided by catalogue or signature.” Curated by Stieglitz, the works were selected by invitation, and among those who exhibited at this first exhibition of the Photo-Secession were Gertrude Käsebier, Clarence White, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Eva Watson-Schütze, and Eduard Steichen—all represented in this current exhibition. The aim of the group was to present photography “as a distinctive medium of individual expression,” accentuating its aesthetic possibilities.

The end show bracketing the heyday of the pictorialists was the International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography held in 1910 in Buffalo, New York, at the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy (today the Albright-Knox Art Gallery), considered by many to be “the finest exhibition of pictorialist photography ever held.” Conceived and organized by Alfred Stieglitz, Clarence White, and Max Weber, the exhibition included work by over six hundred European and American photographers and would be the culmination of Stieglitz’s advocacy. Though many artists continued to work in a pictorialist manner well into the 1940s, it was these early years that helped gain acceptance for the medium as an art form—a legacy enjoyed by photographers working today.

Nancy E. Green
The Gale and Ira Drukier Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs