Photo-Secession began in the early 20th century as a movement that advanced photography as a fine art as well as photographic pictorialism in particular. Several photographers started a group, led by F. Holland Day and Alfred Stieglitz and in the early 1900s they began to spread their controversial ideas and viewpoint: One of their key concepts was that the most significant aspect of a photograph was not what was being captured by the camera but the modification of the photograph by the photographer or artist in order to accomplish his or her subjective perception. The movement helped to raise standards of art photography. Furthermore, the group is commonly associated with the Linked Ring Group which is an invitation only British organization which seceded from the famous Society of Royal Photography.
The Photo-Secession group was established in 1902 after Alfred was requested by the National Arts Club to create an exhibition of the most excellent works in contemporary American photography. While Stieglitz was organizing the exhibition, he disagreed with some of the conservative members in regards to which photographers should be invited to the group. To reinforce his position, Stieglitz quickly formed a group which recruited members using an invitation-only policy and he named the group as the “Photo-Secession” so as to give the notion that his ideas were backed by many other outstanding photographers. Even though he later said that he got help from a new group which was also called the ‘Photo-Secession’. In reality no such group existed until he formed it in 1902, just 2 weeks before the exhibition show at the National Arts Club was planned to open.
Alfred Stieglitz stated that, “The purpose of Photo-Secession is to promote photography as used in pictorial expression; it’s also to draw together Americans interested in the art, as well as to hold exhibitions from time to time and in varying places.(Alfred Stieglitz, 1899, p.231). This artistic trade fairs are not limited to the advancement of the Photo-Secession. In addition, it’s made up of a Council. The Council members must have commendable photographic work and must be well associated with persons who are interest in secession. In order to join the group, the photographic or artistic work of a possible candidate has to be distinctive and individual; the applicant also must be in meticulous sympathy with the aims and principles of the group.
For a candidate to gain Associate-ship he/she is not required to prove anything except genuine sympathy with the objectives as well as aims of the Secession. Nevertheless, it must not be assumed that these credentials will be disregarded as it sometimes crucial to deny the application of many candidates who are perceived as having lukewarm interest in the cause.
In 1927 the Photo-Secession started publishing a quarterly magazine which was edited by Stieglitz: it was known as “Camera Work”. This luxurious publication had splendid illustrations with well printed photogravures on the cover. The magazine became a clarion call to many photographers all over the country, such as Clarence White who travelled to New York from Ohio and ultimately founded a school dedicated to Photo-Secession photography. Other photographers, such as Holland F. Day who started the 1st significant exhibition of Pictorial photography in 1908 The new photography school established at the Royal Photographic Society in England opted to preserve independence from the group so as to pursue aesthetic objectives away from Stieglitz's intolerant and often arrogant personality. Other photographers who started their own schools dedicated to Photo-Secession include Adolph de Meyer who later became widely associated with the Photo-Secession group through Stieglitz's invitation.
Stieglitz is often thought to have been influenced by the Munich Secession Exhibition of 1898, before naming the group, Stieglitz communicated frequently with Matthias Masuren Fritz, who published an article in the catalog for the Munich Show: he was fascinated by the concept of photographers developing their own artistic images. In march, 1897 he wrote: “In Munich, the 'Secessionists', (a group of artists consist of the most gifted and advanced photographers of their times), who have broken away from the typical rules of tradition and custom, have admitted that pictorial photography ought to be judged objectively based on its virtues, and without taking into consideration the fact that it has been created by using a camera”.
Stieglitz stated the following in regards to the photo secession group, “the concept of Secession is extremely hateful to Americans – it’s closely associated with the Civil War. On the other hand, Photo-Secession essentially means a seceding from the conventional ideas and beliefs of what constitutes an excellent photograph.
According to Jay Buchner (1978), it is very important to consider the Photo-Secession beyond its visual aesthetics. Additionally, many works of art that have gone stale due to copying of conventional styles such as Victorian styles, but more importantly the autocracy of the professional art organizations, photography institutions, art schools and galleries which sanctioned or at very least enforced imitation and copying.
By the end of World War I, promoters of pictorialism which formed the fundamental values of the Photo-Secession were of the opinion that photography ought to emulate etching and painting. Pictorialists argued that, since artist manipulation of paintings made the paintings very distinctive, photographers should also, manipulate or alter the photographic image. Examples of the methods used are lens coating, soft focus, burning, special filters, cropping and dodging in the dark room so as to edit photographs. Alternative printing processes such as carbon printing, sepia toning, gum bichromate and platinum printing were also advocated by the photo secession group. In contrast pictorialism focused only on high contrast, geometry, dramatic lighting and perspective.
In creating the Photo-Secession, Stieglitz emphasized that it was a “revolution against the insincere approach of the unbelieving exhibition authorities.” (Steichen, 1902, p. 167): While this was partly true, his actions confirmed that the formation of the Photo-Secession group was also about promoting his own position and ideas in the world of photography. Stieglitz’s exclusive role in firmly controlling and establishing the Photo-Secession became clear though a conversation that took place at the National Arts Club Exhibition. Stieglitz stated that membership in the photo secession group was relatively open. Nevertheless, when Charles Berg requested Stieglitz if he could join the Photo-Secessionist, Stieglitz abruptly informed him that he couldn’t invite him to the group. Even though Stieglitz gave this answer he was responsible for adding 3 of Charles’s photographers in the exhibition show.
In reality the “membership” of the Photo-Secession group varied in accordance with Stieglitz’s temperament and interest nevertheless, it was centered around his influential friends such as, F. Holland Day, Edward Steichen, Käsebier Alvin Langdon Coburn Clarence H. White, Frank Eugene.
The photographers who were included in the 1892 exhibition show of the Photo-Secession group were Charles I. Berg, Authur E. Becker, Prescott Adams, C. Yarnell Abbot, Elizabeth Flint Wade, Rose Clark, F. Colborne Clarke, Dyre William, Dale Fugeuet, Frank Eugene, Thomas M. Edison, William Dyre, Mary M. Divans, Oscar Maurer, Mary Morgan Keipp, Joseph T. Kelly, Edmund Stirling Gertrude Harris, Eva Watson, W.W. Renwick, O’Connor Sloane, Eva Watson-Schutze, Emma Spencer, Clarence H. White, Mathilde Weil, Henry Troth and Alfred Stieglitz.
In 1905 Stieglitz and Steichen formed the Photo-Secession Little Galleries, a highly influential gallery where he began to showcase some of the distinguished members of the association. The Photo Secession name was exhibited in all galleries until about 1910, when eventually, a number of photographers got tired of Stieglitz’s dictatorial ways and left.
In 1916 White and Coburn and other famous photographers created an organization and named it the Pictorial Photographers of America; this organization was meant to promote the pictorial style. Stieglitz officially disbanded the Photo-Secession a year later, even though by that time its existence was only in name. The photo-secession movement was not without its critics. In 1904, some prominent photographers such as Hartmann Sadakihi reacted harshly to the concept of manipulating photographs, and belittled those who worked hard to make their photographs look as if they weren’t photographs at all. He wrote in the American Amateur Photographer (1904) that "people expect and want an etching to exhibit the qualities of an etching; additionally a lithograph ought to look like a lithograph.”
In conclusion, Photo Secession has promoted a truthful display of photography’s natural strength particularly, its capacity for developing abstract images form with different tonal variation. It opened a new chapter in artistic works and styles. It was also a step towards modernism in art. Even though the Photo-Secession members finally went their separate ways, they were all instrumental in launching photography's expressive potential and revealed that its significance lay beyond imitating and reproducing the world around us. It’s worth noting that Pictorialist art works were as beautifully made as any photographer’s canvas and as expertly constructed as any graphical composition. In modifying the information in a photographic negative, the Photo Secessionists injected new sensibility into a viewer’s perception of the image.