The 1891 Vienna International exhibition of artistic photography: The birth of picture making and an end to prejudice and misunderstanding

So I am back to exploring exhibitions….

Spencer notes that Alfred Horsley Hinton wrote about the Vienna biennial in 1891 stating that of all the exhibitions in Europe and America this was the one where photography finally took shape. The competitive element was absent and it was principally an artistic photographic exhibition he goes on to explain that by this he means that they were artists applying photographic means to an expression of personal ideas and were not either commercially or scientifically focused.

The event was organised by the club of amateur photographers in Vienna and was their second salon. The first exhibition had focused mainly on technical proficiency whereas this 1891 Salon was focused on artistic expression and values. Spencer illustrates how this was seen by some by quoting how Hinton saw this as photography coming of age and was not only possible but accepted.

The 1891 exhibition and its artistic focus wasn’t unique by any means for example in 1886 the photographic Society of Philadelphia had organised a similar exhibition. So why was this exhibition seen as a defining exhibition in the history of photography? Spencer argues it because entries were wholly decided on the basis of their aesthetic values for the very first time 4000 photographs were submitted for consideration by photographers around the world there were 10 judges – all artists – (Spencer doesn’t say whether these were photographic artist or painting artists just artists). 600 photos were chosen for admission and display following a two thirds majority vote. The exhibition ran for six weeks again usefully Spencer uses contemporaneous articles to back up his claims.

Spencer cites some of the reports of the time recognising the artistic approaches of some of the photographers in the use of for example selective focus on the concealment and disappearance of some details with Emerson quoted as saying that this represents the English school of photography. Clearly not all people were happy with this artistic approach and Spencer cites a German professor writing and arguing that such photography shows poor technical skill rather than artistic skills

By 1905 the rising Pictorial photography as the school and become known was noted by for example Hinton and its birthplace in terms of public recognition through the exhibitions is suggested to be the 1891 Vienna salon.

I found this chapter interesting as I’d previously read about the strong reaction of some photographers against pictorial-ism for example how Ansel Adams thought that it was in some way demeaning to photography to be used in a way that as he saw it copied a painterly tradition. Rather than follow that route he and many other photographers we now recognise as straight adopted a sharp focus and deep depth of field approach to their subject matter. Personally I don’t think there is either a right or wrong way to use the medium. Rather we apply the tools and technologies we have at their disposal in ways that suit our needs. However the article is interesting in the sense that I didn’t know that Pictoralism was seen as an English invention by some or that the Vienna salon of 1891 was where it was publicly validated.

Mauro, A (ed.) Photo Show: Landmark exhibitions that defined the history of photography, published by Thames and Hudson, 2014


About Pete

South Londoner struggling with life, art and photography.
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