Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Early 20th century pictorialist photographs of London

I recently had a conversation with some colleagues about the two-way traffic of influence in the arts between Europe and America throughout the 20th century. Think of American writers and artists coming to Europe and representing - or, perhaps better, imagining - Europe within their work, and likewise UK writers and artists doing the same with America. There are so many examples I am not going to even begin to list them, but there is one in particular that interests me.

I have a longstanding fondness and interest in the deeply unfashionable pictorialist movement in photography that began in the 1880s and came to an end soon after the first decade of the 20th century. Arguably (I don't intend to argue it here) pictorialism was finished once Paul Strand began to eschew its technical conceits, though obviously it limped on in the work of some photographers for a few years after. Anyway, pictorialism is one very powerful example of transatlantic artistic exchange, and a very great deal indeed could be said about this.

Now, when I was having this conversation I kept thinking of an Alvin Coburn photograph of London that I have always found very intriguing:

Taken in 1905, this is very different to the typical photograph of London that one find at this time. Here London is a dynamic, cluttered, gritty place of activity. As one of the largest commercial centres, as well as the locus of a global empire, this is perhaps as one would expect the city to be represented. But British and European pictorialist photographers (and they are not documentarians) so often represented it as a calm and elegant urban landscape, untroubled and relaxed - like this:

This is an image of London by the Belgian pictorialist, Leonard Misonne, made in 1899. Where are the people? This image is belied by the descriptions of London of the time, a place of teaming streets and frenzied activity. Some of the same calm can be found in this image by the British photographer, Malcolm Arbuthnot made in 1908:
Slightly more gritty than Misonne's view of the city, but still a largely static and unpopulated place. Contrast these city-scapes with the following of New York, by Alfred Stieglitz, made at the end of the 19th century:

Even if there are not that many visible people, this image shows the city as a site of life and activity. Of course, not all of Stieglitz's cityscapes are like this. He was as prone to rendering New York a ghost town of appealing shapes and shadows (think of View from the Shelton), but at his best he envisaged in his photographs the city as a place of life and activity. Its this sensibility that I see Coburn bringing to his photographs of London in the first decade of the 20th century.

Steam helps convey this sense of life and activity. Look at the steam in the Coburn, and then contrast it with the steam coming from the horses. Does this sound far-fetched? Consider what the steam from the train does within this image - again by Stieglitz:

Those billowing clouds of steam give the scene an energy and movement that would be lacking if the steam were not there because the train was sitting stationary and with an unfired boiler. But steam isn't necessary if the camera catches people at work within a scene representing change, as in this image of London by Coburn from 1909

Now to return to the point with which I began, it seems to me Coburn's photographs of London brought what was then a very American visual sensibility to the European cityscape. I simply cannot find examples of European pictorialists who represent the city as a place of life and activity, or as a place containing the dynamism and energy that makes a city more than a large conglomeration.

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