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An invention striving to look 'old-fashioned'

Creators' painterly or Pictorialist ambitions spoke for their eras

Roger Fenton's 'Rievaulx Abbey, the North Transept (1854).' Roger Fenton's "Rievaulx Abbey, the North Transept (1854)."
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / November 28, 2010

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WASHINGTON — William Henry Fox Talbot, one of photography’s inventors, called it “the pencil of nature.’’ Such was the novelty of the camera that its early users felt required to liken it to something else. A paintbrush? A toy? A tool? A scientific instrument? Even a quasi-literary implement, like a pen or, yes, Fox Talbot’s pencil?

This now-forgotten but once absolutely fundamental process of figuring out what exactly photography could and should become underlies two superb exhibitions here. “The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting, 1848-1875’’ runs through Jan. 30 at the National Gallery of Art. “TruthBeauty: Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art, 1845-1945’’ is at the Phillips Collection through Jan. 9.

Both shows are wonderfully comprehensive and extremely beautiful. So much of their beauty has to do with how alien the conception of photography they present now seems. That conception — literary, elevated, often proudly anachronistic — today has the appeal of the exotic and lure of the unfamiliar. So many of these pictures, which look so old-fashioned now, strove to look old-fashioned then. The French critic Roland Barthes once described cameras as “clocks for seeing.’’ For many of the most ambitious early photographers, they were hourglasses, or even sundials, for seeing.

A better term than old-fashioned might be other-fashioned. These are photographs aspiring to the condition of paintings or etchings. Since photography was not, as yet, considered an art — and these photographers very much wanted to be seen as artists — they would create images that resembled what was considered art.

Two photographs in “The Pre-Raphaelite Lens’’ explicitly, and amusingly, flag this self-conscious union of photography and the finer arts. Look closely at the medieval ruin in Roger Fenton’s 1854 “Rievaulx Abbey, the North Transept’’ and there you see a sight unknown to the Middle Ages, a photographer’s tripod. As for Oscar Rejlander’s allegorical “Infant Photography Giving the Painter an Additional Brush,’’ the title speaks for itself. Photography may have been “the most marvelous invention of the century,’’ as no less an authority than John Ruskin called it. It was, however, not a new era in art that the camera ushered in for many but an extension of the old.

The most prominent school of art in mid-century Britain was the Pre-Raphaelites. Such painters as William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti sought to reform art, bringing it back to the purity (as they saw it) of the early Renaissance. That was the theory, anyway. In practical terms, this led to certain predominant concerns and motifs: an emphasis on detail; a taste for overtly literary subjects; related to that, a fondness for narrative; and a predilection for outdoor settings.

Contemporary British photography very much reflected the Pre-Raphaelites’ approach. Or perhaps it was the other way around. The painter William Bell Scott wrote at the time, “Every movement has its genesis, as every flower its seed; the seed of the flower of Pre-Raphaelitism was photography.’’ Either way — seed or flower, chicken or egg — the works in “The Pre-Raphaelite Lens’’ (more than 100 photographs, 20 paintings and watercolors) demonstrate how thoroughly the work of brush and camera resembled one another. This exceedingly handsome show makes so much sense that it comes as a shock to find out it’s the first of its kind.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the most striking photographs tend to be those that depart the most from the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic. Julia Margaret Cameron’s portrait “Pomona’’ takes its name from the Roman goddess of plenty, a bit of cultural pretension meriting Pre-Raphaelite approval. It has a literary dimension, too, even if inadvertent: The sitter is Alice Liddell, Lewis Carroll’s inspiration for his two “Alice’’ books as well as one of his favorite photographic subjects. What stays with the viewer, though, is the clear-eyed candor of the photograph. It has a straightforward solidity that manages to seem both of its time and far beyond it.

What Pomona/Alice might be gazing at so unblinkingly is the precision and clarity of Henry White’s “Ferns and Brambles.’’ Here’s an image that shows both what photography was capable of and how, in that capability, it departed from any previous visual medium.

Departure was the last thing most Pictorialists wanted. Pictorialism was the dominant school in fine art photography during the late-19th and early-20th centuries. That understates its importance, though. As the more than 130 photographs in “TruthBeauty’’ amply (and often exquisitely) demonstrate, the roots of Pictorialism extended nearly to the invention of the medium — Cameron, Rejlander, and Henry Peach Robinson have work in both this and the National Gallery shows. Its influence also continued to be felt well into the next century.

Pictorialists were desperate to have their work, the product of modern technology, look pre- or at least non-modern. So they, too, were partial to literary allusion, narrative, and sentimental subject matter (landscape, cathedrals, children). Frederick H. Evans’s portrait “F. Holland Day in Arab Costume’’ can hardly be bettered as a visual metaphor for the movement, showing one of its foremost practitioners dressing up in costume to achieve an exotically picturesque visual effect. The exhibition takes its title from Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’’ he wrote in “Ode on a Grecian Urn.’’ But truth isn’t necessarily the same thing as reality. It can seem at times that a hookah is the implement Pictorialists considered most akin to a camera.

The greatest contributor to the otherworldliness of Pictorialism was the ardently wan stylization of its look. So many of these pictures have a soft, clouded appearance: painterliness achieved by mechanical means. The results could be ravishing. Peter Henry Emerson’s “Polling the Marsh Hay’’ offers a phenomenal array of visual textures. Alfred Stieglitz’s “Spring Showers’’ and “Reflections, Night — New York’’ are unsurpassed as romantic evocations of urban life. But there’s also a consistent insubstantiality and self-consciousness to Pictorialism — less art for art’s sake than affectation for affectation’s — that grows wearisome, then cloying.

The greatest Pictorialists, like Emerson, Evans, Clarence White, and Gertrude Kasebier, transcended the movement’s limitations — or, like Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, transcended those limitations before then leaving Pictorialism behind. Alvin Langdon Coburn, who has work in both “TruthBeauty’’ and a small subsidiary show at the Phillips, “Coburn and the Photographic Portfolio,’’ would be a further example. Other photographers have done better by New York or London. None has done better by both. He brought to them the same blend of sympathy, imaginativeness, and intense engagement he brought to portraiture (many examples of which are on display here).

A view of a New York park from above, his “Octopus’’ is proudly Pictorialist with its various textural elements: snow-covered ground, bare trees, looming shadow. Yet with its aerial perspective and sheer unexpectedness, it could be a Rodchenko. With its play of curves and punning resemblance to the sea creature in the title, it could be a Kertesz. All of which, perhaps, is another way of saying it’s timeless.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

THE PRE-RAPHAELITE LENS: British Photography and Painting, 1848-1875

At the National Gallery of Art, 4th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, D.C., through Jan. 30. 202-737-4215, www.nga.gov

TRUTHBEAUTY : Pictorialism and the Photograph as Art, 1845-1945 COBURN AND THE PHOTOGRAPHIC PORTFOLIO

At the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW, Washington, D.C., through Jan. 9. 202-387-2151, www.phillipscollection.org