Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Vintage Photography; A New Fad or Resurgence of Pictorialism

Karl Struss, Nocturne, from 1913.

I recently was exposed to this article exploring the reasons for the vintage photography fad, particularly with processing effects that can be added automatically to images from smartphones like the iPhone. The author believes it is because of some intrinsic quality of the vintage image; that we are searching for the authenticity that is associated with older images, and that kind of thing.  He makes some very good points, but I think his analysis neglects some important historical context.

I believe the root cause goes back a few years to a trend in artistic and photographic circles - and relates to a movement that came almost a century before that.  This trend took hold before it made its way into the "mainstream" of smart phone applications, camera pre-sets, etc, and its arrival at this particular time is likely, in part, related to it.   The trend I'm talking about is a revival in interest in "pictorialism", certain types of antique lenses, alternative printing processes, low-fidelity processes like Holga imagery and Polaroids, and even technically complex capture methods like wet plate. 

In photography circles it was fuelled by two things:

1) The drive towards increased fidelity and highly literal images driven by technological developments and accessibility of high end digital cameras.  Even while cameras get better, people have pushed the envelope of this with out-of-camera techniques like tone-mapping and stitching. The big trend in digital photography as it developed was to take technically "flawless" images, because at the start digital cameras were very limited (low resolution, poor dynamic range capture).  Whenever there is a trend, there are going to be those who work in opposition to it in an attempt to explore interesting alternatives and - frankly - to distinguish themselves.


2) Plummeting costs of film gear (both recent high-end stuff and vintage stuff).

Ignoring the obviously relevant analogue movements like Lomography (a brand-name that marketed low-fidelity, shoot-from-the-hip photographic ethos and equipment), the backlash against the digital strive for perfection in case 1) drove a contingent of people to re-examine an old trend from the late 1800s - pictorialism - which arose in remarkably similar circumstances to this recent resurgence.  At the time, film (or relatively accessible dry plate) was becoming mainstream and people were growing sick of the sterility of the technical perfection it offered and were looking for more interpretive / less literal photographic techniques.  A lot of interesting lenses were developed at the time to try to reduce the resolution and fidelity - soft focus lenses (now worth a fortune, given their relative rarity, antique status, and the current resurgence in popularity).  A couple of important photographers in this movement were Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Karl Struss (why they're all "St" names I do not know; maybe they're just the ones I can remember because of that ;)).

Here are some examples of pictorialist photography.  Remember that while these were made a century ago, it's not equipment limitation that makes them look the way they do - equipment at the time could produce images that were very sharp and tonally excellent.  This was an intentional backlash against that:

Karl Struss, The Attic Window, from 1909.

Edward Steichen's famous image of the Flatiron building, from 1904. See Metropolitain Museum of Art
Steichen's most famous image, also one of the most valuable photographs ever sold.

The second factor - affordability of old gear - just meant that a lot of people could play with old film cameras.  Plus, we had lomography.com jumping on the bandwagon and, in some ways, instigating the revival with their good marketing of the shitty plastic-lens Holga.

In summary - this happened once before, in the late 1800s, when film photography fidelity was increasing, as an artistic backlash to try to find a more expressive / less literal approach.  Today we're seeing pretty much the same thing; digital photography has been focused on increasing fidelity, and this vintage fad is a backlash against that which started in serious amateur and artistic circles and has trickled down into the mainstream of iPhone apps and related automated effects.

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