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28 May 20

Picture perfect: Pictorialism and its processes

In the early twentieth century, Pictorialism photography emerged as a beautiful movement with photographic practitioners differentiating their practice from everyday photographers, who since 1888, had access to point and shoot cameras. The skills and processes used were intended to show photography as an art form, not simply a documentary tool or a hobby. Artists experimented with processes such as platinum prints, which produce rich and varied grey tones, and gum bichromate prints, where manipulation of the print during processing achieves aesthetic flourishes such as brush strokes, and pigmented colour.

In New York Alfred Stieglitz drove Pictorialism, inviting artists he admired the work of to join him in a group called the Photo-Secession. Artists included Edward Steichen and Gertrude Kasebier, both featured in the NGV collection. The Photo-Secessionists started a quarterly publication Camera Work, edited by Stieglitz and with design by Steichen, featuring photogravure reproductions of artworks on Japanese tissues, and essays by art critics and artists. The fifty editions of Camera Work produced from 1903 to 1917 remain a richly detailed document of the Pictorialist movement in the USA.

The NGV’s copies of The city of ambition by Alfred Stieglitz, and The Flatiron by Edward Steichen, are photogravures printed for Camera Work. A photogravure is a photomechanical process, produced in ink, and therefore the final image can be any colour. They look remarkably like a photograph, but are identifiable under magnification by their fine irregular image grain, similar to an aquatint grain 1 . The ink tends to sit up on the surface of the paper, and it is possible to reproduce the fine detail and tones of a true photograph. A negative is used to expose a sheet of gelatin coated tissue or paper. This selectively hardened gelatin matrix is transferred to a copper plate treated with rosin, and the plate is etched in an acid bath, with the gelatin acting as the resist material. The acid eats away at the exposed metal areas, providing an image plate to be inked and printed. Photogravures were popular from the late 1870’s, and were created largely for publications and reproductions of artworks.

Platinum prints, such as Gertrude Kasebier’s The Gargoyle, are known for their range of grey tones, matte surface, and permanence. They were developed in 1840, and were popular until the First World War when materials became scarce, and platinum became exorbitantly expensive. Platinum prints are printed on good quality plain papers, coated with light sensitive iron salts. Once sensitised the paper is exposed to light through direct contact with a negative. Platinum prints can be produced through light exposure alone, or can be developed in chemicals to enhance the density of the print. The residual chemicals are then cleared and washed from the paper. The resultant image material is very stable, rarely showing any form of deterioration. However, one of the identifying features of a platinum print is the oxidation of any paper in contact with them, often in direct correlation to the image area. A platinum print in an album will often have a browned version of the image on the adjacent page, which is caused by the platinum metal and residual iron catalysing the deterioration of the cellulose in the paper.

Gum bichromate prints are a pigment process, and so can have any final image colour the artist chooses. The pigment is carried in a binder of gum arabic, which hardens on exposure to light once treated with dichromate salt. Gum bichromate prints can be manipulated during the processing to render many effects, including brush marks and soft blurred edges. Once the sensitised sheet is exposed through a negative, the print is developed by soaking it in water and gently brushing off the unhardened areas, giving the artist a lot of freedom in the finished image appearance. The process can be repeated on the same sheet using different coloured solutions, making multiple colour images. Gum bichromates are as stable as the pigment and paper used. If the image material is a pigment of good light stability on a high quality paper, then it is likely to have lasted well.

Gum bichromate can also be combined with other processes, layering tones and texture over the top of another print process. A wonderful example of this is in the Metropolitan Museum of Arts collection. It is the same Flatiron image the NGV has a photogravure of, but was created by layering a gum bichromate print over a platinum print, giving the image the coolness and tonal variation possible with a platinum print, but with a moody blue created by the pigment in the gum bichromate process. It is a beautiful example of the results of the experimental and aesthetic printing the Pictorialists were known for. The Met’s version can be seen here www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/267803

Stieglitz and Steichen both experimented with, and specialised in, printing processes popular with Pictorialist photographers. Stieglitz was a particularly masterful platinum printer, and Steichen was very experimental and accomplished in the printing of gum bichromate prints. It is likely that the photogravures in the NGV collection were printed using different processes for exhibition. The American Photo-Successionists were highly skilled and internationally influential artists, and while they moved on to very different photographic styles in their later years, their Pictorialist images, and the way they exhibited, promoted and documented their work, remain important as the beginning of the recognition of photography as art.

Pip Morrison is Conservator of Photographs, National Gallery of Victoria



An aquatint is an intaglio printing process where a resinous ground layer such as rosin or bitumen was applied and heated to the etching plate, making small mounds around which the acid etches, creating a final print with tonal gradations, and a unique grain pattern of irregular circular lines.