The pictorialist movement and the beauty of work

The pictorialist movement and the beauty of work

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Title: Dockers in a Breton port.

Author : PUYO Constant (1857 - 1933)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 6 - Width 10.8

Technique and other indications: Print on albumen paper.

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - All rights reserved

Picture reference: 90-001541-01 / Pho1988-1-38

Dockers in a Breton port.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - All rights reserved

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

Pictorialism: when photography becomes art

With the technical progress made since the 1870s, photographic equipment is becoming increasingly easy to use. Small in format, the new instant cameras (such as the Kodak created by George Eastman in 1888) thus make photography accessible to an increasingly large audience of amateurs, leading to the multiplication and certain standardization of images.

For nearly twenty-five years (approximately 1885 to 1910), various photographers attempted to react to what they saw as a trivialization of their practice. This international movement, which owes its name to the English expression pictorial photography (pictorial being a derivative of picture, a word which can mean "painting", but whose correct meaning is "image"), militates for a creative photography which affirms its artistic value and tries to develop its own esthetics, both founded on the essential role of the photographer and the preeminence of the image on the photographed reality. For them, far from being simply the "objective" recording and copy of reality, photography is rather its "transcription". Likewise, if its composition and texture present a deliberately pictorial aspect, it neither imitates nor competes with painting.

Image Analysis

Anonymous dockers, subjects of an artistic composition

Constant Puyo (1857-1933) came from a family of notables and artists of Morlaix: his father Edmond, mayor of the city, devoted himself to painting, as did his uncle Édouard, a renowned painter and designer. He is also the cousin of Tristan Corbière. A career soldier, he exhibited his photos at the Paris Photo-Club exhibition in 1894. Friend of Robert Demachy, he then became one of the leaders and theorists of pictorialism.
In contrast to an "objective" approach to photography, Puyo very early on affirmed the need to manipulate negatives to express the artist's creativity. Dockers on a Breton port is a photograph printed on albumen paper. Puyo’s aesthetic is clearly expressed in this discreetly crafted "pictorial" composition of bright black and white.

In the right part of this photo, dockers are pulling a machine mounted on wheels. This is an operation of force, as indicated by the left arm of the one leading the way and the tilted body of the second, strained by the effort. They evolve on a quay to which are moored a sailboat and a steamboat whose captain observes them while awaiting the unloading of his cargo of barrels. In the background rise industrial buildings that partially border the skyline.
To the dynamic of the dockworkers whose chain seems to have come out of the frame on the right, Puyo opposed the stillness of the four men standing in the foreground in the center of the image. Shown from behind or with their heads turned, they follow the maneuver with their eyes. The hats three of them wear, different from that of the dockers, suggests they are at work. With his wooden clogs and his Breton round hat, the fourth is undoubtedly an onlooker. On their left, a pile of covered goods leads the gaze back to the diagonals drawn by the quay and the dockers. The vanishing line that structures this highly stylized snapshot gains even more strength by the fact that Puyo truncated the jib of the crane as well as the rigging and chimney of the boats.


The work is beautiful

Subtly playing with framing and masses, Puyo converges all eyes - those of the photographed spectators as well as those of the photographers - on the dockers in full effort and thus manages to magnify their work. A certain modernity is expressed then, in accordance with the ambitions of the pictorialists to "paint" the life of the time. If the activity of dockworkers does not in itself present very new elements - they use traditional means such as rope and physical force -, if nothing evokes the technical progress of the time - the boats and the machine towed are from this point of view harmless - it is in the choice and treatment of the subject that it manifests itself. Indeed, the representation of hard work and the humble workers who carry it out remained quite rare at the end of the 19th century.e century. Above all, Puyo is here faithful to his desire to make photography an art of Beauty: it is indeed the shooting and the creative effects of the photographer that stylize and aestheticize this effort, in an interesting reference to the many paintings showing sailors in taken with ropes. "Artistic photography" is thus above all an "art of photography" where the invoice (very stable image), the material and the body of the image can transfigure a reality on which the photograph takes precedence: far from recording it, he discovers and reinvents the world. Labor is thus interpreted (here to achieve Beauty) by the artist through his art.

  • workers
  • photography
  • pictorialism
  • Harbor
  • boat


Emma de LAFFOREST, Constant Puyo, Paris, Fage, 2008. Jean-Claude LEMAGNY and André ROUILLE, Histoire de la photographie, Paris, Larousse-Bordas, 1998. Michel POIVERT, La Photographie pictorialiste en France 1892-1914, doctoral thesis of history of art, University of Paris-I, 1992.The Salon de photographie: pictorialist schools in Europe and the United States around 1900, catalog of the exhibition at the Musée Rodin, 22 June-26 September 1993, Paris , Rodin Museum, 1993.

To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, "The pictorialist movement and the beauty of work"

Video: Stephen Shore - Photography and the Limits of Representation


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