Impressionism in Photography

The Impressionist movement in France was an art movement that came to the attention of the Parisian public from the 1870s onward.  The name for this movement came from a single painting, by Claude Monet, entitled Impression, soleil levant. In painting, the emphasis is on the changing qualities of light, movement, perception, and a perspective heavily influenced by Japanese prints.  Analogous movements of Impressionism emerged in the areas of non-visual arts, such as literature and music, as well as other visual arts.  Here, we will look at in photography.

Every art requires a certain level of mastering its skills.  Today, many pieces of “art” are labeled “impressionistic”  to hide this lack of mastery, whether technical or artistic.  However, I am not going to go into whether or not so-and-so is an artist; your artistic skill or taste is not what I want to explore (nor mine, for that matter, though, of course, I am somewhat prejudiced!).  Instead, I want to look at history and techniques which the photographer might wish to consider, including myself.

In our time, photography is ubiquitous.  It is found everywhere.  Imagine, though, a time when the only way to preserve the appearance of anything visually – a person, a place, a thing, an idea – was to record it with lines, color, a sculpture.  To do so meant access to scarce resources, invention and exploration, and training.  When photography came into being, it was nothing short of miraculous.  With a long history of painting preceding it, as well as the fact photography is the recording of the visual, its pictorial elements and abilities to capture permanently a fleeting moment of time, its ability to preserve reality was its primary purpose.

Early photography took time.  The result was that one move would create blur.  A person might twitch in the middle of a 20-minute exposure.  The sun could shift.   Some things in nature simply do not hold still.  I expect the early photographers were quite frustrated by all this movement!  Add to the frustration of motion is the fact that early photography was plagued by a lack of permanence because of the unknown qualities of chemical processes.  Reality in sharp focus, along with image stability,  quite likely were driving forces behind much of the research into chemistry.

Today, there is no issue with catching reality as it happens.  Our technology is far beyond that of the early 1800s, and certainly exceeds that of only five years ago.  Even so, in the last 150 years, the influence of cultural art movements as they were occurring could not but impact photography once it became accessible to the general public.  Our times are no different.  And, because our processes, both chemical and digital, are so stable, the need to change the image beyond a mere photograph drives us today.  Hence, an interest in the creative elements of photography and a manipulation of the medium beyond a mere representation of reality.  This need can be seen as a driving force behind today’s impressionistic photography.


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