Photographs That Look Like Paintings

The Pictorialists – Raising Photography to a Fine Art

An historic aesthetic effect used in creating photographic images has made me take issue more recently with my own work regarding photographs that look like paintings, or those that try to emulate a painterly aesthetic.

Several years ago while working on my graduate degree in photography I discovered the work of the Pictorialists. Naturally, the history of photography will lead every student of the medium to study this movement. It became a compelling influence and I wanted every picture I made to have that moody atmospheric effect. It’s a great aesthetic to employ in visualizing one’s concept, and the masters like Stieglitz, Steichen, Coburn and others (not to forget the many other brilliant photographers of the movement) achieved a high level of artistry with their work. What’s important to me is that they never lost sight of the fact that they were photographers. Even though their images were dismissed as “fuzzy pictures” by some, they succeeded in their goal—to raise photography to the realm of Fine Art.

Flemington Unity Bank Station in Flemington , New Jersey
Flemington-Unity Bank Station, Flemington, New Jersey 2012 – James T Callahan

Knowing Your Intent

Steiglitz photo
Alfred Steiglitz – New York City

Study of this part of the History of Photography may lead us to ask the question: should photographs look like paintings? This is a purely subjective question, and it’s completely up to the artist creating the image. How one decides to render a subject depends on what the picture or series it belongs to is about; how they want to interpret the subject and what sort of emotional connection or response they want the viewer to take away. In short, know your intent. If you know the history of photography, a very complex subject despite the medium’s relatively young age, you could arguably say that the Pictorialist movement sought to imbue their photographs with a kind of painterly aesthetic. Maybe Impressionistic is a better term. What’s important about that work, though, is that they are still photographs, and you can see that readily. And that probably has a lot to do with how they were produced, which is by the process of photogravure, which involves etching metal plates with chemicals to enable contact printing of the images.

The Pictorialists were concerned primarily with achieving the objective of the movement, to make photography a ‘fine art.’ We artists today can use that concept and its processes for a deeper exploration of our own individual interests. My hope is to bring this process to bear on my own photography and create an expansive print collection of my historic downtown and Victorian house pictures. I’m told there is now a water-based photogravure process available that doesn’t involve the toxic chemicals that Alfred Stieglitz and his contemporaries used, so I’m eager to try it.

“I don’t want to apologize for photography.” – Steven Klein, photographer, NYC

Making ‘Photographs’

Flatiron Building
The Flatiron Building – Edward Steichen 1904

The Pictorialists’ work is what I was trying to emulate with my process. I feel it was a successful quest for me, to impart the texture and atmospheric mood to my images and I did it by using a transfer process. My photograph of Flemington Unity Bank Station at the top of the post is one of a series and emulates a Pictorialist photograph, yet it retains the sharp definition that’s important to me in the architectural details. But it’s all subjective; sharpness is expected of photography by many people and it’s good to have it in the details of my pictures, but it’s certainly not a requirement. It just depends on how the overall image looks to my eye and what my intent for the picture is; the details may even be softer, depending on various factors. There’s an intangible aspect about this, but one or two of the photographs in the short series I made—Elegance and Artistry—look more painterly to me; and that’s what I would like to avoid, as nice as it looks. For the most part the series achieved the aesthetic I was going for; so, I just need to make some more. I will certainly make the painterly pictures for anyone who wants them but for my own work I adhere to the belief of photographer Steven Klein that he doesn’t want to “apologize for photography.” And neither do I. What ‘not apologizing for photography’ means to me, among other things, is making pictures that look like painting, especially for the sake of it. As those who have studied photography in depth know, the medium has always been compared to painting, the high art of the fine art world. It has had to compete with it, even now in terms of what galleries will show and patrons will buy. That’s what the Photo-Secessionists (Pictorialists) sought to (and did) overcome. Yet the stigma remains among some art purists that photography doesn’t take any real talent because you’re just pushing a button.

Edward Steichen photo
E Gordon Craig by
Edward Steichen 1913

Mr. Klein started as a painter interestingly, and his statement has stayed with me since my first semester of graduate school, when I discovered his work. A photograph can have an atmospheric aesthetic and still not look like it was made with a brush. You can see this in the examples of Pictorialist work posted here. (NOTE: Steven Klein’s website appears to be no longer available to the public. I tried to include a link here, but it’s not accessible. My suggestion is to Google his name and you’ll get a ton of sites and info, including his Tumblr and Instagram.) Rather, the look of these photographs was achieved through chemical processes and hand printing. Thus, each hand-made print is totally unique…same as a painting, but that aspect is good. You’d need a professionally trained eye and even then it might be hard to see, but the subtle differences would be inherent in each print, thereby increasing the value and uniqueness. And, the work still retains its photographic basis and characteristics. This is what I want to achieve in my art prints.

Hopewell Station in Hopewell, New Jersey
Hopewell Station, Hopewell, New Jersey, July 2012 – James T Callahan

Aligning Concept, Intent and Process

The thing I like about the wax process I developed is that there is a good amount of hand manipulation. In my quest to get the look I wanted, it was important to me for it come from working with my hands—not digital effects. In fact, most of the process is done by hand, with some digital steps in facilitating the original image and final output. The finished wax piece is scanned and printed digitally on fine art cotton rag paper. The visual effect is stunning and supports my concept for the series, which is to impart a hand-worked historic look to photographs of historic buildings. There is an alignment of concept, intent and process, and that is what’s important with any visual art. Something should be communicated, whether a tangible idea or a feeling, through your choice of medium and the application of it.  I think the relationship of my two pieces here to the Stieglitz and Steichen photos is evident, and that is the basis for my work in this series.

At some point I will make more of these but when that time comes, it won’t be to apologize for photography’s unique properties…it will be to embrace and accentuate them.