PHOTO-SECESSION movement

Towards the end of the century there was a growing dissatisfaction with the photographic establishment in England and in America. In England this led to a mass of resignations from the Photographic Society, and the formation of a group known as the Linked Ring, whilst in America, in 1902, an avant-garde group of photographers, led by Stieglitz, also sought to break away from the orthodox approach to photography, and from what they considered was the stale work of fellow- photographers.

The American group came to be known as the Photo-Secession, the name Secession coming from groups of artists in Austria and Germany who had broken away from the academic establishment.

Their rejection of establishment photography was aptly summarised in "Photograms of the year" for 1900: "That wealth of trivial detail which was admired in photography's early days and which is still loved by the great general public.... has gone out of fashion with advanced workers on both sides of the Atlantic."

"Amateur Photographer", April 10, 1902, published an acount of this movement as follows:

Amongst the more advanced pictorial workers in America a definite movement has now taken place; comparable in some respects with the Link Ring movement in this country of ten years or more ago, and at the invitation of the National Arts Club of New York, an Exhibition of Photography is being held by contributors who now for the first time come before the public as an organised body; under the name of the Photo-Secessionists, the main idea of which is to bring together in America sympathetic spirits, whether active photographers or simply those interested in the movement.

The Exhibition is in many respects unique, consisting as it does of “ picked ” prints only, and representing only the very best work ever done in America.

This American movement is...an attempt... to produce pictures by means of photography. Pictures, that is to say, which shall stand the test of criticism; that one would apply to a picture in any other medium; that shall be satisfactory in composition, colour quality, tone and lighting; that shall have esthetic charm and shall involve some expression of the personal feeling of the photographer.

The photographers who profess these high artistic aims and scrupulously live up to their principles and have the ability
to practise them, are necessarily few in number, though steadily increasing; nor are they engaged in scholastic discussions as to whether photography can be reckoned among the fine arts, for they leave such theorising to the choppers of academic logic. It is not with phraseology they are concerned, but with facts.

‘ Here is a print,’ they say in effect; ‘ has it any of the qualities that you find in a black and white; does it give you anything of the pleasurable feeling that you experience before a picture in some other medium? If not, we try again; but if, on the other hand, it does, then at least to the extent in which this print has affected you, pray acknowledge that there may be possibility of artistic expression in a pictorial photograph. How far the camera is responsible for the result or how far our own modification of its record, we venture to say is not the question; the sole point, as between you and ourselves, being whether our prints have aesthetic qualities and will stand the test of the kind of criticism that you apply to other pictures."

Characteristic of the photography of this new movement was the employment of special printing processes (for example gum bichromate), and of artwork which lessened the detail on the finished print.

The movement was not without its critics. Sadakihi Hartmann reacted strongly to the idea of manipulating photographs, and decried those who strove hard to make their pictures seem as if they were not photographs at all. In American Amateur Photographer (1904) he wrote: "We expect an etching to look like an etching, and a lithograph to look like a lithograph, why should not then a photographic print look like a photographic print?"

It was not that he objected to retouching or "dodging": "'And what do I call straight photography,' (one might) say, 'can you define it?' Well, that's easy enough. Rely on your camera, on your eye, on your good taste and your knowledge of composition, consider every fluctuation of color, light and shade, study lines and values and space division, patiently wait until the scene or object of your pictured vision reveals itself in its supremest moment of beauty, in short, compose the picture which you intend to take so well that the negative will be absolutely perfect and in need of no... manipulation."

From November 1905 the group laid on exhibitions of work at "The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession" at 291 Fifth Avenue, New York, which came to be known simply as "291." The group lasted about ten years, though their influential and luxuriously printed journal called Camera Work continued publication for some years after. Notable members included Edward Steichen, Clarence White, Gertrude Kasebier, and Alvin Langdon Coburn.



© Robert Leggat, 1997.