Photography is an art form that encompasses a wide range of techniques and styles.
One such style that has been fundamental to the development of photography as an art form is straight photography.
Despite its importance, many people may not be familiar with what straight photography is and what sets it apart from other photographic styles.
This is a guide covering everything you need to know about straight photography.
Maybe you have heard this term but have no idea what it means.
Well, we’ve got you covered!
What is Straight Photography?
Straight photography refers to a photograph that is not manipulated while depicting a scene or subject in sharp focus and detail.
“Mr. Stieglitz, you won’t insist that a photograph can possibly be a work of art?” – Director, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
Is photography an art? Since its invention critics have argued that it could not be compared to painting and drawing because the camera was simply a mechanical means for reproducing reality.
Then comes the snapshot camera where the art has been issued by critics for a long time. Can photography be considered art simply by just pushing a single button?
Explaining straight photography will never be complete without mentioning what started it, pictorial photography.
Pictorialism and Straight Photography
Pictorial photographers wanted to create fine art and not a common snapshot. The photo alone will not cut as art, it needed a more hands-on approach.
Their pictures were made to resemble drawings and paintings, thus the name pictorialists. They mimicked other art forms and often manipulated photos to make them more drawing-esque.
The subject matter was most often landscapes or portraits.
Pictorialism as an art movement peaked between 1885 and 1915, but it remained mildly active well into the 1940s, thanks to its alluring appeal, which remained influential among twentieth-century photographers.
Pictorialism is best defined as a photographic approach focusing on the elegance of subject matter and the perfection of composition rather than the recording of the world as it is, despite the lack of a definite definition.
With this in mind, it is not surprising that pictorialists were the first to seriously consider the artistic merit of photography.
They tried their hardest to give photography an otherworldly feel in a medium that was previously non-romantic and starkly objective.
It is, in a way, a style of photography. The style itself was pushed towards a more modern and minimalistic way.
It all started out with pictorialism, then straight photography was made as a response to it.
Every website out there about straight photography and the straight photographers themselves will say this line, “photography by itself, without manipulation, was art.”
The statement by itself is quite interesting. It obviously leads people to think of it as pure photography.
No editing, no cropping of the image, no more manipulation. Taking photography itself as art and simply using a photographer’s knowledge to create simple, yet beautiful photography.
History of Straight Photography
Early on in the history of photography, there was a call for it to be considered art.
From 1840 to 1860, the main focus of photography was on developing techniques and processes in order to produce sharp pictures that were taken directly from nature and not distorted, and were as true to the original scene as possible.
This could be regarded as the first attempt at “straight photography.”
In his 1890 novel, Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Craft, England’s Peter Henry Emerson proposed that a “proper” photograph shows true and unaltered representations of nature; the book’s title page quotes Keats, “Beauty is reality, truth is beauty, -that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Members of the Royal Photographic Society in the United Kingdom and other early national photographic bodies held this viewpoint to a large degree.
This naturalistic approach advocated for realistic rather than painterly portraits, as well as photographing actual, rather than staged or contrived poses to re-enact classic paintings or literary scenes.
The easiest way to explain what Straight Photography is is just Pure Photography.
It refers to a photo shoot that represents a scene or subject in sharp focus and detail, in accordance with the qualities that distinguish photography from other visual media, particularly painting. Simple and clean with sharp detail.
There are also some photographers that are confused by this concept, myself included.
Setting up the image, adjusting the time and angles, and managing shadows will in a way manipulate how the viewers perceive our photograph.
Not to forget that photographers still use some form of manipulation in this type of pure photography.
You will commonly find photographers that use dark room effects to manipulate their photos. These effects produce higher contrast and rich tones.
Straight photography places a heavy emphasis on the underlying abstract structures of its subjects.
It was more of a movement and not just an art style, well at least it was.
Straight Photography Examples
Straight photography was taken in the old days.
The early generation of straight photography photographers thought that photos can simply be artful because of their subject matter.
You know, the way the subject is chosen along with the complimentary composition, vantage point, and also light.
These freakishly sharp photos often consisted of normal mundane items, things that nobody even bats an eye to. The mind of a professional is surely quite different than ours.
Sometimes, their motives are just outside our understanding, for now. For reference, they will often use an array of values (commonly wide).
Uniquely, they always find a way to include their jeweled pure black and pure white.
Some straight photography examples that can be found online are: “The Bowls” by Paul Strand (1917) and “A Sea of Steps”, Wells Cathedral, Steps to Chapter House, made by Frederick Henry Evans (1903).
Of course, there are many other images that are just as influential and interesting. I simply adore these two photos more since they are such mundane subjects.
I rarely see images of a set of bowls and stairs looking this aesthetic and calming while keeping the minimalistic aspect.
To further explore examples, check out this video by Thom Halls:
What are the Characteristics of Straight Photography?
1. No Manipulation
Obviously, the first characteristic of straight photography is the “No Manipulating” rule.
This means that in digital processing, straight photography photographers must avoid any form of manipulating the image.
The good news is that you are still allowed to use the black-and-white conversion, remove some intrusive dust, and (if required) adjust exposure.
2. No Cropping
Another characteristic, a bit controversial one at that, is the “No Cropping” rule. Cropping is something that sometimes may make an image better.
We all know that an image must have an ideal foundation, which is its meaning.
Cropping is a totally normal practice in other fields of photography for artists to “redirect” the viewers’ attention to a certain subject. Sadly, that is a form of manipulation.
Not to forget that a photographer can also do the same thing while creating the image.
Those are pretty much the main characteristics of straight photography. Some photographers call it the purest and most objective movement of photography, but some obviously disagree.
3. Natural Lighting
Straight photography often relies on natural lighting to illuminate the subject, rather than artificially created or enhanced lighting.
Who Created Straight Photography?
So, who created this movement?
The foundation of photography itself stems from the Calotype, an invention by Henry Fox Talbot.
The calotype is a paper negative, made by exposing paper coated in silver chloride to light.
It was used in 1893 to document everyday objects, nature, and even mundane items. Louis Daguerre shared Talbot’s belief in photography that “gives nature the ability to reproduce itself.
Not with their colors but with a fine gradation of tones”. As you might guess, both of their definitions gave influenced Straight Photography.
In the late 1880s, Henry Frederic Evans became the first advocate of pure/straight photography. It was created as an alternative to pictorialism.
It created symbolist images that evoked meaning from architectural structures.
Not long after Henry F. Evans, a British photographer named Peter Henry Emerson argued that photographs should be sharply focused to depict the scene as it appears in nature.
He wrote this in his book Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art (1890). The camera was the human eye, it visualized the life photographed in a scene.
The approach taken by both Henry Evans and Peter Emerson would then be continued to be practiced by Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, and Edward Weston.
What is the Difference Between Pictorialism and Straight Photography?
Well, what is the difference between Pictorialism and Straight Photography then?
The Pictorialists believed that if photography was to be considered art, it needed to do more than just record data; they agreed that if a photograph was to be considered “fine art,” it needed to be more hands-on than other art forms.
To remind people of their sketches and paintings, they chose the word “pictorialists.”
The Pictorialists attempted to produce photographs that resembled other well-known art forms such as drawing and painting.
They tried to use soft focus to make their pictures look more like sketches and paintings.
Landscapes and portraits were often chosen by these photographers as typical “art” subjects.
When it comes to Straight Photography, some photographers considered photography to be art in and of itself, without any manipulation.
They believed that pictures could be considered art even though they did not resemble paintings or drawings.
Their style was dubbed “straight photography” because the images were not altered in any way.
These photographers believed that portraits could be artistic because of the subject matter they chose and the composition, vantage point, and light they used.
These photographers began photographing everyday objects such as trees, fruits, and household products. Their photos were sharply oriented and used a wide variety of values, often featuring pure black and white.
The pictures were not edited to look like a drawing or paintings if they did shoot conventional subject matter like landscapes and portraits.
From here, we can say that Pure or Straight Photography is described as having no technique, composition, or idea that is derived from another art form.
On the other hand, Pictorialism demonstrates a commitment to artistic values that are closely linked to painting and the graphic arts.
Straight Photography Photographers
The one who popularized the term “straight photography” and often wrote for Camera Work.
Hartmann bemoaned the unnecessary handwork and painterly flourishes that characterized most of what he saw in Pictorialist photography in a 1904 essay titled “A Plea for Straight Photography,” arguing, “We want an etching to look like an etching, and a lithograph to look like a lithograph, why then should not a photographic print look like a photographic print?”
A decade later after Sadakichi Hartmann, then Stieglitz in his own work, he would begin to concentrate on straight photography, a shift that coincided with his discovery and exhibition of modern painting, drawing, and sculpture at 291.
Stieglitz characterized his most recent work as “intensely direct” in a 1916 letter. There is no evidence of handwork on the negative or prints.
There is no diffused emphasis. Nothing but the truth. Despite the endless details, everything was simplified.”
Stieglitz’s commitment to straight photography was reflected in a number of main artistic decisions, including his inability to crop negatives as he had done in the past, his preference for contact printing over enlarging negatives, and his preference for the relative sharpness of platinum, palladium, or gelatin silver prints.
Paul Strand – promoted by Stieglitz, the final issue of Camera Work was devoted entirely to Strand.
At the time, he was a young photographer whose work was characterized by Stieglitz as “brutally direct.”
Strand called for an approach that valued both the medium’s weaknesses and potential qualities, “accomplished without tricks of process or manipulation, by the use of straight photographic methods,” in an essay reprinted in that book.
“Get your lighting and exposure right at the outset, and both the developing and printing can be practically automatic,” said Edward Weston in 1921.
“The photographer visualizes his conception of the subject as presented in the final print,” Ansel Adams said emphatically. His technique – aesthetic, analytical, and mechanical – allows him to articulate his visualization.”
Format cameras, which used wide film sizes of 4x5 in. or 8x10 in., enabled the photographer to preview the scene on the ground glass, added to this visualization of the shot.
In the 1930s, Alfred Stieglitz welcomed a group of young artists, including Ansel Adams, who would go on to become known for his heroic western landscapes and detailed technique.
Adams formed Group f/64 with a few other West Coast photographers to promote sharp overall focus and contact printing as the best ways to convey the camera’s full potential.
He also ran photography workshops and wrote a number of technical books. He was an avid naturalist who spent several years on the board of directors of the Sierra Club, using his position to support environmentalist causes.
To further explain the subject of straight photography, check out this in-depth video by Luke:
Perception, visualization, and execution are all intricately linked; each has no meaning on its own.
A professional technique, as well as an appropriate and precise apparatus, is important in photography, but without the elements of inventive imagination and taste, even the most ideal technical image is a hollow shell.
Frequently Asked Questions
What was the main goal of straight photography?
The main goal of straight photography was to capture a realistic, unmanipulated representation of the subject. It rejected the use of techniques such as soft focus, composite printing, and hand coloring that were common in the pictorialist style of photography that preceded it.
Who is the father of straight photography?
Alfred Stieglitz is often referred to as the father of straight photography. He was a photographer, curator, and art promoter who played a pivotal role in establishing photography as a legitimate art form in the early 20th century. He was a staunch advocate of straight photography and believed in capturing the world as it was, without the use of manipulations or alterations.
What are the three characteristics of straight photography?
The three characteristics of straight photography are realism, sharp focus, and natural lighting.
Jon has been a passionate photographer for 10+ years. Fun fact is that he has a collection of around 300-400 cameras that his family has collected over the years. Outside of photography, he has a Masters Degree in Engineering and has 13 years experience working in the industry across the globe.