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Photography focused on high art ideals at the turn of the 20th century

Photographers known as the Pictorialists, who worked around 1900, were part of the first international movement in the history of the medium. Their mission was to prove the artistic merit of photography by strengthening its connections with the fine arts. To this end they made images that sought to represent truth and beauty; that were atmospheric; that had poetic, literary, or spiritual value; and that emphasized the role of the photographer as a craftsman. Figures such as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Frederick H. Evans, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Gertrude Käsebier, and Clarence H. White made spectacular images influenced by current art trends, including Impressionism, Symbolism, and the Arts and Crafts movement.The Pictorialists primarily utilized two printing processes: platinum, with its extraordinary tonal richness, and gum bichromate, a labor-intensive process that involved hand coating papers with carefully prepared emulsions and pigments. They often presented their images by mounting them on papers that were specially lined or colored, like fine art drawings, and they sometimes showed them in specially designed frames.

This exhibition celebrates the MFA’s recent acquisition of four major works related to the Boston leader of the movement, F. Holland Day. His The Seven Last Words (1898), purchased in 2013, is a centerpiece of the show and was recently called “an important touchstone of Modernist photography,” by The New York Times. Day daringly styled himself in this series as Christ wearing a crown of thorns. The other three photographs—portraits of Day by Edward Steichen, James Craig Annan, and Clarence H. White—are also included. A small number of significant loans from private collections are also on view.

Above: F. Holland Day, The Seven Last Words (detail), 1898. Photographs, seven platinum prints in original frame. Barbara M. Marshall Fund, Frank B. Bemis Fund, Otis Norcross Fund, William E. Nickerson Fund, Lucy Dalbiac Luard Fund, and funds by exchange from a Gift of James Lawrence, Dorothy Mackenzie and John E. Lawrence, and funds donated by Michael and Elizabeth Marcus, Charles W. Millard III, and Scott Nathan and Laura DeBonis.