Did you know that when photography was first invented it was seen as a medium capable of the same level of artistic expression as painting and sculpture? This movement is called Pictorialism. Pictoralists wanted to be seen as equal to painting and the finer arts, rather than an inferior mechanical substitute.

I began thinking about Pictorilaism after I read a recent post by Lizzi on focus. She mentioned her blurry images reminder her of abstract paintings. These images, and images like them, fall into the category of Pictorialism. 

Pictorialism: “Pictorialists took the medium of photography and reinvented it as an art form, placing beauty, tonality, and composition above creating an accurate visual record. Through their creations, the movement strove to elevate photography to the same level as painting and have it recognized as such by galleries and other artistic institutions.” ~ The Art Story


Pictorialism is the first major photographic movement. Proponents aim to create unique and original photographs that can be viewed and appreciated as paintings. They often used darkroom techniques to manipulate images to create works that tell stories that are both original, mythological or biblical.

The Pictorialists also utilized atmospheric conditions to create dream like images. To achieve their artistic visions they utilized all the darkroom tools at their disposal. They even made up a few techniques along the way. Some of this include: combining multiple negatives into one image; creating a slow drying emulsion that could be pushed around or brushed to show the strokes; and they added color to their images through hand tinting. Some of these pioneering darkroom techniques eventually lead to the invention of color photography. 

The below image by Ann is a recreation of an early Pictorialist image

Pictoralists are intrigued by the light and how to capture it in an image. They are inspired by the Impressionists and the Tonalists movements. These two genres of painting also strove to capture light in all its infinite variety. Chiaroscuro (using strong light and darks to create depth and dimension) and soft focus are often seen in images defined by Pictorialism.

The other end of the spectrum

Straight photography occupies the other end of the spectrum. Photographers who enjoy this style take full advantage of the mechanical and technical strengths of the camera to capture the world around them in a realistic manner. 

Straight Photography: “Straight photography emphasizes and engages with the camera’s own technical capability to produce images sharp in focus and rich in detail. The term generally refers to photographs that are not manipulated, either in the taking of the image or by darkroom or digital processes, but sharply depict the scene or subject as the camera sees it.” ~ The Art Story

Some traits that define Straight Photography are faithful reproduction of a scene, rich tonal range and sharp focus. For example Ansel Adam’s and his f64 group were practitioners of Straight Photography. He used the technical aspects of the camera and lens in concert with his personal aesthetic to capture highly detailed photographs with a rich tonal range.  

Street photographers and documentary photographers are also attracted to this genre of photography. They’re often interested in capturing a specific moment in time. The want to capture what they call the “decisive moment.” This can either be through a single image or through a series of images that depict the passage of time. 

Straight Photography is very popular and dominates the field of photography. You can see the influence of Straight Photography in the toy photography community. Images that use practical effects or endeavor to match cinematic lighting styles are creating images in the Straight Photograph style. 

I’m a Pictorialist

I consider myself a Pictorialist. I like to use soft focus, atmospheric aberrations and specialty lenses to create a painterly effect. I’ve even considered going so far as to print my images as platinum prints and hand coloring them. 

One of the reasons I’m attracted to the Lensbaby lenses is that they give me an effect that approximates my own version of Pictorialism. They also have a wonderful way of refracting and twisting light. I’ve never had a series of lens that capture lens flare so beautifully in camera. Sure I could add cool effect in post via Photoshop like James, but that wouldn’t satisfy my personal need for wonder and surprise. 

The TV Fairy visited my garden today!

I’m sure you’ve noticed that there are plenty of toy photographers on the other end of the spectrum. They enjoy creating images that are tack sharp and hyper realistic. To achieve their vision they use modern lenses and practical effects (i.e. sparklers, canned smoke, dehydrated potato flakes and water droplets) to create images in camera that need very little, if any post processing.

I’m not going to tell you that one style is better than the other. In fact, it doesn’t really matter where you fall on the spectrum. There are plenty of examples throughout the history of photography of artists who fall on both side of this stylistic divide. My personal hero Alfred Stieglitz, one of the founders of Pictorialism and husband of influential painter Georgia O’Keefe,  transitioned to Straight Photography. As you can see, there is plenty of room for both styles in the amazing world of photography. 

What about you?

You’re probably wondering why I’m bringing this lesson in photographic styles up. Because I love photography and I’m proud to be a part of this amazing hobby with such an interesting history. On the three part podcast Kristina and I created recently, we talked about where does toy photography fall? Our goal is to inspire our fellow toy photographers to think about what kind of photography they’re creating. 

While it doesn’t matter where your work falls between these two movements in photography, it is important to think about. This is especially true as you begin to define your own style. Are you a Pictorialist or a Straight Photographer? Maybe you like to play somewhere between the two styles? Maybe you define yourself as being influenced by a different movement entirely? 

What ever your answer, know you’re a part of an impressive history and you should be proud of being a photographer.

So, what are you: Pictorialist or Straight Photographer? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

~ Shelly