Pictorialists and the Photo Salon

Pictorialists and the Photo Salon

In the 1880s the amateur movement began to grow to meaningful levels and a marked division developed between the masses making record shots and those who were more studied, to varying degrees, considered themselves as serious photographers.

With the growth of pictorialism and the increasing appreciation of photography as a fine art, galleries increasingly accepted photographs and exhibitions upgraded their status to “Salon”. Quoting an article from the AMERICAN AMATEUR PHOTOGRAPHER of March 1898:

It was a bold move that prompted the Pittsburgh Amateur Photographer’s Society to hold an international salon and exhibition at the Carnegie Galleries… Following so closely upon the splendid array of paintings brought together through the instrumentality of those who already knew from past experiences the taste of a critical public, the ambitious spirit of the officers governing the society of lens and camera is responsible for a photographic treat, that in itself is sufficient to stamp the event of importance in the art world. Considering that the exhibit was the first of the Pittsburgh Amateur Photographer’s Society, and taking into consideration, also, that oils and colors appeal more directly to the eye than the delicate black and white effects of the photograph, it was a surprise to observe with what interest the walls of the galleries were scanned.

The Photo Society held the salon from January 18 through February 6, 1898. The exhibit was in three classes; a Salon, a General Exhibition and a Special Exhibition. Of the 750 prints submitted, the judges selected seventy-one for the Salon. A larger number were selected for the General Exhibition; these being meritorious entries, but not judged sufficiently artistic to be classed in the Salon. The Special Exhibition was separate from the others as it was intended to spur-on members of the Photo Society who had not the experience or training to qualify acceptance into the Salon. The Salon’s Grand Prize was split between Clarence H. White – a highly regarded pictorialist who was just getting national recognition – for The Readers, and James L. Nix – a member of the Photo Society – for Reflections. 6 By any measure, the exhibition was a success. Attendance over the 19-day exhibit reached 23,000. 7
It is important to note that Pittsburgh was an early entrant into the salon movement. The Pittsburgh salon preceded the first Philadelphia Photographic Salon, which opened on October 24, 1898. The Philadelphia salon was considered to be one of the first and highly regarded international salons held in this country.

In reviewing prints from the Pittsburgh salons of the1920’s into the late 1940’s there is a clear, gradual shift away from soft focus prints – what some called “fuzzytypes,” – to sharp focused and full tonal range prints. To illustrate the degree of change from the 1920s, some Photo Section members in the Fifties became infatuated with B-B-G images – big, blue and glossy prints. These were sharply focused, full tonal range, sixteen by twenty inches, blue toned glossy (ferrotyped) prints. With the pictorialist’s restrictive viewpoint on what makes a good picture, it was destined to fade.

In the 1950’s and forward, Photo Section members practiced all of these new techniques and modernistic styles. While classical pictorialism was fading and modernist styles grew, its interesting and important to recognizes that the term “pictorialist” has been maintained, but covers a range of art photography styles. However, in some cases it is difficult to distinguish between what one considers modernist pictorial images and sport, photojournalistic and abstract photographs.

As Pictorialism was reaching new levels, other forces were beginning to change the magnitude and profile of amateur photography. In the early days, the cameras used by the pictorialists were bulky, heavy and relatively expensive. These were the tools of the serious (pictorial) photographer. With the introduction of the smaller and lower cost cameras, especially the 35 mm camera, the popularity of amateur photography-particularly by snap shooters- grew dramatically. The 35 mm camera also had a direct impact on the growth of the media, particularly newspaper and advertising photography. The images made by the professional newspaper and commercial photographers opened new pictorial opportunities.

Then there was the development of the 35mm color slide. In the case of slides, the Photo Section was slow in accepting them; which may well have been a factor in the formation of a new color camera club in Pittsburgh – The Natural Color Camera Club (NCCC), chartered in January 1942. . In the early years, the NCCC members met at various locations, including members homes. In 1948 it found its permanent home at the Arts and Crafts Center, later named the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts – located at the corner of Fifth and Shady Aves. The club’s main interests included color prints and color slides, with slides being the main area of interest. There was always a friendly rivalry between the Photo Section and the NCCC – some avid photographers were members at both clubs and members often jokingly referred to the other as the “other club”. Unfortunately, on October 2, 2002 the NCCC Board of Directors dissolved the club – due to decreasing membership.
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