Past is present, even in photography

Early photography tried hard to emulate the painter styles of the day, a movement known as Pictorialism.  The grand American landscapes of the era played off the Hudson River school of painting, showing specific areas of bright and dark, using directional lighting in an obvious way to highlight elements with shade and sun.  The soft rendering of detail by the Pictorialists was similar to the methods employed by Impressionists in their desire to capture a more realistic world but with a romantic viewpoint.  The early 20th century response to this attempt to marry photography to painting was a movement to capture highly detailed, virtually unmanipulated images of the world, notably by the Group f/64 whose members included Edward Weston and Ansel Adams.

Since then photography as art has either built on the approach of Weston and Adams or moved into surrealism and modernism with more and more abstract images and techniques.  As the medium moves from film to digital even more perspectives are possible given the added tools of computers and display options.

But, what was old continues to be new again.  I enjoy learning from what has gone before, seeing the world through the eyes of previous artists of all forms and trying to understand why they were seeing in that fashion.  After all, the natural world around us has changed very little over the past 150 years, less so in places we’ve set aside for preservation like parks and preserves.  Just because modern artists vision has moved on doesn’t reduce the effectiveness of how prior artists portrayed their world.

I was looking through some of my images this week and came across a riverside sunset image.  At a glance it reminded me of a Pictorialist photograph – something about the way the light cut across the water and bank, highlighted by the autumn colors contrasted with a blue sky.  After playing around with it a bit in Photoshop to enhance these aspects, I arrived at the following.  It has been a fun project to process an image with a historical bias, seeing an outcome that adheres to rules from the past.

This gives me an additional filter to see the world, adding yet another way to visualize a scene with a final print in mind.  I’m looking forward to the day when this is a reflex, rather than a checklist to keep in mind while strolling through the world!


2 thoughts on “Past is present, even in photography

    • Thanks, Jimmy. Prior to school I wouldn’t have known what I was looking at in a historical context, much less what I wanted to achieve with it. This one just popped out at me in my Lightroom catalog and cried out to be turned into a Pictorialist version. This is a scan of medium format transparency film, Fuji Velvia 50.


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