The turn of the twentieth century witnessed a significant transformation in the perception of photography as a legitimate art form. During this period, photography was rapidly becoming more accessible to a wider market, owing to the availability of cheaper dry plates and the introduction of relatively simple Kodak cameras. Photography was also becoming more commercialised with an emphasis on utilitarian technological progress, often to the detriment of creative artistry. This naturally led some photographers to challenge conventional notions of photography with the emergence of Pictorialism, which sought to elevate photography beyond mere technical documentation and embrace it as a medium capable of expressing artistic vision and emotion by employing aesthetic techniques borrowed from painting and other art forms.

Pictorialist photographers aimed to create images that resembled paintings or etchings, rather than straightforward photographic reproductions. They adopted various techniques to achieve this effect, including soft focus, manipulation of light and shadow, and the use of alternative printing processes. Pictorialists emphasized the subjective interpretation of the photographer, emphasizing mood, atmosphere, and personal expression over objective representation. The movement already had its perspective outlined long before the turn of the century, in the book Pictorial Effect in Photography (1869). The author, Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901), prescribed some pictorial ground rules. He emphasized that an interweaving of art, nature, truth and beauty in the darkroom were the key tenets to creating a satisfying pictorial, or picturesque, effect. He noted, “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.” The idea that a photographer could manipulate the negative or final print to improve on art and nature and that anything was allowed to achieve beauty in an image, was one of the attitudes that divided Pictorial photographers and eventually led to fracture between those who believed in this manipulation and those that produced ‘Straight’ photography. This rebellion against the dogma of most photography societies resulted in a series of secessions by these artist photographers. An artistic approach had been taken by earlier photographers, such as Julia Margaret Cameron, but the Pictorialists and the Secession groups were the first coherent movement to argue for personal expression in the medium.

All over Europe, artists began breaking away from the establishment and setting up their own Secession groups. Well-heeled amateur artist photographers organised themselves into invitation-only groups and multinational associations with access denied to the despised ‘snapshotters’. They held annual exhibitions and published influential, beautifully produced journals. In 1891, the International Exhibition of Art Photographers was held in Vienna by the Club of Amateur Photographers (renamed the Vienna Camera Club in 1893); their members included Heinrich Kühn (1866-1944), Hugo Henneberg (1863-1918) and Hans Watzek (1848-1903), and the three went on to exhibit together in venues across Europe under the collective name of the Trifolium, or Das Kleeblatt (The Clover). The three worked on coloured gum printing, and also ‘combination’ printing - working with multiple negatives.

In May 1892, the Linked Ring Brotherhood was formed in London by dissatisfied members of the Royal Photographic Society. It was led by Henry Peach Robinson himself and was purposely arcane in nature. They met on a monthly basis, published papers, held dinners and made photographic excursions. The brotherhood’s dictums of ’liberty’ and ’loyalty’ were scrupulously observed in the organisation’s first decade and to be invited to join or be asked to exhibit at their annual Photographic Salon was the highest accolade a Pictorial photographer could receive.

The goal of these organisations was to free photography from its documentary and technical stranglehold and to use it as a means of artistic expression. They believed that photography was becoming an objective mechanical procedure rather than a subjective aesthetic labour of love and so began using ever more elaborate manipulative techniques. Complex, time-consuming and meticulous processes involving platinum, gum bichromate, carbon, photogravure, bromoil and oil-pigment printing were introduced, which resulted in the end product - the photograph - resembling a lithograph, an etching or a pastel or charcoal drawing. A limited number of prints were made from one negative, in order to enhance the value and emphasize the exclusivity of the work. The presentation was also critical and mounting, framing and hanging became an essential part of the aesthetic package.

Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) became the first American Link in 1894. On his return to New York in 1890 after almost a decade in Europe, Stieglitz was forced to adapt to a very different subject matter that the dynamic city afforded him compared with the romantic and picturesque European scenes he had captured in earlier photographs. In 1900, Fred Holland Day (1864-1933) organized “The New School of American Photography”, the first exhibition of American Pictorialist photography in Europe. Held in London and Paris, the show featured his own photographs as well as works by Edward Steichen, Gertrude Käsebier, and Clarence White. Slieglitz - then editor of Camera Notes, the publication of the Camera Club of New York, and dissatisfied by the limited editorial control he was granted by the club’s trustees - resigned from his role in 1902 and invited them all to his new organisation, dubbed The Photo-Secession.

The Photo-Secession actively promoted its ideas. Stieglitz edited and published the new important quarterly Camera Work and opened the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession (also known as “291", the gallery’s address on Fifth Avenue), providing a place for the members to exhibit their work. Stieglitz wrote in one issue of Camera Work that the objective of the succession was to “advance photography as applied to pictorial expression; to draw together those Americans practising or otherwise interested in the art, and to hold from time to time, at varying places, exhibitions not necessarily limited to the productions of the Photo-Secession or to American work” (Supplement to Camera Work, July 1903).

In 1904, Alfred Horsley Hinton, editor of the British magazine Amateur Photographer wrote: “American Photography is going to be the ruling note throughout the world unless others bestir themselves; indeed, the Photo-Secession pictures have already captured the highest places in the esteem of the civilized world…It is Stieglitz, who arranges terms, gets the pictures together, is responsible for their return. What an influence then he must have become. As one sees him today he is a man of highly nervous temperament, of ceaseless energy and fixed purpose.” In 1910 the Photo-Secession sponsored an international show of more than 500 photographs by its members or by photographers whose aims were similar to its own. The show, occupying more than half of the exhibition space at the Albright Art Gallery (now the Albright-Knox Gallery) in Buffalo, New York, was a sensation and significantly advanced the acceptance of photography as an art form.

As the Pictorialism movement developed it slowly became darker, more symbolic and personal. Complex printing techniques slowly gave way to easier-to-use gelatin silver prints and photogravure. The advantage of printing in photogravure was that multiple runs could be made for a fraction of the price of one platinum print. The movement began to find beauty in unlikely urban environments. Stieglitz explored the potential of New York streets, photographing at night or in wet, misty weather. Pierre Dubreuil (1872-1944) photographed the urban Parisian landscape and used machinery as an icon of modernity, employing unexpected perspectives including extreme close-ups and shots taken from ground level.

While Pictorialism gained traction among a group of photographers and art enthusiasts, it was not without its controversies. Traditionalists argued that Pictorialism deviated from the essence of photography, which was to capture objective reality. Over time Photo-Secession became divided. Some continued to manipulate their negatives and prints to achieve non-photographic effects, while others came to feel that such manipulation destroyed tone and texture and was inappropriate for photography. Torn by this division, the group soon dissolved. The 291 Gallery began to introduce non-photographic work and soon became a preeminent centre for the exhibition of modern European and American artists, becoming the first venue in America to show Auguste Rodin, Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, and Pablo Picasso.

The legacy of Pictorialism extended beyond its own time. It laid the foundation for subsequent artistic movements within photography and influenced the development of modern photographic aesthetics. The emphasis on subjective interpretation and experimentation paved the way for later movements such as Modernism and Conceptual Photography.