- Cet article est une traduction de :
- Une photographie dégénérée?
Pictorialist photography is renowned for its use of pigment printing techniques which enabled interpretive rendering of the photographic subject. Yet a large part of the pictorialist aesthetic came from optics that furnished the ‘blurred’ effects characteristic of the pictorialist movement. Drawing on theories by the Englishman Emerson, which proposed capitalizing on the eye’s natural imperfections, specialized optics were created to obtain the desired effects. France most significantly surpassed the naturalist aesthetic through the use of lenses calculated to preserve aberrations and interpret the subject from the moment the initial image was made. This ‘aesthetic of optical aberrations’ led to controversy, with opponents decrying a ‘degenerate’ vision in photography. This study is an historical and aesthetic analysis of the role pictorialism took on: inventing a vision that was in opposition to notions of progress in modern optics, and leaning towards novel interpretations of optical science and the psychophysiology of vision.
1Formulated in the first years of the twentieth century, the pictorialist aesthetic was founded on notions of vision rather than on ways of considering the subject. Artist-photographers speculated much more about the physiology of the eye and its relationship to the expression of feeling than about the iconographic originality of their images. In its attempts to define an artistic vision, the anti-mimetic nature of pictorialism appears to have been in fundamental opposition to technique. How could one use the period’s corrected lenses to see without falling into the trap of accurate recording? From the moment the main goal of the photographic mission became the interpretation of nature, advocates of the movement had to devise ways of getting around the omnipresence of corrected lenses. The first of many attempts to do so wasn’t a technological invention but rather a physiological assertion. It was postulated that artists naturally had the resources to transform what was seen by virtue of the limitations of their own vision; the main refutation of mechanical recording’s supposed accuracy lay in the deficiencies of our retinal perception.
- 1 Such as the suggestion that the amateur photographer could attach a string to the lens and hold it (...)
2The blurred effect characteristic of the pictorialist vision was thus much more than a photographer’s gimmick.1 Rather it was one aspect of an entire technical protocol aimed at more or less predictable outcomes. Although the history of pictorialism and optics cannot be reduced to a chronological list of techniques, such a chronology does reveal the key issues at stake. From the first pinhole photographs to the invention of lenses calculated to produce a set of precise aberrations, we can trace the emergence of the rationalization of artistic vision in photography. Thus, we must consider not only optical devices and their uses, but also the surrounding debates that lend credibility to what we will call an aesthetics of aberration. The core aesthetics of the pictorialist vision are firmly grounded in photographic technique – both the ways of eluding technique and the ways that technique resurfaces, disguised as aberration.
- 2 Peter Henry Emerson, The Death of Naturalistic Photography (London, 1890).
3The phenomenon must be examined from an international perspective. Though the Englishman Peter Henry Emerson denied being the father of pictorialism, a role granted to him by many writers,2 historiography nonetheless considers him the architect of a naturalist aesthetic, to which the origins of artistic photography around 1900 are commonly traced. His aesthetic of vision was founded on the mix between a new approach to photographic optics and the legacy of naturalist painters. His focusing technique that resulted in blurring effects was formulated as a quest for fidelity to visual experience. As such, it enabled him to produce the equivalent of the colorist aesthetic practiced by painters that conformed to the anti-mimetic principles of modern art. The reasons that Emerson did not subsequently identify with the pictorialism of the Linked Ring, and even less so with the French pictorialism of the Photo-Club de Paris, were both strategic and aesthetic. Nonetheless, his naturalist project was indeed surpassed by the theories and techniques of those French pictorialists who worked to develop a true stylistics of perception.
4That the French took liberties with regard to Emerson’s naturalist model can also be explained by the fact that Emerson’s theories were never actually read by them. Even to this day, his writings have never been translated and reviews that did appear in journals of the time barely went beyond disputing them. Given these circumstances, Emerson’s naturalism remained both unknown and rejected.
5The French pictorialists may offer the best example of an international context for work surpassing Emerson’s naturalism. This is the case particularly after 1900 with the pictorialists’ attempts to define and establish an aesthetics of optical aberration. Up to then, using various rudimentary processes from pinhole techniques to simple lenses, including eyeglasses or even telephoto lenses, photographers like Robert Demachy and Constant Puyo tried to devise an aesthetics of synthesis that would satisfy those who favored an aesthetic of sharpness. Shortly thereafter, they tried casting off ad hoc ‘gimmicks’ in order to rationalize their aesthetic of optical effects, which was the expressive potential of different degrees of softness. Though they too were attempting to break with the mimetic paradigm in photography – the act deemed essential for photography to gain aesthetic credibility – it was less in allegiance to naturalism than out of a desire to reject what stood in their way: the all-powerful role of corrected lenses in photography.
- 3 Jules Janssen, ‘Conférence sur la photographie,’ in Exposition universelle de 1889 – Congrès intern (...)
6When the pictorialists attempted to define an artistic vision in France, the anti-mimetic nature of their work appeared to be in fundamental contradiction to technique. How could one make use of the period’s corrected lenses to see without falling into the trap of direct recording? Jules Janssen drew on the argument of the eye’s natural imperfections to conclude his comparison between the eye and the lens, which he laid out in his chapter on the artistic future of photography during the Congress of 1889. In his text, Janssen proposed an idea that would prove fundamental in the history of pictorialism: corrected optics, devised with progress in mind, could no longer be considered operational. Thereafter, ‘sacrificing certain aspects of the optical problem which must be solved by the lens, is preferable from an artistic point of view.’3 The declaration was enough to rid a generation of amateurs of their complexes, to clearly dissociate questions of optical technology from those of the aesthetics of vision, and, above all, to provide physiological foundations for the obsolescence of mechanical imitation in the field of art.
7Fidelity to visual experience became something more than a naturalist act of faith: it would be the laboratory for experimental reconstruction of that which was seen. The pictorialist vision would surpass naturalist principles only when it began defining itself in relation to corrected vision rather than just retinal equivalency. Such was the pivotal nature of the aesthetics of vision developed in France. A strategy emerged with respect to technique – the ways of eluding that technique, and the ways technique resurfaced in disguised form as aberration.
- 4 The editors, ‘Du net en photographie,’ L’Amateur photographe no. 2 (1896): 13–16.
- 5 Ibid., 13.
8The aesthetics of optical aberration emerged in a climate of controversy, set off by the brutal debate between champions of soft-focus and those of sharp definition. Throughout the 1890s, each side accused the other of regression: technical regression, for those who lauded the virtues of corrected lenses and modern photography as applied to knowledge; aesthetic regression for the pictorialists who judged that ‘sharp’ photography, restricted to documentary uses of the medium, ensured the permanence of the mimesis condemned by artistic modernity. These mutual accusations even created the idea that photography was degenerating. As the Amateur Photographe pronounced, the use of blurriness ‘tends to pervert the taste of younger generations,’ producing ‘stunning degeneracy.’4 As for the physical perfection of lenses, it was said to have spoiled a natural state of ways of seeing and ruined its expressive potential, all in the name of mathematical correctness. With the situation thus at a standstill, some saw pictorialism as a degenerate art, similar to new schools of painting and their ‘stunning degeneracy,’5 while advocates of pictorialism set out to prove that on the contrary, it was a return to reason – an aesthetic conforming to the truth of vision and resulting from methodically reasoned techniques.
- 6 Constant Puyo, ‘L'objectif à paysage,’ La Revue de Photographie, no. 8–9 (1905): 225–32, 257–67.
9Yet it was the empirical use of optical devices such as the simple lenses of glasses that determined the very essence of the soft-focus aesthetic: optical aberration, that ‘admirable natural force.’6 Indeed, these simple optical devices were not corrected for the ‘flaw’ of chromatic aberration, which comes from refraction of the various waves of color that make up light. When crossing the lens, rays of color from red to violet are all refracted differently and each forms an image. The overlapping of these slightly offset images results in a subtle blurring of contours. Thus by availing themselves of this flaw, the pictorialists sought out an aesthetic that reversed the logic of technical progress. This reversal, contributed to by optical aberration, was accompanied by an-other form of transgression: deviations in the way optical devices were used. Such was the case for experiments with telephoto lenses. Changes in depth of field were used to obtain soft focus effects rather than to call attention to an object in the background. Landscape work by Ferdinand Coste, Constant Puyo, and Robert Demachy illustrates the practice of controlled ‘mis-setting’ of optical devices. In this and similar explorations, the search for an analogy with vision, cherished by naturalism, was no longer the issue at stake. The true goal now was to experiment with the way focusing itself worked.
10The photographer intervened optically, transforming ‘flaws’ into strong points, thus developing an aesthetics of vision. The goal was to establish, a priori, precise deviations from the optically corrected recording. While it would seem the process for obtaining non-imitative images was thus a given, critics still had to be convinced that the protocol wasn’t just a means for producing an overall blurred effect, but that there actually existed a working vocabulary, a procedural lexicon in which the argument for retinal equivalency and its corollary, soft focus, had given way to an aesthetics of synthesis.
- 7 Jean Leclerc de Pulligny, ‘Le flou chromatique,’ Bulletin du Photo-Club de Paris (March 1902): 77– (...)
- 8 Hippolyte Taine, De l’intelligence (Paris: Hachette, 1870). In the 1883 edition, book III ‘Les Sens (...)
- 9 Gaston-Henri Niewenglowsky, La Photographie artistique par les objectifs anachromatiques (Paris: C. (...)
11As early as 1902, Leclerc de Pulligny, an optics specialist with close ties to the Photo-Club de Paris, became interested in aberrations from refrangibility (chromatic aberrations). These aberrations existed in simple ‘anachromatic’ lenses, because they were uncorrected, as opposed to the more ad-vanced ‘achromatic’ lenses.7 Aberrations of this kind became familiar thanks to the work of Helmholtz, who showed that the human eye itself was subject to the same ‘imperfections.’ His work was widely diffused and popularized in France, in large part through Hyppolite Taine’s celebrated volume, De l’intelligence, in which the chapter on ‘sensations’ recalled the physical principles of the phenomenon.8 By not correcting chromatic aberration, the photographer obtained the resulting ‘chromatic blur’: ‘The image is surrounded by a slight halo: it is blurred, veiled.’9 Chromatic aberration was considered most important, given the effects it made possible, yet there existed a wide range of other aberrations. Étienne Wallon, a professor of physics and photography who participated in the salons of the Photo-Club de Paris, took on the task of establishing a list of aberrations and explaining them to amateurs.
- 10 Étienne Wallon, ‘Les objectifs – le problème de l’objectif,’ La Revue de Photographie, no. 1 (1904) (...)
12The popularization of ‘aberrant’ optics thus opened up new experimental territory because of the broad variety of effects offered. The main optical aberrations are spherical aberration, astigmatism, and distortion. Unlike chromatic aberration, they are part of a family of ‘geometric aberrations,’ resulting from the trajectories of light rays rather than differences in colored light. Spherical aberration is due to light rays that cross the edges of the lens and do not converge at the single meeting point of the rays crossing at the center. It is a phenomenon of dispersion that ‘results in the production, around the image, of profusion that severely alters sharpness.’10 The lenticular correction of this phenomenon, one that brings all the light rays back to a single point, is called ‘aplanetic.’ An anaplanetic lens is thus an uncorrected artistic tool, recommended by Puyo for portraiture.
13Another effect, astigmatism, occurs when spherical aberration is exacerbated, such as when the point of light photographed is elsewhere than on the axis of the lens. The consequence is a doubling of the beam: the image is doubled and it is only possible to focus on one or the other point, resulting in an overall veiled effect. Lastly, a distortion could result when the medium on which the image would be entirely in focus is curved. Images are distributed over the curved surface of the lens and, therefore, cannot simultaneously be received by the photographic plate. This leads to image deformation: straight lines curve near the edges of the field.
- 11 Constant Puyo and J. Leclerc de Pulligny, Les Objectifs d’artistes (Paris: Photo-Club de Paris, 19 (...)
14While Étienne Wallon described the basic principles of these aberrations as flaws that opticians were working to correct, Puyo and Leclerc de Pulligny understood what pictorialists had to gain: ‘Let us try to see if these aberrations could not present themselves to art as assistants ... simplification of the surface without modification of form – precisely what we were seeking – is what chromatic aberration tends to offer us. It is thus a useful agent.’11 The aberrations gained newfound credibility because of the lenses calculated to create such effects: ‘[T]hey issue from rational notions, from scientific deduction,’ maintained Frédéric Dillaye. The positive science of opticians was converted into an arsenal of artists’ tools. The goal then became to manufacture lenses with calculated aberrations. The ‘misuse’ of existing optical devices made way for ‘artists’ lenses.’
- 12 Constant Puyo, ‘Propos sur l’optique,’ La Revue de Photographie, no. 9 (1907): 257–65.
15For Puyo, who co-invented such lenses with Leclerc de Pulligny, a new branch of optical science was born. More specifically, it was now up to the artist-photographer to address optical problems ‘for and on behalf of opticians.’12 For artist-photographers, there was no longer a division of skills in photography; the system that tied engineer to manufacturer, manufacturer to vendor, and vendor to user no longer formed a linear and unbroken chain. There was a kind of reversal in the traditional order, since the artist not only invented his own tools but also produced and marketed them. An autarchical system of invention emerged along with a parallel distribution network through specialized journals and exhibitions. As pictorialism’s field of action grew more autonomous, its advocates sought to erect impenetrable barriers against what might be generically termed ‘professionalism.’ This desire to redefine the field of photography, starting with the novel creative work coming from amateur clubs, is demonstrated by exhibitions intended to validate experimentation with artistic optics.
- 13 Constant Puyo, ‘L’exposition d’épreuves obtenues au moyen d’objectifs anachromatiques,’ La Revue de (...)
- 14 H. Wurtz, ‘Objectifs nouveaux,’ Bulletin de la Société photographique du nord de la France, (Decemb (...)
16The results obtained with artists’ lenses were shown at the Salon de 1904. Meanwhile, in his studio, Puyo exhibited images obtained using anachromatic lenses and printed on basic aristotype paper. His demonstration was meant to be instructive: the effects came from the negative and thus were due to aberrations alone. Two years later, the Photo-Club organized an exhibition of photographs made with anachromatic lenses, which the pictorialists now called ‘Anachromats.’13 The show brought together three hundred photographs by over fifty artists and offered a closer look at the various optical devices that had been developed. The demonstration value of the Photo-Club de Paris exhibition derived largely from the showing of a variety of synthetic effects. What until then had seemed impossible, or to have required retouching to obtain both well-defined forms and general harmony, finally became attainable. Demonstrative, didactic, and even activist, the specialized exhibitions from 1904 to 1906 sought acceptance for this artistic practice. But despite the scientific associations of the new lenses, the critics maintained their iron-ic tone: ‘Anachromatism, astigmatism, a bit of distortion, remnants of spherical aberration, voilà! a perfect instrument ... While we wait for Commandant Puyo to bring his idea fully into focus, he could most certainly grace us with his secret for making excellent images with bad tools.’14
- 15 ‘Séance du 17 janvier 1908,’ Bulletin de la Société française de photographie, no. 3 (1908): 74–7 (...)
- 16 H. Wurtz, ‘Objectifs nouveaux’ (note 14).
17This was the crux of the aesthetics of optical aberration: to convince those who were inordinately respectful of a ‘technical ethic’ that the act of abandoning corrected vision was actually a positive, rather than negative, approach to technique – a form of rational experimentation that brought forth new conventions responding to anti-mimetic demands. But to counter critics once and for all and to legitimize their ideas, the pictorialists had to abide by the unspoken rule of submitting innovations to the Société Française de Photographie. Puyo thus presented his anachromatic lens set and Adjustable Landscape Lens in 1908. His talk was accompanied by an exhibit of photographs praised for their ‘highly artistic effects of atmospheric perspective.’15 This recognition brought commercial success: the Hermagis company built its ‘Eidoscope’ based on spherical aberration blur; Darlot-Turillon in collaboration with the optical glass manufacturer in Ligny-en-Barrois (Meuse, France) built Puyo’s landscape lenses and the Anachromat for portraiture.16 Artistic progress founded in optics was accompanied by this inherently aesthetic discourse. The pictorialists defended their approach by highlighting the anti-mimetic foundations of artistic photography. Above all, chromatic synthesis was their means of seeking out effects equivalent to those obtained by other visual artists.
- 17 Frédéric Dillaye, ‘Les fantômes des anachromats,’ La Revue de Photographie, no. 1 (1907): 10–18.
- 18 Constant Puyo, ‘L’exposition d’épreuves obtenues au moyen d’objectifs anachromatiques’ (note 13).
- 19 Constant Puyo, ‘La photographie synthétique,’ La Revue de Photographie, no. 4–5 (1904): 105–10, 1 (...)
- 20 Constant Puyo and J. Leclerc de Pulligny, Les Objectifs d’artistes (note 11), 10–11.
18Along with Puyo, Frédéric Dillaye argued in favor of artists’ lenses. He rejected sharp definition, which separated photography from ‘the vision of the painter and the sculptor,’ while being careful not to associate the new effects with the excesses of early days: ‘The Anachromat is a good way to change their [the photographers] acquired ways of seeing for the better, and to usher their photographic im-ages into the realm of art making.’17 Puyo also defended the artistic value of effects obtained with the new lenses. He accused critics of confusing the primitive softness of selective focusing with ‘chromatic softness’ [flou chromatique].18 Chromatic synthesis thus broke with photography’s analytic rendering, which was in contradiction to the aspiration to synthesis of drawing and fine arts.19 ‘Aspiring to synthesis’ was thus indeed the goal of photography which, like the fine arts, would serve ‘not to describe but to suggest. Therefore progress in the field was manifest by means of ever more synthetic rendering.’20 In this way, synthesis became a bridge between photography and the graph-ic arts. The goal was no longer to see as the eye sees, but more specifically to see as the artist’s eye sees.
19The rejection of overly empiricist soft-focused rendering in favor of the aesthetics of lens aberrations, corresponded with the parallel between photographic and artistic ways of seeing. The sole argument of retinal equivalency, on which soft-focusing was based, was not enough to turn seeing into a truly artistic process. Seeing as a painter or sculptor implied producing equivalents of their metiers. It was with chromatic synthesis that the pictorialists were able to transform ‘seeing’ into ‘doing.’
- 21 This also brings to mind ‘synthetism,’ in particular as embodied by the work of Emile Bernard as ea (...)
- 22 Constant Puyo, ‘L’art de la composition,’ La Revue de Photographie, no. 1–7 (1905): 24.
- 23 Ibid., 23.
20The break with the naturalism inherent in the notion of retinal equivalency was to be found in the conception of ‘synthetic photography.’ It should come as no surprise that the pictorialists relied greatly on the founding aesthetic principles of idealism and specifically on writings by Charles Blanc.21 Puyo drew a parallel between photography and the goals of fine arts. The essence of photography was anti-aesthetic, Puyo argued, since its purpose was literal reproduction. Photography’s ‘anti-aesthetic tendencies’ had to be fought by intervening in its optics in order to break with the mimetic functions that were incompatible with those of art: ‘The photographic process tends towards ... an increasingly servile imitation of natural objects. But this tendency goes against the very conditions of art.’22 Puyo insists on rereading Charles Blanc: ‘Painting, so often and so long defined as “the imitation of nature,” thus came to be essentially misunderstood and reduced to a role that color photography could fill ... But no one today would agree to a definition of painting as imitation, and hence confuse the means with the ends ... What the common man unconsciously admires in every photograph – what he hopes to find – is a trompe-l’oeil illusion.’23
- 24 Ibid., 23.
21In 1900, photography was in much the same position as painting at the dawn of modernity. Photography needed to prove that it was not a mere reflection of reality, that it could relinquish its role as the prime example of mimetic fidelity and that the promise of another, different photography had been fulfilled. In the same vein, photography needed to demonstrate that only a proper artistic education could put an end to ‘trompe-l’oeil’ by giving the photographer ‘the means to tame a stubborn instrument.’24 With the notion of synthetic photography, Puyo shifted artistic photography into the territory of the fine arts. He thus endowed the repertoire of optical effects with ambitions much greater than the simple fidelity to visual experience.
22The aesthetics of the pictorialist vision thus developed through a dialectical relationship between natural and artificial vision. In France, surpassing the naturalist model also meant surpassing the technical perfection embodied at the time by corrected optics. Pictorialism’s departure from principles of retinal equivalency and from mechanical recordings of nature were part of a single ideological evolution. The pictorialists resorted to optical aberrations and thus showed it was possible to bypass corrected vision. This recourse is tied less to the use of more physiologically sound processes enabling the ‘rediscovery’ of nature, than to the fact that observation itself was no longer the main issue tied to representation.
23The pictorialists’ subjective vision must then be considered – and this is what made their theories so controversial – as an alternative to the idea of progress in vision. For the pictorialists, the perfectibility of lenses held no aesthetic validity as corrected lenses had for far too long identified photography with realism pushed to absurd extremes. Naturalism’s fidelity to visual experience was apparently incapable of quashing this primordial deficiency. The conditions of subjective vision depended upon a twofold critical position: a refusal of corrected lenses and a departure from direct observation of nature. These theoretical views offered only a limited range of action, and this did not go unnoticed by all involved. To break free of this pitfall, the pictorialists simultaneously cultivated aesthetics of both printing and materials, in order to transform their subjective vision into an expressive vision.
1 Such as the suggestion that the amateur photographer could attach a string to the lens and hold it with his foot, and as the photograph was being exposed make it vibrate using a violin bow. A spirit lamp could also be lit in front of the lens so that its heat would disturb the air.
2 Peter Henry Emerson, The Death of Naturalistic Photography (London, 1890).
3 Jules Janssen, ‘Conférence sur la photographie,’ in Exposition universelle de 1889 – Congrès international de photographie (Paris: Gauthier-Villars et fils, 1890), 168.
4 The editors, ‘Du net en photographie,’ L’Amateur photographe no. 2 (1896): 13–16.
5 Ibid., 13.
6 Constant Puyo, ‘L'objectif à paysage,’ La Revue de Photographie, no. 8–9 (1905): 225–32, 257–67.
7 Jean Leclerc de Pulligny, ‘Le flou chromatique,’ Bulletin du Photo-Club de Paris (March 1902): 77–102.
8 Hippolyte Taine, De l’intelligence (Paris: Hachette, 1870). In the 1883 edition, book III ‘Les Sensations,’ chapter ii, ‘Les sensations totales de la vue, de l’odorat, du goût, du toucher et leurs éléments.’ These discoveries were also popularized by George Guéroult, ‘Une vie de savant: Hermann von Helmholtz,’ La Revue des deux mondes (July 1, 1896): 77–105.
9 Gaston-Henri Niewenglowsky, La Photographie artistique par les objectifs anachromatiques (Paris: C. Mendel, 1907), 10.
10 Étienne Wallon, ‘Les objectifs – le problème de l’objectif,’ La Revue de Photographie, no. 1 (1904): 18–25.
11 Constant Puyo and J. Leclerc de Pulligny, Les Objectifs d’artistes (Paris: Photo-Club de Paris, 1906), 29.
12 Constant Puyo, ‘Propos sur l’optique,’ La Revue de Photographie, no. 9 (1907): 257–65.
13 Constant Puyo, ‘L’exposition d’épreuves obtenues au moyen d’objectifs anachromatiques,’ La Revue de Photographie, no. 3 (1906): 90–3.
14 H. Wurtz, ‘Objectifs nouveaux,’ Bulletin de la Société photographique du nord de la France, (December 1905): 150–56 (my emphasis).
15 ‘Séance du 17 janvier 1908,’ Bulletin de la Société française de photographie, no. 3 (1908): 74–76.
16 H. Wurtz, ‘Objectifs nouveaux’ (note 14).
17 Frédéric Dillaye, ‘Les fantômes des anachromats,’ La Revue de Photographie, no. 1 (1907): 10–18.
18 Constant Puyo, ‘L’exposition d’épreuves obtenues au moyen d’objectifs anachromatiques’ (note 13).
19 Constant Puyo, ‘La photographie synthétique,’ La Revue de Photographie, no. 4–5 (1904): 105–10, 137–44.
20 Constant Puyo and J. Leclerc de Pulligny, Les Objectifs d’artistes (note 11), 10–11.
21 This also brings to mind ‘synthetism,’ in particular as embodied by the work of Emile Bernard as early as 1888; his notion of the simplification of reality as beneficial to artistic expression bears similarities to pictorialist ideas. However, giving up working from nature and valuing the memory’s transformation of nature are very different from photographic practice, which is necessarily tied to its subject.
22 Constant Puyo, ‘L’art de la composition,’ La Revue de Photographie, no. 1–7 (1905): 24.
23 Ibid., 23.
24 Ibid., 23.
Michel Poivert, « Degenerate Photography? », Études photographiques, 23 | mai 2009, [En ligne], mis en ligne le 13 mai 2014. URL : http://etudesphotographiques.revues.org/3429. consulté le 29 mars 2017.