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Impressionist PhotographyA Bit of History - Exploring the Roots of Impressionist Photography

The New Pictorialism

Photograph taken at Piha Beach by Eva Polak

For me, impressionism is a way of seeing and engaging the viewer in the interpretation of the subject and mood. I would say that the primary aim of impressionist photography is expressing the effect of light, movement and colour upon the objects in the scene. Impressionist photographs lead us on a journey and evoke feelings. We don't want to make a document of a subject; instead, we aim to make a photograph that viewers will respond to emotionally. It is a way of seeing, thinking, feeling and reacting to what is in front of us.

To accomplish this you need to explore both technique and light and work towards a simpler, more abstract look. You should only suggest detail, rather than focus on it, and emphasise shapes, light and colour, and the relationship between them. You must also follow your feelings and learn how to communicate them through the visual language of light, colour and shapes.

It may appear that impressionist photography is an invention of recent years, but in fact this genre is as old as the photographic medium itself.

The pictorialist perspective was born in the late 1860s and held sway through the first decade of the 20th century. It approached the camera as a paintbrush to be used to make an artistic statement.

"There is still a misunderstanding on the subject of the straight print, as opposed to the modified print. Some champions of pure photography, as it is called, will even deny that a modified print is a photograph at all. For my part, I believe that if the X deposit forming an image is built up by the action of light, under the shadow of another image, transparent, and also due to light action, the result must be a photograph, whatever modifications the photographer has thought proper to introduce amongst the relative proportions of the deposit."-- Robert Demachy - Camera Work 18, 1907.

Back then, photographers were more interested in the aesthetics of the image and the emotions that it brings. The purpose of pictorialism was to demonstrate that photography was more than just taking photos by anyone with a camera. Each photograph was a carefully constructed single, original product of art, and a camera was a tool used by an artist to show artistic talent and impressions. Sharpness and clarity were deliberately avoided. Special camera lenses, developing techniques, and the rich tones of platinum prints allowed the creation of a soft tranquil quality in the images.

The photographs of the pictorialist movement are among the most spectacular works of art in the medium's history. Showcasing soft focus, dramatic effects of light, unusual camera angles and bold technical experimentation, the Pictorialists created highly atmospheric works that expanded photography's visual vocabulary. You may like to look at images of Heinrich Kühn, Robert Demachy, Julia Margaret Cameron, Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, and the early work of Ansel Adams.

Learn more about Impressionist Photography