Pictorialism – Edward Weston and Frank Meadow Sutcliffe

In my feedback from Assignment 2, my tutor suggested I consider Pictorialism further in light of my comment that I was influenced by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe in my choice of subject for this assignment.

Frank Meadow Sutcliffe’s images were known to me when I was much younger because I was given a copy of his photographs of Whitby and I attempted to locate and then re-take his images to see how Whitby had changed. His images stick in my mind and, in researching for Assignment 2, I was inspired by them to capture images of Filey.

I admit that my inspiration was more of place and location by the sea, rather than technique or a consideration of Pictorialism. However, my tutor directed me to Edward Weston’s essay ‘Photography – Not Pictorialism’ and I wanted to log here my research and initial thoughts about the photography as art debate.

Francis Meadow Sutcliffe was an English  photographic artist who is famous for his images of Whitby in the late Victorian era and early 20th century. (Wikipedia)



Image 1

This image of Whitby Harbour is typical of the photography of the Pictorialism movement in its attempt to recreate the painting style of the ‘Grand Masters’.

I considered why I thought that this image looked like a painting. To me, the majestic ship in the foreground is suggestive of the type of subject often depicted by artists in their paintings in the 19th century. In Pictorial style, Sutcliffe creates a sense of drama through the heavy sky and blurred background, which highlights the foreground while veiling the background, including the abbey, in mystery. There is consequently a feeling of the anticipation of drama, encouraging a sense of unease that perhaps was not visible to the photographer at the time but was created by manipulation to give the effect of aprehension. The absence of fine detail is typical of Pictorialism, and according to Weston, this separates ‘photo-painting’ from true photography.

‘Pictorialism is defined as a  period where photographers used manipulation of either the scene or the photographic process to create art from a photograph. (The Art of Photography, Youtube (2013))

Photography was initially seen as a means of documentation, ie the capturing of images of ‘reality’. It was not seen as a creative genre and not considered valid as a serious art form. Pictorialist photographers wanted to establish photography as art rather than a means simply of documentation. They wanted to separate photography from documentation.

I am interested in the debate around the role and purpose of photography and its position within the arts. My tutor sent me a link to Edward Weston’s essay which presents the ‘other side’ to this debate, arguing for ‘Photography-Not Pictorial’.

Here is my understanding of Weston’s position:

First, he says ‘have we not had enough picture making?’ He asserts that ‘Photography can only be a poor imitation of … art’.  He explains that ‘painters have a great respect for photography when it is photography.. when it does something they cannot do’. He continues: ‘they only have contempt, and rightly so, when it is an imitation painting’.

Weston espouses photography and art (painting) as separate fields, believing that ‘no photographer can equal…the work of a fine painter’ and no painter can ‘equal the photographer in his particular field.’

Weston believes that photography offers something  different – an ability to see more than the human eye and to render the detail in a way that is impossible for a painter. He speaks of ‘photographic beauty’ as special and unique. As to whether photography is art, Weston says ‘who cares’. He says that photography is ‘a vital (new) way of seeing’ and asks ‘why bother about art?’

Weston believes that photography should be pure and unadulterated – manipulations, he feels, are obvious and to be avoided, in favour of recording exactly what the photographer sees, or using only those manipulations that are particular to the camera ie focal length, camera angle etc. As such, photography requires the greatest accuracy and should not be staged and otherwise altered.

Pictorialism, according to Weston, provided a tradition for early photographers using the new technology, who ‘borrowed’ the painting genre from the painters, with the view that photography ‘was just a new kind of painting’.  He said this was responsible for such horrors as ‘dizzying out of focus blurs’. He says that this led to the use of the camera for ‘photo-painting rather than photography’, and he feels that it is ‘folly’ to ‘(take) a camera to make a painting’

Weston explains that Pictorialists believe that an image without artistic manipulation is just the product of the machine and so devoid of artistic skill. He counters this criticism through a comparison with the production of music with a musical instrument. Essentially he counteracts this argument by asking therefore whether ‘music is not art, isn’t it only the production of sounds through a machine’?

Weston defines a photograph as having ‘amazing precision of definition especially in the recording of fine detail’ and as having an ‘unbroken sequence of infinitely subtle gradations from black to white’ – impossible, he says, to achieve in painting.

Now to my opinion. I am a new photographer and, since starting this course, my eyes have been opened to seeing the world in a different way. I had previously not considered photography as an art form. For me, photography was something different to art, it was the recording of events or the capturing of reality; it was family photo albums, a link to the past, and the world of documentary. However, now, I can not separate the two quite so easily. I understand Weston’s argument but I see photography very much as a creative art form with endless possibilities for representation, creativity and expression. I enjoy experimenting with the possibilities available by the manipulation of my camera and my computer and I enjoy looking at photographs that look like paintings. I particularly like Sutcliffe’s image of the ship, above, and his images of Whitby in general. I am pleased that my new and expanding knowledge of photography enables me to appreciate and enjoy these photographs even more than I did as a young woman.

List of illustrations

Image 1

Sutcliffe (1890) Whitby. Photograph. Wikipedia. At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Meadow_Sutcliffe#/media/File:Sutcliffe10.jpg Accessed 8 October 2016


Pictorialism (2013) The Art of Photography (film youtube) At: http://theartofphotography.tv/episodes/pictorialism/ Accessed 8 October 2016

Wikipedia. Francis Meadow Sutcliffe. At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Meadow_Sutcliffe

Weston, E (1930) Photography – Not Pictorialism. Essay. At: http://www.jnevins.com/westonreading.htm  Accessed 8 October 2016


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