Pictorialism from the Turn-of the-Century Photo-Secession Movement

The Photo-Secession was an early-20th-century movement that promoted photography as a fine art.

A group of photographers, led by Alfred Stieglitz and F. Holland Day in the early 1900s, held the then controversial viewpoint that what was significant about a photograph was not what was in front of the camera but the manipulation of the image by the artist/photographer to achieve his or her subjective vision.

The movement helped to raise standards and awareness of art photography. Proponents of Pictorialism, which was the underlying value of the Photo-Secession, argued that photography needed to emulate the painting and etching of the time. Pictorialists believed that, just as a painting is distinctive because of the artist’s manipulation of the materials to achieve an effect, so too should the photographer alter or manipulate the photographic image. Among the methods used were soft focus; special filters and lens coatings; burning, dodging and/or cropping in the darkroom to edit the content of the image; and alternative printing processes such as sepia toning, carbon printing, platinum printing or gum bichromate processing.

The “membership” of the Photo-Secession varied according to Stieglitz’s interests and temperament but was centered around the core group of Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Clarence H. White, Gertrude Käsebier, Frank Eugene, F. Holland Day, and later Alvin Langdon Coburn.


 Mending Nets by Alfred Stieglitz. Carbon print (1894) via



 “A Study” by Gertrude Käsebier. Platinum print (ca. 1898) via


By Clarence H. White (1871) via


Actress Minnie Maddern Fiske by Fred Holland Day (created 1895-1912) via


The Brass Bowl by Edward Steichen. Photogravure on tissue-thin Japan paper. Literature: Camera Work 14 (1906) via


Minuet by Frank Eugene, Photogravure on tissue-thin Japan paper. Literature: Camera Work 30 (1910) via

the Bubble

 The Bubble by Alvin Langdon Coburn. Gum bichromate over platinum print (1908) via 


Photos by Visionary Photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882 – 1966)

Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882 – 1966) was an early 20th-century photographer who became a key figure in the development of American pictorialism – the name given to an international style and aesthetic movement that dominated photography during the later 19th and early 20th centuries.

Typically, a pictorial photograph appears to lack a sharp focus (some more so than others), is printed in one or more colors other than black-and-white (ranging from warm brown to deep blue) and may have visible brush strokes or other manipulation of the surface. For the pictorialist, a photograph, like a painting, drawing or engraving, was a way of projecting an emotional intent into the viewer’s realm of imagination

Coburn became the first major photographer to emphasize the visual potential of elevated viewpoints and later made some of the first completely abstract photographs.


Study – Miss R by Alvin Langdon Coburn (1904)




Landscape by Alvin Langdon Coburn (1902)

(Alvin Langdon Coburn/George Eastman House,

International Museum of Photography and Film)




Vortograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn (1917)

(Alvin Langdon Coburn/George Eastman House,

International Museum of Photography and Film)