About My Thesis
L. W. Appleby, Signor Robert Hazon,
c.1906, from a gum print, other details unknown,
photogravure reproduction in Australian
Photographic Journal 17:188 (20 January 1908), 12.
A..J. Campbell, Portrait of a Lady, c. 1905, details unknown,
photogravure reproduction in Australian Photographic Journal
14:154 (20 March 1905), 69.
'First Award, Portraits. Victorian Amateur Photographic
Because I was interested in photography, and had just finished two years study in Art History, I thought that the two would combine well for a Ph.D. thesis on the history of Australian photography as 'art'.
My initial knowledge was negligible but I soon discovered that a world wide organised movement known as Pictorialism, dedicated to the proposition that photography was an art, started in Europe in the 1890s. Many of its practitioners aimed to make their finished products look as little like photographs as possible, most often by manipulation at the printing stage. This was because it was widely believed that without some kind of intervention or alteration, a 'straight' photographic print could not be art. Many Pictorialists imitated painters and etchers, and L.W. Appleby's Signor Robert Hazon, c. 1906, is typical in this respect.
Also typical here is the impressionistic, low key, soft-focus effects characteristic of much serious photographic work of the period. These derived from the etched tonal work of James McNeill Whistler, and became a dominant and long lasting Pictorial style still observable today.
Another thing I discovered was that except in a few instances, little original Australian early Pictorial work has survived. Neither contemporary public nor private collectors appear to have been interested, so whether pictures by any individual camera artist may be found today depends upon whether the family bothered to preserve them. Many did not.
Because of this, the Australian photographic journals became my main source of information, and as I looked through them I noticed that many of the reproductions there were high key and sharp focus like A.J. Campbell's Portrait of a Lady, c. 1905. My research led me to the little observed fact that the early Pictorial banner was carried by two schools; the 'fuzzo-wuzzos' and the 'straights'.
Both believed that photography could be an art, in the right hands, and both distinguished between 'good' and 'bad' photographs. Where the 'fuzzo-wuzzos' were more interested in how their photographs looked than what they were of, the 'straights' emphasised the primacy of the subject. Today, Pictorialists are not highly regarded in academic circles for two reasons. Their work is seen as an inferior imitation of effects better achieved in other mediums. They were also concerned with an aesthetic of truth and beauty, which is not well thought of or popular presently.
Whatever their attitude towards truth and beauty, the 'straight' Pictorialists were true photographers in that they were not trying to imitate painters or etchers. Their subject-orientated work lends itself very well to the kind of historical, contextual and discursive analysis used today by critics and theorists of photography.
This became one of the major thrusts of my thesis.
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