A Brief History of Photography: Part 12 – Movements: Pictorialism versus Straight Photography

When George Eastman’s Kodak box camera was introduced in 1888, its popularity spawned an identity crisis of sorts within the photographic community. The widespread availability and relatively low cost of the Kodak camera and its ease of use resulted in an explosive surge in the number of new photographers. This led to the creation of millions of photographs, characterized by a small number of strong images obscured in a sea of mediocrity. While the huge “snapshot” market provided the financial strength to sustain the growing photography industry, it challenged serious amateur and professional photographers to differentiate their work from that of casual shooters. It seemed the solution could be found in two parts: through either technical excellence, or through artistic merit.

Ironically, this divided answer to photographic distinction paralleled the differences between the two most popular processes in early photography. The daguerreotype exhibited exquisitely high image sharpness, resolution, and detail, arguably capturing a more accurate rendering of the subject. In contrast, the calotype presented a softer, grainier, more ethereal image quality, perhaps encouraging a more artistically interpretive approach to the subject. The debate over these two approaches, to either document a technically accurate record of the subject, or to exercise aesthetic interpretation, has fueled contentious photographic art movements from the 1880’s to the modern day.

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