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Book Review

Book Review – Impressionist Camera: Pictorial Photography in Europe, 1888-1918

Impressionist Camera: Pictorial Photography in Europe, 1888-1918

Patrick Daum, Francis Ribemont and Phillip Prodger (eds.)

Merrell Publishers Ltd

344 pages


Pictorialism, as Kristina Lowis observes in one of the essays in this grand volume, was once unjustly ‘characterised as an aberration leading to a dead end in the history of art’. Not so here. This realm of forms on the verge of disappearance is presented in this book as what it is: one of the most exciting chapters in the era of the photograph. Pictorialism is shown to be an exploration of the limits and potentials of vision, idealism and craftsmanship. It is described as a highly experimental and innovative movement which breaks with prior conventions of the imagistic and the imagination, with the sheer mediocrity and mechanistic quality of the representations of professional photographers in the Fin de Siècle.


Indeed, Impressionist Camera contributes significantly to the scholarship of European Pictorialism. It gathers together all the big names of the movement: Peter Henry Emerson, Constant Puyo and Robert Demachy, Henry Berssenbrugge and Heinrich Kuehn, Frederick Holland Day and Alvin Langdon Coburn, Frank Eugene and Gertrude Käsebier. Of course, Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz. Their masterpieces are generously and exquisitely rendered across one or two pages showing the full texture of each hand-made piece of art and the beauty of its pigmentation.


The included essays by various contributors are all very useful introductions to the diversity and unity of the movement across Europe; its cross-border translations and its origins in Britain. In particular, the pieces on autochromes and technique and the relationship of Pictorialism to amateurism are excellent. The essayists also consider the interrelations of Pictorialism with other systems of representation, showing it to be a part of a widespread transformation at the century’s end. They are at some pains to draw upon the connections of the movement to Symbolism, namely Maurice Maeterlinck’s approach to writing and Eugene Carriere’s painting.


If there is one slight fault in this otherwise excellent book, it is to do with development. Although Liddy’s essay on the subject mentions that the movement was initiated in mid-nineteenth century Britain, there is no mention of the great influence of Julia Margaret Cameron upon the trajectory it took. Similarly, F. Hollland Day’s role in the development of American Pictorialism is downplayed, following the orthodox opinion that Stieglitz masterminded the whole thing.


But, overall, Impressionist Camera is a very fine piece of work. It is very well-researched and very well presented. It is one of the best books I have read on this topic and certainly the one with the best appreciation of Pictorialism’s international scope.



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