Pictorialism is difficult to define. It’s a case of you know when you see it but setting out what it is, isn’t easy …

Perhaps this is because pictorialism is the result of a look rather than its easily decomposed components. It’s interesting to speculate on the psychological principles that may be at work. In this article I consider what this ‘look’ might entail.


I’m drawn to pictorialism both in what I like to look at and in how I see. When I reflect on how I compose a picture in my camera’s viewfinder, I find that I have subconsciously made a pictorial image. I move my camera until I see some sort of unity through the viewfinder. If I don’t find a unity, I don’t press the shutter release. The process is subconscious. Experienced photographers will recognise this. 1


But what is this unity 2? I think it boils down to the elements of a scene working in sympathy with each other. This means that the elements of a scene work towards the main objective of the picture, or at least do not detract from it. The unity comes from several sources:

  • Lack of ambiguity – Pictorial pictures are unambiguous. Next time you look at pictures, ask yourself whether the point of the picture is clear. That is, is there one message that is easily grasped and free from distraction and noise? Many (most?) pictures could be clearer. (Of course, there are pictures that thrive on the basis of ambiguity, but I’m not referring to these.)
  • ‘Holding the gaze within’ – This is the balance achieved through the overall composition. I venture the view that there is a pictorial balance that holds the viewer’s gaze within the picture boundaries. The picture is self-contained and does not refer to anything outside of itself. Aspects in a scene that take the viewer’s attention out of the scene will detract from pictorial balance.
  • Counter-balance – There is the balance achieved through the distribution of dark and light areas. I call this ‘counter-balance’. It serves to define the spatial relationships of the key figures and provides some near symmetry.

Holding the gaze within

Waterloo Place © Leonard Missone

In ‘Waterloo Place’ above, the composition and lighting serve to hold the gaze within the frame. For example, the wet lines of the cart wheel tracks and the recession of the buildings draw the eye into the centre of the image.

Contrast this with the Tony Ray-Jones picture below where a lack of depth forces the eye to find a resting place, but the only resting places to be found are the people who are looking out of the frame. The momentum is outwards.

© Tony Ray-Jones Estate

Arnheim decribed 3 at length the principles that direct the viewer’s gaze, including the shape of the frame, the location of the dynamic centre of the picture and the momentum of the composition. For example, for many street photographs (as in Tony Ray-Jones’ example above) the momentum takes attention out of the frame. I think one of the characteristics of pictorialism is that the momentum ‘holds the gaze within’ the frame.


Strand’s picture below shows how the figure of the woman (dark on light) is balanced by the dark buildings in the top left and the edge of the pavement.

Riverside Drive and 83rd Street, New York 1914. © Paul Strand

Cropping out the buildings destroys the balance:

Riverside Drive and 83rd Street, New York (detail), 1914. © Paul Strand

Another example of counter-balance:

‘Fading Away’ © Henry Peach Robinson

The counter-balances here are obvious: dark versus light, left versus right, dark figure at window versus bright sky.

Here is a wonderful example of counter-balance by James Ravilious. Of course on its own, this doesn’t make the picture an example of pictorialism (the momentum is towards the outside of the frame).

‘Alf Pugsley moving a shed in case of flood, Lower Langham, Dolton, February 1978’: Photograph by James Ravilious © Beaford Arts digitally scanned from a Beaford Archive negative.

Last word

Of course, things are more complex than described. Many pictorial photographs are expressed in such a way as to badge themselves as pictorial – Bromoil, for example, or the use of soft lenses. I have not discussed these techniques, as they seem rather obvious.

  1. Indeed, the most important part of the camera is the viewfinder, which is why I find digital cameras without viewfinders (and pinhole cameras) difficult to use well.
  2. See ‘Pictorial Effect in Photography’ by Henry Peach Robinson 1869/2018, Forgotten Books, London, Chapter 6 ‘Unity’
  3. For example, ‘Visual Thinking’. 1969, Berkeley: University of California Press; ‘Entropy and Art’ 1971, Berkeley: University of California Press; ‘The Power of the Center: A Study of Composition in the Visual Arts’ 1982, Berkeley: University of California Press

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *