Pictorialism was an international photographic movement that was active for a couple of decades on either side of 1900. It put pictorial aesthetics front and center so that photographs acted like paintings, relying on soft focus, textures and low-contrast tonalities. The style dominating the images was something imparted by the photographer rather than the subject matter or social concerns.

The movement faded out by World War II, but it remains a useful term for talking about style and approach. Today, it is resurgent across America, and in no place is this more evident than in Maine. One reason is the ascendancy of the Colby College Museum of Art: Not only is Colby now the largest college museum in America, but it has one of the leading collections of art of the Aesthetic Movement, out of which came pictorialism, anywhere in the nation.

The focus of the Aesthetic Movement seems quite simple. It prioritized aesthetic values over other forms of content. In other words, it valued art for art’s sake, as they say. (Its leading proponents include James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and Colby owns dozens of his works.) But the edges of the Aesthetic Movement have been fuzzy and tough to discuss. Lately there has been a shift in historical thinking, so we look less to late-19th century European Symbolism and more toward the Aesthetic Movement.

To a large extent, an accurate view has been hidden by American fascination with Vincent van Gogh and his Impressionist predecessors. Van Gogh fit the American myth of artistic creativity to a T: the tortured genius struggling with his medium in isolation to express ideas beyond what the public could yet understand. That was a highly convenient narrative for New York’s successful post-WWII effort to usurp Paris as the world’s leading art town.

What we’re seeing in Maine is in fact a key bit of international cultural leadership, particularly when it comes to photography. Museums and galleries throughout Maine are featuring a stunning number of excellent photography exhibitions. Jessica May of the Portland Museum of Art probably deserves the highest praise for this, but she is joined by many photography experts in leadership roles throughout Maine, at Bowdoin and Colby, Bates, the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, the University of New England, the Ogunquit Museum of American Art, the Maine Jewish Museum and in smaller galleries as well.

From “Joyce Tenneson’s Maine – Gold Trees.” Photo courtesy of Joyce Tenneson

No less deserving than May is the former senior curator at the Portland Museum of Art, Susan Danly. Her exhibition at PhoPa Gallery, “A Keen Eye and Soft Focus: Pictorialism Revisited,” elegantly opens the door to a timely conversation by presenting the work of contemporary photographers alongside period prints by Francis Orville Libby (1883-1961), once Maine’s leading pictorialist and president of the Portland Camera Club (which became part of what morphed into the PMA).

For having such a clear (and well-explained) historical base, “Keen Eye” first struck me as surprisingly quirky and odd. It would be easy enough to illustrate again and again how pictorialism is alive and well in Maine. There are emerging artists, like Anna Mikuskova, whose gelatin prints can be seen at Elizabeth Moss Galleries in Falmouth, and some of the biggest names in the world, including Rockland-based Joyce Tenneson, whose “Gold Trees” is now on view at the Maine Museum of Photographic Arts on the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus.

“Floating Ice, Pittsburgh” by Francis Orville Libby. Photo courtesy of Portland Camera Club

Tenneson’s work is easily recognizable for her propensity for stylized, single-color, subtle contrast frontal pictorialism. She has an aesthetic, and it does double duty both as a stellar branding device and as the basis for her undeniably beautiful photography. This show, at the Glickman Library, is an interesting step. Tenneson tends to work in projects that are packaged as books, and “Gold Trees” is no exception. But she seems to be responding directly to Maine’s rising tides of straight landscape photography and pictorialism.

Ironically enough, the gold grounds (and sometimes literal use of gold leaf – there is a lot of yellow in this show) in Tenneson’s new landscape work has an old-timey flavor that directly connects it to 19th-century wet plate photography and pictorialism. Tenneson’s penchant for figurative work leads her to treat individual trees like figures, an effective approach. Where it gets a little leaky is when the scene opens up to being a landscape with (figurative) trees in it.

“Elements, Baxter State Park” by Koichiro Kurita. Photo courtesy of Portland Camera Club

Tenneson’s idiom has the stage feel of someone who has primarily shot in the studio, which leads to a bit of a struggle for the pictorial landscape. Her solution is aesthetic: It’s all about style and look, which she pursues in photographic rather than painterly terms. I prefer photographers who pressed for the connection to the sophisticated centuries of painting – most notably the pictorialists – but Tenneson is enough of a photographer to make this approach interesting and clear enough to appear as an exception.

At PhoPa, rather than simply illustrating the presence of the pictorialist impulse, Danly has challenged us to detect its directions. Koichiro Kurita’s multi-print photo assemblages are fascinating, but they are a stretch for pictorialism – and to make us stretch is Danly’s point.

Shoshannah White is a rising star in the region. While her coastal works under wax on aluminum are spare and lonely to the point of beautiful, they are not obviously pictorialist. In fact, while her work seemed a bit of a stretch in “Keen Eye,” seeing her excellent (but recently closed) “Black Ice” – a conceptually environmentalist joint exhibition with Canadian artist Charley Young based on their residencies in the high Arctic – just after “Keen Eye” was like entering an alternate universe.

White’s strongest work at PhoPa is the diminutive but undeniably pictorialist “Double Reflection,” a bedazzled and moody but otherwise straightforward seascape.

“Double Reflection” by Shoshannah White. Photo courtesy of Shoshannah White

Besides Libby’s exquisite early 20th-century prints (which, oddly enough, are for sale), the standout artist is Judy Glickman Lauder, whose own photography collection is the subject of an extraordinary show now at the PMA. The most apt image is a black-and-white view of/through windows at Winslow Homer’s studio. (Make no mistake: Homer is a key player in this conversation about the Aesthetic Movement, landscape, pictorialism and the eternally romantic roots of American culture.) But as riveting as the studio shot is, Glickman outdoes herself with a soft-focus, infrared silver gelatin print shot from the interior of Fort McKinley on Great Diamond Island. The velvety soupiness of her grainy surface is gorgeous.

Maine’s art has always been aesthetic, pictorialist and romantic. Homer and the Aesthetic Movement painters always had a blend of place, painting and palette. The brushier the work, of course, the softer is its focus. The more we see the strokes and paint, the less a painting is literal and the more we can see the subjectivity of the artist and the viewer. That, of course, leads us to romanticism, which makes the idea of “art for art’s sake” hardly a simple one. Aesthetics aren’t just about being pretty. They form a kind of philosophy.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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