Fotograf Magazine

Pictorialism / Photography as Art 1890-1914

The title Technical Image on a Painter’s Easel (Technický obraz na malířských štaflích) is reminiscent of the famous pronouncement by Alfred H. Wall during his lecture on the relationship between the photographic medium and the fine arts, delivered on December 15, 1859: ’Light in photography serves the same role as the brush in painting.’ (paraphrase): ’Light in photography serves the same role as the brush in painting’ (paraphrase). The South London Photographic Society in turn transmitted/lampooned this sentence to the world, to the extent that it became popular, or perhaps clichéd. The recent dissertation of Petra Turková, who in another capacity also works as curator of the photographic collection of the Moravian Gallery in Brno, however, transforms this antiquated parallel into a paradox.

The school of Pictorialism, or artistic photography (Kunstphotographie) is announced in the sub-heading as a historical term, the revival of which is advocated by Trnková. In Czech bibliography, this subject has been addressed chiefly by monographs dedicated to individual figures. These have included both professionals such as František Drtikol and (quite recently) V. J. Bufka, as well as amateurs – such as Jaroslav Feyfar or Josef Binka, and more recently also Karl Kruis. However, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, amateurs formed part of a broad movement. Although they strove for their activities to transcend the national level, some of them simultaneously pursued a national form of Romanticism. In the Czech Lands, two broader groups of amateurs were active at the time, and Trnková addresses the rather neglected work of Bohemian Germans, in order to throw light on the various relationships between their photo-clubs, and their sources of inspiration. In doing so, she relies on her knowledge of surviving photographs as well as Austrian and German specialized magazines (Czech periodicals of that time will surely one day also yield their secrets in a similarly systematic way).

In the first chapter, Trnková defines the social position of participants in the amateur movement. The following chapter provides a survey of efforts during the 1890s to live up to the parameters of Pictorialism, focusing on the two key hubs of Vienna and Hamburg, as evidence shows. The third, which forms the most extensive as well as most revealing part of the book, discusses the organization of amateur photography in the cities of Teplice (Teplitz-Schönau), Prague, České Budějovice (Budweis) and Brno (Brün). The fourth chapter provides commentary regarding concrete aspects of the practice of amateur photography, in particular in regard to the dominant genre, landscape photography. In her conclusion, the author situates the notional end of Pictorialism to the period around 1910.

Trnková’s predecessor Antonín Dufek placed the essential turning point in the evolution of the amateur movement only at the turn of the 1920s and 1930s, when the mainstream press provided for amateurism yet another perspective other than existing within the milieu of the parlour, while its requirements influenced the techniques used.

A tendency which Petra Trnková does not delve into but nevertheless outlines in an interesting way is that part of the amateur scene gravitated towards greater professionalism already before the First World War (from December 14, 1911, the notorious directive of the Ministry of Trade issued in tandem with the Ministry of the Interior declared that the practice of photography as a trade was a professional skill requiring a certified qualification). This, however, did not cause a fundamental shift. Regardless of their professional status, both Czechs and Germans shared an ambition to break through the seemingly imaginary barrier (which nonetheless exists to this day) between photographers and visual artists. Before the World War, they tended towards a strategy which Antonín Dufek termed “art nouveau Pictorialism.” It was not idly that he coined this term within Czech writing, but rather due to the fact that the notion of artistic or creative photography (umělecká fotografie) had long shed its definition in terms of time period. In addition, distinguishing between the Impressionist and Purist phases would relativize the term. Still, Trnková here does not seek the establishment of a more exact period- -based classification but operates within the application of post-Structuralism and its methodology. Fortunately, she does not do so consistently, and somewhat at the expense of her initial proclamations, she does in fact distinguish between several leading figures and their contributions.

 

Petra Trnková: Technical Image on a Painter’s Easel. Czech-German Photo-Amateurs and Art Photography, 1890–1914. Barrister & Principal, Brno 2008, 248 pages.

Josef Moucha