Anti-pictorialism: or, how a change of scenery can change your point of view (first published January 4, 2011)

Last week, [note: this blog was first published January 4, 2011] during a most refreshing trip to Washington, DC, Dennis and I had the opportunity to wander through two photography shows at the Phillips Collection, just off Dupont Circle. Both “TruthBeauty” and “Coburn and the Photographic Portfolio” explore pictorialism, a movement in which photographers created images that emulated oil paintings, pastels, drawings and prints. For a century, from the beginning of the medium until the 1940s, photographers played with a variety of techniques to create these “painterly” images. In some photos, they dressed their subjects in costumes or posed them in elaborate or evocative settings. In others, they chose to focus on one part of the image, allowing the rest to remain blurry and dreamy.
As we strolled through the galleries, I repeatedly had an unpleasant feeling of (literally) déja vu. These foggy streets with glowing, haloed streetlamps—hadn’t I seen them before? The pre-Raphaelite beauty with the flowing hair—isn’t there a painting of her somewhere, and in that very robe? The young girls in the field with the peaceful glowing sheep—surely they were also captured by Millais… or was it Corot?
It made me itchy, annoyed, and then… curious. Why would these intrepid and talented artists content themselves with replicating, or at least echoing works that already existed? Why did so many of them restage scenes—of home and hearth, handsome silhouetted youths, agrarian tranquility, foggy city rooftops—that had long been staples of artists in other media?

Okay, I thought, perhaps this is a phenomenon of a newly emerging technology. When confronting a new medium, artists naturally bring to it the practices and vision of their time. I thought about the earliest silent movies, which were often little more than filmed plays, shot with one camera and featuring hammy actors, theatrical lighting and stage makeup. Even as film came into its own as a fully-fledged art form, many screenplays adapted popular vaudeville routines and melodramas. It took time for filmmakers to begin to explore the potential of their new medium—to use it to do things impossible before: close ups, cross cutting, montage. Maybe it takes time before the artist can employ the medium to see things in a brand new way.
Or maybe this is a universal norm that I was only noticing because I was seeing it from considerable historical distance? To me, these pictorial photographed are clichéd—that’s true. But what about the images I see around me? Are they less conventionalized? Am I just inured to the conventions of my own time?
As I write this, I have (of course) the television playing silently. As I glance up, what do I see? Well, very clean, well-lit people—most of them white, thin and young. The women all seem to have long flowing hair. The footage is in color, in focus and well filmed. When people speak, the camera focuses on their faces. Captions identify participants. On the news stations, headlines crawl with additional information.
If a television show were filmed in the style of a pictorial photograph, it would look astonishing—a series of sepia-colored, fuzzy tableaux that would instantly be rejected for sub-standard technical specs. Only on our beloved TCM do you ever see footage that reflects those (and other) pictorial themes and images. [FYI: Dennis and I work as consultants to TCM and the station has shown many of Milestone’s films—something you probably already know if you are reading this blog.]
So new media reflect the art forms that precede them and we humans accept conventions—and conventionalized images—seamlessly. What light does that shed for me on the new year that has just begun? Well, things are going to look familiar, whatever the format. Blu-ray, streamed or 3-D, I expect that many of the “films” we will watch will have stories, actors, lighting and editing that remind us of the art, films, television and video games we have seen in the past. There will be blood and car chases, beautiful women with shiny hair, excellent cinematography and terrific sound editing. Crane shots (my personal bête noire) will raise cameras to scan rugged horizons. Suns will set in glowing reds and golds. Soldiers will be filmed from low angles as they stand silhouetted with the sun behind them. Animated figures will have big eyes, clean lines and bright colors. Pundits in suits will explain, exhort, inveigh. The west will be dusty. Oceans will sparkle. Tears will fall, slowly. And that doesn’t mean these will all be bad. We will be moved, frightened, delighted and amused by many of these films.
In fact, while we were in Washington, my sister, brother-in-law, Dennis and I went to a conventional and well-made film, The King’s Speech, and quite enjoyed it (I perhaps the least of all, but I am (as you might have guessed) a tough critic). It was very brilliantly acted, beautifully shot, intelligently written, well directed and absolutely predictable from the first frame to the last. It was also emotionally satisfying and well worth the ticket price and time.
But it was really the discussion we four enjoyed before the film that started my brain working and my eyes opening. We talked about the future and about our work. We talked new technologies, about the Internet, about the importance of blogging. That conversation was the spark that ignited this new Milestone blog, for good or for ill—or probably for both.
In the 100-plus years since cinema began, we can see that technological advancements have enabled filmmakers to revolutionize the art form—again and again. But what about the truly innovative technological wonder that is uniting us at this moment? The Internet is a not a highway, not a spigot, not a tool. Like the printing press (or maybe even the invention of language) it will (and has) reshaped every aspect of our world. From commerce, to publishing to filmmaking to… everything! And yet, doesn’t it look like crap most of the time? Websites are boring. Stock images and two-bit graphics predominate. And blogs!
Blogs indeed. So here I am, with my eyes well opened, but just as stuck in a conventionalized piece of narrative prose as those pictorialists were enmeshed in their gauzy Victorian finery. What should or can a blog be? A journal? An anecdote? A puzzle? Like the fine photographers I was so quick to criticize, I too must start with what I know… and hope that this marvelous medium will allow me to see how to begin to see and write and post… differently.
Let me end by adding a link to my favorite Internet innovation in 2010. Dennis had the great luck to meet Jonathan McIntosh at a film festival in the Dominican Republic this fall and returned home full of excitement and enthusiasm for his amazing video mashups, Right Wing Radio Duck and Buffy vs. Edward. These short films are just wonderfully funny, smart and insanely creative—and they are intrinsically Internet creations—they would make little sense or impact in movie theaters or on DVD. Please check out McIntosh’s marvelous work here and here.