This was a term given to a photographic movement that was in vogue from around 1855 into the early 20th Century, it declined rapidly after 1914 when the new vogue became Modernism. It was considered to be of essentially British origin, although in its later phases there was a strong influence on American photography, until around 1900 when a group of them decided to go back to unmanipulated photography.
Those who subscribed to this form of photography felt that it needed to emulate the paintings and etchings of the time and despite the aim of the artistic expression, what are considered the best photographs actually paralleled the impressionist style that was current in painting at that time. The aim was to achieve personal artistic expression beyond what the photograph as taken would give.
Most of the pictures made were in black & white or sepia-toned and amongst the methods used were special filters, lens coatings, soft focus, heavy manipulation of the negative in the darkroom and different printing processes like combination printing and the use of techniques such as 'gum bichromate' which greatly lessened the detail and produced a more artistic image. From 1898 rough papers were introduced to further break up the pictures sharpness. Some artists even 'etched' the surface of their prints with fine needles.
One of the first groups, founded in 1892, to promote Pictorialism was known as the 'Linked Ring' set up by George Davidson and Henry Peach Robinson in London. This group believed that photography could be an art form and wanted to break away from the scientific bias of the London Photographic Society, and produced Fine Art Photographs. They held annual exhibitions, which were called salons and the work shown varied from naturalism to staged scenes to manipulated prints. By the turn of the century they believed that pictorial photography was able to stand alone and had a future. Similar Pictorialist groups then started to form in other countries such as Paris, France; Austria, Germany, Italy and the USA.
The major contributors of these techniques included:
Henry Peach Robinson, started out as a painter in 1850 he was introduced to photography and by 1857 was a professional photographer and one of his novelties when taking portraiture was the vignetting of prints. However the limitations of photography caused him to perfect the idea of combination printing having been introduced to it by Oscar Rejlander. The technical difficulty of portraying a sky as well a subject on the same negative led him to accumulate a stock of negatives of the sky which he would then incorporate into his pictures. Perhaps his most famous picture is "Fading Away" (1858) which is a composition of 5 negatives. Robinson wrote a major book entitled "Pictorial Effect in Photography" (1867) in which his is trying to get over the point, that it is the 'seeing' of a picture, that is important rather than the technicalities of the photograph. Two other works to mention is "Bringing Home the May", a large print 40" x 15", made up of 9 negatives, and "When Day's Work is Done" 20" x 24", a picture of an elderly gentleman and old lady, who sat for him on different occasions, which is made up of 5 negatives, remember at this time the limitations of the size of the photograph was the size of the negative. Although he is best known for his combination printing he also produced a number of pictorial photographs of woodland and other scenes.
Oscar Rejlander a Swede who studied painting in Italy and then settled in England in the 1840's turned his energies to photography around 1855. His most famous photograph 'The Two Ways of Life" was created using the combination printing process, it is 30" x 16" in size and was created using 30 different negatives.
George Davidson was active in photography at the turn of the 20th century when there was a movement away from sharp images to more 'arty' photography using differential focusing, sometimes entirely soft focusing. His picture "The Onion Field" was revered and a print of it, along with others were produced in the quarterly publication Camera Work. He was a founding member of the Linked Ring.
Leon Robert Demachy, a frenchman, a banker by profession who then turned to art prior to becoming a photographer in the 1890's. He was also a member of the London Linked Ring. He had little time for 'straight print' photographers and in fact within his own work he deliberately used soft focus lenses to blur and soften images and also used the printing processes which required manipulation, many of his works being achieved using brushwork together with photography. Amongst his favourite subjects were young ballet dancers and he also made studies of people.