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Established 1981



 

Naturalist Photography

From 1880-1920


Naturalist Photography Exhibition

The study of Naturalism in photography may be one of the last frontiers in the history of photography. Naturalism was the principal forerunner of Pictorialism in art photography. Although the Naturalists worked to create photographs that were sharply focused, simple in composition, and evoked a sense of serenity between man and nature, they also managed to imbue ordinary everyday subjects with a sense of artistry. Eventually this led to Pictorialism, and in many ways the Photo-Secession movement emerged as a reaction to the Naturalist style. The Photo-Secession not only seceded from existing photography clubs in a political sense, but also seceded aesthetically and stylistically. Historians have long acknowledged the break between Naturalism and Pictorialism, and the Pictorialist movement has been studied in some depth. But the Naturalist movement, which gave birth to Pictorialism and the Photo- Secession, has barely been addressed.

Like other art forms, photography responds to the economic and cultural climate of its day. In the mid-nineteenth century,in Britain and the Unineted States, the sweeping changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution were responsible for artistic movements which looked back to earlier times, to the old way of doing things before industrialization changed mankind forever. The countryside was rapidly despoiled by mining, mills, and factories which dominated an unfamiliar industrial landscape. Advances in industrial machinery changed rural life profoundly. Mechanization of farm work drove laborers from the fields to mines, mills, and factories, as city life replaced country life. The contrasts between the rich and the poor, and between the powerful and the powerless, were extreme. With the advent of mass production, workers replaced skilled craftsmen and the pride of accomplishment and ownership was lost. These massive social changes were reflected in literature, art, photography, and the popular culture. Artists and their audiences struggled to hold on to what was important in life in the face of radical change and industrial and social upheaval. Naturalist photography was part of the reaction to the Industrial Revolution.

The Naturalist aesthetic was built on the stylistic trends of European painting during the 1850s. The artists of this period turned to the representation of the familiar and human. Known to us as Realism, this stylistic trend in European painting was defined as a modern style, isolated from the past, and it reacted against the advances of science, technology, and industrialization. Their paintings glorify the working classes and rural peasantry, depicting the dignity of their simplest labors, their closeness to nature, and their consequential spiritual health. This provided the foundation for the Naturalist photographers who worked in the 1880s and 1890s.

Although these ideals are reflected in the work of an array of English photographers of the 1860-70s, they are most eloquently embodied in the Naturalist photographs of Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936). Realistically recording the English landscape, principally in Norfolk and Suffolk, Emerson strove to achieve a timeless vision of the land and its inhabitants. Many of his works depict people engaged in traditional labors or pastimes, images that seem as if they could have been made a hundred years earlier. Even in the titles of his photographs, Emerson selected distinctive terms of dialect; Rowing Home the Schoof Stuff or Cutting the Gladden not only show his reverence for the old trades and farming methods, but also suggest how these terms grew from an ancient and still thriving folk culture. The dignity and spiritual depth of living in a traditional harmony with the natural world was the photographer's continual aspiration. "The nearer we get to Nature the sweeter will be our lives," Emerson wrote, "and never shall we attain the true secret of happiness until we identify ourselves as part of Nature." Emerson's wide-ranging influences helped to solidify the Naturalist movement in British and American photography.

The Naturalist aesthetic of the 1880s, especially in the United States, was more of a pervasive mood of the country rather than a self-conscious artistic movement. Naturalism permeated every aspect of American culture. Reaction to the dehumanization of the Industrial Age was coupled with the disenchantment over the politics of the industrial economy that helped to cause the Civil War. There was a new distrust of technology because technology had made warfare so efficient. This discontent was reflected in a fascination with nature and the mythology of the undeveloped American frontier, where the individual could establish his own relationship with the creator.

Landscape had long been a primary subject for American artists. The immense stretches of unexplored frontier were represented as symbols of the transcendental spirituality of nature. While European painters and photographers were primarily concerned with genre scenes and less with natural landscape, the American painters and photographers such as A.W. Dow, W. J. Mullins, and W. B. Post produced more scenes of natural landscape. American painters Alfred Bierstadt and Frederic Church explored the vast wilderness on a grand scale. The exhibition of their paintings not only brought unseen sights to the city dwellers of the East, but also a reflection of the spirit of America. In America the Naturalists were chiefly inspired by the natural environment, untouched by the hand of man. There is an agelessness in their work that makes the scene feel like it could be from any period. When there is evidence of man's work, it is often in historical scenes or scenes of Native Americans, rather than industry, trains, steamships or other symbols of industry. The American Naturalists were also interested in farms and farmers, as well as craftsmen and older methods of production. There was a reverence for the old trades, crafts, and farming methods which harked back to earlier, simpler times.

In the 1880s photography underwent a transformation of its own. The cumbersome and technically demanding wet plate camera was replaced by the lighter and easier to use dry plate camera. Because of the relative manageability of the new cameras, many amateurs began to make photographs both as a documentation of family life and as a tool of personal artistic expression. Technical improvements, affordability, and the convenience of camera equipment prompted explosive growth in the popularity of photography as an amateur pastime. Many of these photographers were amateur only in the sense that they were not employed in the profession. The Naturalist aesthetic was strong among the amateurs who created photographs with a theme of the natural environment. Generally, their compositions were simple, straightforward and not formal, and their prints were sharply focused.

Although Alfred Stieglitz is best known for his pictorial works and his association with the Photo-Secession, he too was influenced by the Naturalists. His work of the late 1880s to early 1890s frequently employed methods and themes favored by the Naturalists. His 1894 photograph, The Net Mender, represents a young Dutch woman clothed in traditional garb sitting alone on a sand dune mending a fishing net. The focus is sharp, the composition is simple, and there is a timeless and serene quality to the photograph. In Early Morn, 1894, the sharply-focused foreground, the subject of the "noble peasant", and the sense of serenity are all reminiscent of Emerson's photographs. Around the turn of the century, however, Stieglitz began to lead a movement away from Naturalist ideals. The growing differences between the Naturalists and the Pictorialists caused much debate among photographers especially in many of the local camera clubs and salon committees. While both Naturalists and Pictorialists were concerned with making artistic photographs, the Pictorialists were more intent on convincing the rest of the world that photography was a valid art form. To accomplish this they used soft focus to emulate the feeling of impressionist painting. They used new photographic processes such as gum and bromoil to achieve painterly effects and dramatic illumination. Some photographers manipulated their photographs during developing; Frank Eugene drew on his negatives in the darkroom and Gertrude Kasebier experimented with selectively painting on the photographic emulsion.

Prompted by Modernism and Futurism in painting and sculpture, the Pictorialists abandoned natural subject matter in favor of glorified views of industry and urban landscape. Stieglitz led this fundamental change by celebrating the growth of cities and industrialization in photographs such as The City of Ambition, 1910, Old and New New York, 1910, and The Hand of Man, 1902. Others, such as George Seeley and Clarence White, were more interested in the arcane and mysterious, and looked to Symbolist painting for allegory and iconography. Their compositional concerns were different also. Form became much more important. Many photographers composed their images with lines parallel to the edges of the print. Others experimented with either a very low or a very high horizon line. Photographers, such as Heinrich Kuhn, used special techniques and processes to eliminate detail in large areas in order to further emphasize forms. Seeley went so far as to make abstractions of nature rather than to reproduce it as the Naturalists had done. With the acceptance of Pictorialism, some photographers turned away from the Naturalist aesthetic. William Post produced sensitive Naturalist photographs early in his career, among these was his seascape with dramatic clouds. The photograph is a straightforward, sharply-focused, traditional composition in which he remains true to nature. However, Post's later works are soft-focused and are more formally composed, often using high horizon lines with unusually large foregrounds.

Naturalism was among the formative currents in the early history of photography. Although the importance of its chief proponent, Peter Henry Emerson, has been widely acknowledged, the conceptual and aesthetic context of his art has been largely overlooked. Many other photographers practiced this style in Britain and the United States and their significance is only now being acknowledged. The Americans among these photographers are usually identified as Pictorialists. In truth, they are quite different. This collection brings together the work of more than sixty Naturalist photographers, many of whose work is surfacing in the art world for the first time. The collection illustrates the common aesthetic and provides a solid foundation for the further study of the Naturalist movement. The study of Naturalism in photography may be one of the last frontiers in the history of photography. Naturalism was the principal forerunner of Pictorialism in art photography. Although the Naturalists worked to create photographs that were sharply focused, simple in composition, and evoked a sense of serenity between man and nature, they also managed to imbue ordinary everyday subjects with a sense of artistry. Eventually this led to Pictorialism, and in many ways the Photo-Secession movement emerged as a reaction to the Naturalist style. The Photo-Secession not only seceded from existing photography clubs in a political sense, but also seceded aesthetically and stylistically. Historians have long acknowledged the break between Naturalism and Pictorialism, and the Pictorialist movement has been studied in some depth. But the Naturalist movement, which gave birth to Pictorialism and the Photo- Secession, has barely been addressed.