Understanding Art Movements

by Dianne Morton

An art movement is a trend or style that often includes a specific philosophy, attitude, or goal. As a medium, photography initially struggled to find its place within the confines of the fine art world. Originally, photographers tended to value sharp focus on subjects, and photographs were viewed strictly as representational. It was deemed important to capture the reality of nature without manipulation. During the mid-19th century, an international crusade spearheaded by like-minded photographers ended the division separating painting and photography. This popularized the opinion that photography is indeed art, and over time, photography has been increasingly included in discussion of art movements.

The advent of Pictorialism during the late 19th century was the first attempt to bring photography as a medium into the world of fine art. At this point in history, an artist was credited as the creator of a painting and was held in high esteem in the art world; however, a photograph was viewed as a recording created by a mechanical device. Eager to differentiate themselves from amateur and utilitarian photographers, artistic photographers began to consider the potential for expressionism within photography. No longer was the main scene or subject of significance; for the Pictorialist, the aesthetic and emotional effects became far more important.[1] Pictorialist work incorporated artistry during photo processing, creating imagery that used allegory, metaphor, and symbolism.

Various techniques were used while distorting the image: soft focus during captures, multiple negatives to print one image, and scratching the negative were all employed. Additionally, Pictorialists embraced labor-intensive, homemade processes such as gum bichromate to increase the artistic quality of their work. During this process, the photographer brushed a mixture of gum arabic solution, potassium bichromate, and an appropriate pigment or dye onto a sheet of textured paper. After the paper dried, the photographer would expose the light-sensitive paper to the negative contact and then manipulate the image with a brush or sprayed water to create a more painterly quality. Ultimately, the Pictorialist emphasized the importance of artisanship over mechanical means to achieve recognition for photography as a worthy medium in the fine art world.[2]       

One of the most notable Pictorialist photographers was Alfred Stieglitz, who was the American-born son of German-Jewish immigrants. Stieglitz and his family left the East Coast and returned to Germany while Alfred was young, hopeful that the German school system would adequately challenge him. While studying engineering, Stieglitz bought his first camera in 1882 and captured images of the German countryside. After teaching himself all about cameras and photography, he submitted articles and images to the British magazine Amateur Photographer. This earned Stieglitz a solid reputation among leading European photographers.[3]

Figure 1. Alfred Stieglitz, Die Kunst in der Potographie, 1897

Figure 1. Alfred Stieglitz, Die Kunst in der Potographie, 1897

Presently, photographers have a multitude of options when it comes to image making and post-process manipulation. Today’s world is saturated with digital imagery, yet many photographers choose to use analog cameras to further develop their own creativity and artistic intent. One such photographer is Adou (Chinese, b. 1973), whose photographs have been exhibited throughout China, Japan, and the United States. First inspired by the documentary photographic works of Julia Margaret Cameron, Robert Frank, and Sally Mann, Adou began to create images of people and settings around him, displaying exceptional visual and artistic expression. As a photographic artist, Adou uses expired film to construct dappled images reminiscent of the Pictorialists’ works of yesteryear. Balancing textures and tones caused by photographic processing chemicals, Adou creates a mystical ambiance.[4]

Figure 2. Adou, Fog Child, Frost, 2006

Figure 2. Adou, Fog Child, Frost, 2006

In Figure 2, the viewer clearly identifies a young child on a dirt path. The photographer’s artistic use of the Pictorialist style includes elements such as naturalism, an emphasis on blurring, dark tonality, and moody effects. Adou effectively creates imagery that is just sharp enough for the viewer to recognize the subject, yet soft enough to create a balance of atmosphere and mood. The slight element of fog within the image offers a sense of three dimensions on a two-dimensional plane. Frequently used by the Pictorialists, this technique allows the sharp subject to move towards the viewer while blurred elements recede. In addition to his decision to use expired film, Adou furthers his artistic expression by tempering the image during development. Scratching negatives or furthering artistry while printing extend the process of refining an image into a work of art. Historically, Pictorialists have rightfully believed that anybody can take a photograph, only an artist can make a photograph. Adou’s work epitomizes Old- World processes, and through his creativity and craftsmanship, successfully communicates his artistic expression.

The American modernist movement took place in the early to mid-20th century and was as multidimensional as it was vibrant; it encompassed a variety of artistic disciplines, including literature, music, and painting. Photographers who embraced this movement had been stymied by American Pictorialism and were influenced by the European avant-garde. American modernist photographers encompassed a broad array of styles, subjects, and philosophies embracing urbanity, machinery, and new technology. The American photographers of this era believed that mastery of clarity, balance, and other formal elements would demonstrate artistic identity, which became “the primary cultural and critical issue of the Post-World War I era.” [5]

European prewar avant-garde aesthetic concepts such as Constructivism, Dadaism, and Surrealism stimulated a sense of exploration, introducing techniques such as photo-collage and montage, unusual angles and vantage points, and work with nonobjective forms. The avant-garde movement marked the beginning of photographic expressionism. Photographers and other artists of this era also took notice of Freudian and philosophies associated with the psyche, creating works that might influence or spotlight political and social struggles of the period. [6]

Again, we see Stieglitz as one of the most notable photographers from this modern movement. Following World War I, Stieglitz departed from the ambiance of Pictorial photography, shifting to more geometric themes, sharp focus, and high contrast to honor and celebrate the mechanical, modern life in America. Producing images that featured abstract forms and tonal variation, Stieglitz epitomized photography’s involvement in the modernism movement by photographing the real world. [7]

Figure 3. Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keefe, 1920

Figure 3. Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keefe, 1920

One contemporary photo artist who demonstrates Modernist principles and views is Willem Oorebeek (Dutch, b. 1953). Exhibiting his works in museums and galleries all over the world, Oorebeek utilizes pictorial processes to manipulate his images and produces surreal imagery reflecting “the mechanics of visual legibility and graphic sense.” [8] Interested in how language and image can be combined, Oorebeek creates images with obvious multilayered exposures that appear as double exposures, like that in Figure 4, below. This effect creates a surrealistic state in which multiple exposures seem displaced and unreal; as beautiful as Oorebeek’s work seems, it also offers poetic dislocation, or a confusing sensation, which Figure 4 demonstrates.

Figure 4. Willem Oorebeek, More Elle(L), 2011

Figure 4. Willem Oorebeek, More Elle(L), 2011

To successfully express a sense of absurdity and irrationality, Modernist photographers used a constructive artistic involvement. A common theme was the repetition of imagery in a single print to represent the twofold nature of the brain. Oorebeek’s seemingly double exposed/superimposed image creates two images stacked on top of each other with low opacity, almost creating a ghostly effect. This instantaneously communicates both reality and illusion. Oorebeek also dips into the Dadaist realm by using printed magazine covers from the mass media to create modern photo collage imagery that reflects on “the representational power of images and information disseminated by mass media.”[9] Oorebeek chooses published material to manipulate and rearrange into his work, all the while investigating themes of repetition, imitation, sociality, and order.

At the end of the movement, Late Modernism shifted while searching for the distinction between high and low art. In contrast to Modernity, which was less interested in present-day experiences, Late Modernist photographers were open to critiquing the medium itself and were far more interested in what photography had to offer than the subjects it portrayed. Unconcerned with depicting societal or cultural issues, the Late Modern photographer studied technical aspects of the medium: time, frame, vantage point, detail, sharpness, and flatness. The originality of the image was equally as important as its aesthetics, contrasting this Late Modern movement with classical art and pop culture.

As studied in the Academy of Art University’s graduate language arts course History of Photography, one such photographer following Late Modern principles is JoAnn Verburg. Working with time and frame, Verburg creates comparative diptychs and triptychs by exhibiting photographs of survey sites taken in the 19th century alongside her newer photographs of the same subject. Verburg’s interest in such work is that, although seemingly depictive, ultimately, her comparative series beautifully exemplifies the capabilities of photography. For her, photography exhibits a subjective and informational quality that is reflected in the exquisiteness of the depicted subjects.

Figure 5. JoAnn Verburg, Under the Rocca, 2002, three chromogenic prints

Figure 5. JoAnn Verburg, Under the Rocca, 2002, three chromogenic prints

Another current photographer emphasizing Late Modern technique in her work is Karin Apollonia Müller (German, b. 1963). In 1995, Müller moved from Germany to Los Angeles. Using her new city’s seeming unpredictability, monotony, and unfamiliarity, Müller sought to create images that investigated people and their connection to the landscape. Müller’s work investigates nature and space, and how each tries to control the other. The image in Figure 6 displays nature’s overwhelming power and force, yet it is simple and beautiful. Using her camera and traditional photographic techniques, Müller constructs an imaginary line between the viewer and the subject of the image.

Figure 6. Karin Apollonia Müller Landscape, TC, 9613, 2011, two pigment prints

Figure 6. Karin Apollonia Müller Landscape, TC, 9613, 2011, two pigment prints

The second half of the 20th century ushered in a new, defining art movement known as Postmodernism. Unlike its predecessors, Postmodernism was never meant to be an artistic style. Instead, the movement developed as a thoughtful approach to the position and significance of imagery within our culture. Although the movement also never intended to act as a clean break from Modernistic photography, it was an improvement to or re-valuation of late modernism, not necessarily its close. Postmodernists claimed that photographic images of true life would not offer individuality or uniqueness. In actuality, Postmodern photographs were meant to appropriate or replicate something that previously existed to provoke opinions about current social experiences. The need to identify the photographer’s artistic intent was no longer as important, as it could block the viewer from finding his or her own significance within the work. For the Postmodern photographer, “…what the artist is trying to communicate is almost irrelevant. The most important thing is the viewer's subjective interpretation of the work.”

Peaking in the 1980s, Postmodernist photography offered a cutting assessment of current cultural and social values. One notable Postmodernist photographer is Cindy Sherman (American, b. 1954). Sherman is broadly acknowledged as one of the most important artists in contemporary art. Acting as her own model, makeup artist, wardrobe assistant, and photographer, Sherman has captured herself in a variety of costumes, disguises, and personas, offering both humorous and unsettling narratives.[10]

Figure 7. Cindy Sherman

Figure 7. Cindy Sherman

Including more than 170 images, Sherman’s reflective works often examine female roles inspired by the photography of Hollywood, history, and society. Utilizing deception, fabrication, disgust, surrealism, pageantry, allegory, and gender and class identity, Sherman successfully addresses post-feminism concerns by pointing out that gender is constructed by our culture and mass media.

Contemporary photographer Tanyth Berkeley (American, b. 1969) explores portrait photography in a Postmodern format by creating images that hover somewhere between representational photography and artistic photography. Having studied photography most of her life, Berkeley admits she needed to “…open up to the difficult process of being exposed and feeling naked…my work was forced out of its shell, beyond my purely personal reasons for making it. I began to understand the viewer’s role.” Like Sherman’s, Berkeley’s works are self-directed and constructed. Below is an example of Berkeley’s self-portrait, which offers a clear example of one of the more popular Postmodernist theories, Constructionism.

Figure 8. Tanyth Berkeley, Grace for Cyberspace, C Print, 2006

Figure 8. Tanyth Berkeley, Grace for Cyberspace, C Print, 2006

The constructed identity within this image depicts Berkeley in a passive yet sensual pose, perhaps identifying a social or cultural defining influence. [11]

The recognition of photography as an art form did not come without perseverance. It took many committed and driven photographers to blaze the artistic path that elevated the medium to the position it occupies today. Acceptance as a medium within the world of fine art meant that photography would forever be seen differently. Because of the photographers discussed here and many like them, the art of photography has and will continue to make its mark in artistic movements that are larger than any one medium.



Katzman, M.; Art of the Photogravure. A Comprehensive Resource Dedicated to the Photogravure, n.d. Web. 19 Nov., 2017 http://www.photogravure.com/resources/glossary.html#gumbichromate

Keen Graphics. History and Influence: Modernism in 20th-Century America, n.d. Web. 23 Nov., 2017 http://keengraphics.net/keenblog/2012/05/08/history-and-influence-modernism-in-20th-century-america/

Modern Art. Willem Oorebeek, More of the Same, n.d. Web. 20 Nov., 2017       http://www.modernart.net/read.html?id=1,4,31,262,371

Modern Museum of Art, Chicago. Exhibitions: Cindy Sherman, n.d. Web. 25 Nov., 2017            http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/1170

Photography of China. Adou, n.d. Web. 19 Nov., 2017 http://www.photographyofchina.com/blog/adou

Robert Miller Gallery; Exhibitions: Willem Oorebeek, n.d. Web. 20 Nov., 2017 http://www.robertmillergallery.com/#!willem-oorebeek/cq94

Rosenblum, Naomi. A World History of Photography. 4th Ed. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2007. Print. p. 393.

The Art Story. Your Guide to Modern Art; Alfred Stieglitz Synopsis, n.d. Web. 19 Nov., 2017 http://www.theartstory.org/artist-stieglitz-alfred.htm

The Metropolitan of Art. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Pictorialism in America, n.d. Web. 19 Nov., 2017 http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/pict/hd_pict.htm

Turnbull, Richard; Museo Magazine. Interview: Tanyth Berkeley, n.d. Web. 18 Nov., 2017 http://www.museomagazine.com/TANYTH-BERKELEY



[1] http://www.photogravure.com/history/chapter_pictorialism.html

[2] http://www.photogravure.com/resources/glossary.html#gumbichromate

[3] http://www.theartstory.org/artist-stieglitz-alfred.htm

[4] http://www.photographyofchina.com/blog/adou

[5] http://keengraphics.net/keenblog/2012/05/08/history-and-influence-modernism-in-20th-century-america/

[6] Rosenblum; page 393

[7] http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/pict/hd_pict.htm

[8] http://www.modernart.net/read.html?id=1,4,31,262,371

[9] http://www.robertmillergallery.com/#!willem-oorebeek/cq94

[10] http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/1170

[11] http://www.museomagazine.com/TANYTH-BERKELEY