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Exhibit Shows Photography’s Aesthetic Origins

In a world where anyone can give photography a try with nothing but a camera phone, it’s hard to imagine a time when taking pictures was a new and unusual activity.

From its inception in 1839, photography was considered a mechanical process for objective scientific documentation. In fact, its merits as an art form were widely disputed until the 1920s.

A group of innovative photographers, known as pictorialists, sought to change that. Their work paved the way for the modernist photographers who followed.

The Phillips Collection’s newest exhibit, “TruthBeauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art, 1845-1945,” shows how that group pushed the limits of what was accepted as photography and established it as a legitimate art form.

Pictorialism proved there was room for personal experience, not just science, in photography, exhibit curator Elsa Smithgall said.

The exhibit was created by the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., for the Vancouver Art Gallery. The Phillips is the last stop on its U.S. tour.

The pictorialists revolted against the belief that photography was merely a mechanical process for capturing crisp, accurate images. They tested its technical aspects, embracing soft focus, dramatic lighting and varied exposure times. They also experimented in the darkroom, creating compositions from multiple negatives, trying new ways of cropping photographs and altering the images with brushstrokes as they developed.

Phillips Collection Director Dorothy Kosinski said the pictorialist movement was a time when photographers “vied with the painter to create images of enormous complexity and scale.”

Many of the photographs in “TruthBeauty” look more like paintings in their composition than the photographs typical of today. But their soft focus and careful lighting provide an eerie stillness more akin to a paused moment than a frozen action. In many cases, prints on heavy, textured paper and brushstroke-blurred images make the photos look like charcoal drawings.

This aspect of pictorialist photography is particularly evident in the Robert Demachy works in the exhibit. In his photographs, Demachy embraced the pictorialists’ experiments with tonal variation, as opposed to stark contrast between light and dark. A glance at one of his portraits doesn’t even register that it is, in fact, a photo.

Photos such as Elias Goldensky’s 1907 “Portrait of Three Women” demonstrate the pictorialist fascination with lighting. Two of the three women in the photo face the photographer and look inward, while the third faces the opposite direction, turning her head to display her profile. Each bears a wistful expression. The three are backlit, creating the effect of light-lined silhouettes on a dark background.

A series of architectural photographs by Frederick H. Evans, featuring Westminster Abbey and other British cathedrals, capture light filtering through windows in a way that could never be produced with a digital camera. The innovation achieved by the pictorialist movement may have paved the way for modern photography, but modern photographers would be hard-pressed to recreate the unique beauty the pictorialists captured.

“TruthBeauty” will be on display at the Phillips Collection (1600 21st St. NW) until Jan. 9.

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