March 5: Might Pictorialism, after one hundred years, still create original imagery in contemporary photography?
In answer to this question, and to consider the nature of Pictorialism it is illuminating to look to an early Pictorialist who was elected to the Linked Ring in 1903 but who later tended toward Modernism; Pierre Dubreuil who was born on this date in 1872 and died in 1944. Contemporary practitioners with an interest in the ‘pictorial’ are the artist duo ‘Albarrán Cabrera‘, comprising the partners Anna Cabrera and Angel Albarrán, both born in Spain in 1969, whose exhibition Remembering the Future has just been launched at Bildhalle, Stauffacherquai 56, 8004 Zürich on the evening of March 1 continuing to May 12.
In the industrial town of Lille, France, the Dubreuil family had become wealthy through their business in wallpaper manufacture. At sixteen Pierre entered the Jesuit College of Saint-Joseph in Lille and around the same time began taking photographs with a half-plate camera. He served for three years in the Saint-Omer Dragoons, then began working with photographer Louis-Jean (†1914) and Georges Delton, sons of the cavalry officer Jean-Louis Delton (1807–1891) who in 1890 succeeded their father, a specialist in equestrian photography, to produce mostly action photographs for their prestigious magazine La Photographie Hippique which merged with Sport Universel Illustré in 1895.
While thus apprenticed in state-of-the-art sports photography Pierre Dubreuil was inspired to join the Lille Photographic Society where he met Robert Pauli who initiated him in carbon and platinum printing techniques and encouraged him to join him as a member of the Photo-Club de Paris in 1896.
Recognition came that year, when his Sombre Clarté (‘Dark Clarity’) was shown in Brussels, and augmented when Dubreuil exhibited five photos in the Photo-Club de Paris.
By the end of the century he was internationally acclaimed, surpassing even fellow members of the Photo-Club, Constant Puyo and Robert Demachy.
Pictorialists reacted against the industrialisation of photography by employing larger formats when cameras were commonly becoming more compact, and ignored the advent of manufactured celluloid film and proprietary papers to labour over techniques allied to printmaking, including gum bichromate, bromoil, platinum and carbon prints on art papers, to produce subjects in styles imitating painting. Their approach may be summed up in the words of Henry Peach Robinson from his 1869 publication Pictorial Effect in Photography:
Any dodge, trick and conjuration of any kind is open to the photographer’s use…A great deal can be done and very beautiful pictures made, by a mixture of the real and the artificial in a picture.
German critic Fritz Loescher, in the Photo-Club de Paris journal describes one member, Rudolf Dührkoop’s efforts to convert his professional studio to a ‘personal’ one better in keeping with the production of Art Photography. The conversion involved “a simplification of means” and “the absence of artifice in execution”;
The previous atelier…achieved the continual production of a mass of uniform images more than the making of personal works. It is there that one finds that division of work which, in our times, kills genius and makes of man a machine … The portraits made in these conditions may well be identifiable and correct, but they are not personal works of art
When in 1900, Dubreuil showed 39 works in the Annuaire General et International de la Photographie, Loescher praised Dubreuil in Photographische Mitteilungen.
Unfortunately Sombre Clarté and most others of Dubreuil’s works of this period do not survive; either they were destroyed by the photographer himself or in bombing during World War II.
In the New School of American Photography exhibition in Paris in 1901 organised by Fred Holland Day (1864–1933), Dubreuil found exciting originality. In his article ‘Les Maitres De La Photographie’ in Photo Magazine, no. 17, 1912, he wrote;
For me, originality does not necessarily mean something completely new. To me it is just a bizarre idea, strange, extraordinary, which removes a work from banality.
Thus began his career as a Pictorialist, and in 1903 he was elected to membership in the British brotherhood, the Linked Ring,
In 1904 he took up the bromoil process, which he used until 1930, a versatile process allowing Dubreuil the freedom to control the contrast and darken and lighten portions of prints at will. His work had evolved from spontaneous impressionist photographs (see The Golden Hour, above) to a developing interest in Symbolism (e.g. the triptych Christ au Sépulcre), both being distinctive stylistic attributes of Pictorialism, but by 1907 Dubreuil had become interested in the developments of Modernism, earning himself a reputation as an “eccentric” amongst photography colleagues who saw his bold ideas as “stunts.” He responded defiantly:
I have the patience to wait for justice, enough will and energy to persevere, in spite of the winds and tides, on the track that I think is right.
His stance was appreciated shortly after by Anthony Guest in The Amateur Photographer in 1912:
It is useful to note how the pioneer impulse, which has been experimenting, searching, and attempting surprising things in Paris, has touched the photographic outlook of M. Pierre Dubreuil. … The old paths, it seems are growing too familiar for the modern spirit. The idea that you must arrest the beholder suddenly, violently, even brutally … influences this collection.
The ‘modern spirit’ is most jarringly apparent in his Les Boulevards, an impressionist soft-focus view of Haussmann’s boulevards intruded upon by the sharp sans-serif typography and abrupt industrial starkness of a taxi-meter, its flag defiantly announcing ‘Free’. It is his visual modernist manifesto, one The British Journal of Photography of March 15, 1912 completely failed to comprehend:
Many of his Parisian views would be charming things, did he not spoil them by cutting them across with ungainly foreground objects.
His persistence did bring him interest, and ‘justice’, from Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) to whom he wrote in 1910, including in his letter twelve original prints, most as yet unpublished, hoping the New York gallerist/photographer would reproduce them in Camera Work. Instead somehow, six appeared in the Open Section of the International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography at the Albright Gallery in Buffalo later that year, selected by judges Anglo-American critic Charles Caffin (1854–1918), Alfred Stieglitz, Photo-Secessionist Clarence White (1871–1925) , and the Russsian-American Cubist painter Max Weber (1881–1964). In his review the outspoken critic F. Austin Lidbury (1879–1954) singled out “. . . the six extraordinarily interesting examples of Dubreuil’s original, if distorted, way of looking at things.”
Also in 1910 German collector Ernst Juhl (1850–1915) organised for Berlin’s Konigliche Kunstgewerbe Museum a survey of “artistic photography” beginning with precursors like David Octavius Hill and Julia Margaret Cameron and culminating with more recent work by Pierre Dubreuil alongside Heinrich Kahn, Robert Demachy and the American Photo-Secessionists. Juhl noted in the catalogue that pictorial photography had “reached its long-sought destination — the art museum”, but that since the early years of the century the movement’s innovatory power had diminished and that since that time nothing essentially new and pioneering had taken place in art photography; when most ambitious painters and sculptors were exploring cubism, futurism, and expressionism, virtually no European art-photographers followed their lead.
Dubreuil was an exception; divorced and financially independent, he was free to absorb the revolutionary styles of other Parisian artists as he does here in this in his iconoclastic 1911 Interprétation Picasso : le rapide, (below) in which an express locomotive, its lights blaring, smoke and steam billowing, approaches, lurching with an alarmingly steep ‘Dutch tilt’. The engine is radically de-focussed but overprinted are sharp interleaving rectangular forms which imitate Picasso’s Analytic Cubism of the first two years of the style.
Centre Georges Pompidou reliably dates this work 1911, and indeed one of the components is earlier; the enlarged and angled steam engine, on close examination, turns out to be that of Puissance of 1909 (right, above), shown at Albright Gallery in New York; not just the same locomotive, but with identical sunlight reflecting from its side, the silhouette of its mechanical parts, appearing around the oblique view, appear the same as also do the positions of steam and smoke. Only the lights are added in the reprinting for this montage.
In 1912 Dubreuil sent a further five prints to Stieglitz; Notre Dame de Paris (see above), Eléphantaisie, Grand Place Brussels, Puissance (above) and Cascade, Place de la Concorde, but Stieglitz, whose Camera Work rarely included avant-garde modernist works, refused them.
Others responded to his work however; a 36-page article on Dubreuil by Cyrille Ménard (1890–1972) dominated a 1912 issue of Photo-Magazine;
…whimsical, an eccentric, say some; one of those rare photographers in France, say others, who show ideas in their photographs that will stand the test of time.
Dubreuil’s first solo exhibition, of 64 prints, appeared in the gallery run by the Amateur Photographer magazine in London.
The First World War, for which he enlisted in the medical corps, interrupted his career, his family, and his links with Lille which was occupied early by the Germans after a ten day siege and heavy shelling which destroyed 882 apartments and office blocks and 1,500 houses and saw his own house ransacked and photographic archives destroyed.
Much affected by his losses, Dubreuil could not resume his career in photography until 1923 and in Belgium. He sold his property in Lille, moved to Brussels and married Valentine Vanassche. He became president of the Belgian Photography Association where previously in 1900 he had exhibited to acclaim in the Cercle d’Art Photographique of Brussels.
By then Pictorialism was an almost spent force, the academised currency of the international Salons, but Dubreuil continued to incorporate new influences in his work; the Belgian surrealism and masks of painter James Ensor. That is evident in The Play of Life, a poignant self-representation; now fifty-eight and balding, the photographer hides himself behind the frozen features of a paper-maché mask which mimes an expression of sad surprise, his fingers pulling the strings of a pair of puppets who pursue each other across a stage painted with an impression of a children’s sailing-boat lake in a landscaped garden – perhaps evoking his lost idyll in Lille.
Into the 1930s Dubreuil can be seen to incorporate increasingly contemporary elements into his imagery; these celluloid Mickey Mouse masks for example. Industrial subject matter and studio still life of spectacles refer to the Neues Sehen imagery displayed in the 1929 exhibition Film und Foto in Stuttgart organized by “German Werkbund” took place, the first large exhibition of contemporary Modernist photography.
He maintains still, in 1932, his interest in cubist geometry in Croquet (above), but in 1939 reprises his 1902 Behind the Scenes, keeping the same device of the foregrounded cello scroll, but updating it with Art Deco forms of dancers, calling it Jazz.
His career culminated in 1935 with a retrospective at the Royal Photographic Society in London. Sickness and poverty then led him to sell his archives to Gevaert in 1943. All were lost when the factory was bombed during the war. After his death the following year, his work was largely forgotten until Tom Jacobson, a Californian photographer, collector and dealer assiduously and with determined forbearance sought out surviving examples of his photographs amongst the archives of the Association Belge de Photographie et Cinematographie through the 1980s. From these rediscovered images, an exhibition of Dubreuil’s work was organized by the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris in 1988.
However Modern were his aspirations Dubreuil maintained, in any of the styles he adopted, the Pictorialist evocation of emotional sensations and states of mind in commonplace scenes depicted in ways that suggested psychological and spiritual meanings.
A congruent motivation can be discerned in the work of Albarrán Cabrera, and in titling their show Remembering the Future they are in sympathy with the Pictorialist yearning for a return to a time before photography was automated and mechanised, when it employed the artist’s hand as does printmaking.
They accordingly craft their prints using classic printing methods such as platinum and silver halide. Or, as in these 2018 images, they invent new ones such as pigment prints on gold leaf that, on reflecting through the emulsion, endows the image with an exquisite, celestial glow which responds though reflection as the viewer repositions themselves in their contemplation.
These processes have evolved over the artists’ seventeen years of practice together and they have a clear idea of their purpose. Just as Debrieul employed the bromoil process for the control that it gave him over his representation, and manipulation, of reality, so do Albarrán Cabrera seek a means that will give them the means of interpretation;
All this serves just one single purpose: we want to have far more parameters to play with the viewer than just the image. The texture, colour, finishing, tones; even the border of a print can give extra information to the viewer. And you can have a better control over this information just using the correct process and materials for a specific image.
Cyanotype over the already rich depths of a platinum print extends the tonal range across both the warm and cool ends of the spectrum in an otherwise monochrome print with atmospheric effect.
Their Kαιρός (Kairos) series further compounds the manipulation of reality in double printings that merge one sky into another, or construct a bridge into an un-worldly space where the dense foliage of two landscapes merge, or face each other across a void.
It is one of their strategies to print two images of the same landscape in opposite seasons, spring and late autumn for example as in Kαιρός (Kairos) #4018 side by side but abruptly conjoined by a sharp mask. The divided image that results has a philosphical purpose, Buddhist in inspiration, but sharing a spiritual impulse that is enlightened by the nature of the photographic medium;
There is a gap between reality and what we understand as real. And photography, as Japanese dramatist Chikamatsu once said about art, lies in the frontier between the real and unreal, the true and the false. In this sense, photography helps us to “see” what is hidden from us.
In colour pigment prints over gold leaf, the hues appear as if annealed, enamelled to the surface to evoke an oriental quality much admired by Pictorialists of a century ago.
Of this 2015 series, Albarrán Cabrera say;
we use photography to represent the concept of the ‘Eternal Present’. ‘The Now’ which the Greeks called Kairos — καιρός — to differentiate it from ‘time’ — Chronos.
The challenge lies in translating into photographic terms an abstract idea as the ‘Eternal Present’. Two photos of the Great Buddha of Kamakura gave us the key: we put together two portions of two consecutive photographs which represent a past and future moment with respect to a present time. The ‘Eternal Present’ is depicted by the line between the two pictures. The perception of this line, like the fact of ‘seeing the present’, can be more or less obvious, but the less visible it is, the further from the truth our reality is.
The device of the split image begs the question of whether the two instants present moments that were recorded seconds, minutes or seasons apart — in effect it is one time.
Place Debruiel’s The Golden Hour against any landscape by Albarrán Cabrera and a correspondence of vision is apparent, though theirs has contemporary validity in application to the spiritual dimension of our own times.