Wondering about Pictorialism

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Looking at earlier copies of the “Camera Work”, that encyclopedia of pictorial aesthetic, took me on a long journey reflecting on concepts such as approaching a story in one image and the significance of narrative within a small intimate space. Both are rather uncommon ideas in the visual vocabulary of modern photography. Disconnected from political or social subjects, inspired by the narrative poetry of nature and human existence, these images strive to convey a lyrical story within one frame.

Since then I have been exploring the Pictorial style in my own work looking for timeless, nostalgic subjects. Emphasizing the small scale image along with a pictorial language and particular printing techniques, I was trying to create intimate connections between an image and a viewer. I am striving to let the viewer experience the reality, as recorded by the meniscus lens, that becomes for me a meditative refuge, a way to communicate the subtle poetic qualities of everyday being.


Essay by Stephen Perloff                                                editor the Photo Review                                                                                              Langhorne, PA, October 2008                                                                                              

In an age when contemporary photography is epitomized by the huge color images produced by such artists as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, and Jeff Wall, Irina Dakhnovskaia-Lawton has reverted to a style of photography that is the polar opposite. Instead of the outsized, gargantuan print she returns to the intimate, hand-held print. Instead of the microscopic specificity of larger than life-size detail, she returns to Pictorialism with its broad, moody swatches of chiaroscuro. Instead of the Diasec mounted glossiness of much recent work, she returns to the glorious, muted monochrome tones of the photogravure.

Dakhnovskaia-Lawton's pictures are lyrical and poetic, inhabiting the sensibility of early Pictorialism's best practitioners: George H. Seeley, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Clarence H. White, Gertrude Käsebier, Edward Steichen, and Alfred Stieglitz. One of the main ways the work of the Pictorialists was disseminated was through Alfred Stieglitz's pioneering journal Camera Work. In Camera Work the photographs were mostly reproduced in photogravure, an exacting sheet-fed printing process that translated the continuous tones of the photographic print into varying depths of ink. Each print was then tipped in to the magazine by hand. Stieglitz considered these photogravures, most made directly from the original negatives, original works of art in their own right.

In their fight to have photography recognized as a fine art equal to other graphic media, early Pictorialists adopted some of the strategies of painting, especially the intervention of the recognizable hand of the artist in the final print, including working by hand on the print — or even the negative — and embracing a soft-focus esthetic that belied the complaint that photography was a machine-made medium.

For the Pictorialists it was not the Impressionist painters, but the Symbolists who most inspired them. A reaction against Naturalism and Realism, Symbolism sought its inspiration not in the specific and mundane, but in the imagination, in dreams, and in spirituality. Its iconography was not specific, as it is in Christian religious painting, but personal, arcane, ambiguous, even obscure. The Symbolists, in literature, music, and painting, believed that art should go beyond reality as we perceive it to apprehend more absolute truths.

Dakhnovskaia-Lawton's beautiful and delicate small prints channel the Symbolists and Pictorialists to an uncanny degree, from the Japonisme of William Merritt Chase to the shimmering lights of Gustav Klimt. In her work you can recognize the mood of Steichen's woods in the rain, or the way she employs the framing device of Stieglitz's Going to the Start, or depicts a figure who might just have walked straight out of his Swimming Lesson.

Dakhnovskaia-Lawton has consciously sought the nostalgic, and indeed her images are pastoral and rural, seemingly from the turn of the twentieth century rather than the twenty-first. Her landscapes are in turns Edenic and ideal, allegorical and mystical. Where human figures appear, they are dreamlike and unknowable.

These lush and evocative images remind us of the pleasures of holding a delicate object in our hands, of contemplating a world made miniature, and of stopping time with a glance.