Anne Brigman: California Pictorialist
by KimberLeigh Schartz
Published in Photo Metro Magazine, March 1996
Cover photo by Anne Brigman, The Breeze, circa 1910
Isolated from the rest of the world, both physically and psychologically, the Bay Area had acquired an unusual sense of freedom and individuality by the turn of the century. Not unlike the Bay Area of today, international commerce was bustling, good food was plentiful, and artists came in droves. Decades before the Beat Generation would haunt coffee shops and bookstores, the Bay Area of the early 1900’s was already world famous for its free-spirited artists and bohemian lifestyles. It operated as the cultural hub of the West and although just recently arrived from the Victorian Age, residents tended to hold progressive, open-minded attitudes. The setting was perfect for a new photographic movement called “pictorialism” and the fostering of a small, but close-knit community of photographers and artists.
The popularity of pictorialism was on the rise all over the world, but Californians embraced this new way of looking at and approaching photography with particular enthusiasm and a unique slant. Influenced by tonalist painting, the Arts and Crafts movement and later by the Photo-Secession, many California photographers began to produce work in the pictorialist style by the turn of the century. In 1901, a free-spirited artist named Anne Brigman (1869–1950) entered the scene and before long she was at the forefront of the movement in Northern California. Brigman’s progressive photographs featuring nudes in the wild landscape of the High Sierras epitomized the essence of pictorialist ideals. Pictorialists wished to separate themselves from the masses of snapshot photographers who had emerged around the turn of the century. To solidly establish photography as an Art, the pictorialists photographed in a romantic, soft-focus style, which gave their images a painterly effect.
Brigman turned heads from her earliest days with the camera. It was most likely in late 1901 that she first became interested in photography. By February 1902 her work had already begun to receive positive reviews in the Second San Francisco Photographic Salon at the Mark Hopkins Art Institute. Her work quickly earned recognition as she continued to exhibit in local Salons. In June 1902 she received this review in Camera Craft, a popular local photography journal: “Mrs. Brigman has shown wonderful improvement during the past few months, and her exhibit was one of the best on the walls.” She also had several of her images published in Camera Craft during this year.
In 1903, less than two years after she had begun photographing, she caught the eye of the famed Alfred Stieglitz. A long-distant, but lasting friendship and correspondence was sparked between the two. Years later, Brigman described Stieglitz as “a deep-hearted friend… fierce but fair critic… and Pillar of Fire in the Wilderness of the early days of Pictorial Photography…” Stieglitz expressed his feelings toward Brigman in a letter printed in her book of poetry in 1949:
Everyone photographs nowadays. There are ever increasing myriads of photographs. Yet photographers of distinction are rarer than ever. One who has achieved deserved distinction amongst camera workers is Anne Brigman, of Oakland California. In her particular field she has done pioneer work. She is a woman expressing herself through her camera and her mountains and her strangely [struggling shining] trees or herself recording a strangely fascinating romantic spirit. I have watched her development for many years. I deeply respect her as a worker.
Stieglitz was instrumental in the popularization of pictorialism. In 1902, he founded the Photo-Secession in New York. He explained, “The aim of the Photo-Secession is loosely to hold together those Americans devoted to pictorial photography in their endeavor to compel its recognition, not as the handmaiden of art, but as a distinctive medium of individual expression.” Stieglitz hand-picked members from all over the country, based on the quality of their work and their commitment to uphold photography as a fine art. The group itself was relatively small (In 1903, Camera Work listed 17 Fellows and 30 Associates), but its impact was immense and would forever change the way people looked at photography.
Brigman became a distant yet favored member of Stieglitz’s inner circle. Besides Oscar Maurer’s short time as an Associate, she was the only member from California for many years (Adelaide Hanscom did become a member after she moved to Seattle in 1908). In 1906 Brigman became the only Californian elected to the honored position of Fellow. Through her association with Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession, her work received worldwide exhibition and several awards. She received even greater fame by appearing in Stieglitz’s acclaimed publication Camera Work several times, as well as the popular magazine Vanity Fair.
At home, frequent mentions in Camera Craft and local newspapers helped to increase Brigman’s fame at home as Stieglitz’s Camera Work did abroad. Critical reviews such as this commonly expressed the pride felt for her successes: “While her reputation as one of our best workers is by no means local, and to say that the exhibition will receive marked attention from large numbers of the appreciative ones, is to prophesy safely.”
Brigman was not an ordinary woman by any standards. After spending her childhood in the lush surroundings of the Hawaiian landscape, her family relocated to California. It was there that she met and married Martin Brigman, a sea captain. She spent several years at sea with her husband and visited many exotic lands, including Australia, China and the islands of the Pacific. However, in 1910, at a time when women were expected to devote themselves to domestic affairs, Brigman separated from her husband. In an interview three years later, she explained, “He had his way of thinking and I had mine and we developed along different lines. So now I am here, working out my own destiny.” She went on to explain her philosophy about conventional marriage. “A man gets change by going down town to his daily work, but a stay at home woman does not and she suffers and grows afraid of things being different than what they are, or what she thinks they are.”
Brigman was anything but a “stay at home woman.” As a single, independent woman and an artist she inhabited the fringes of society. Unlike most women of her day, she was free-spirited and bohemian and she had little concern with being “proper” or ladylike. As a photographer, she turned away from the domestic subject matter that most women looked to for inspiration and chose to explore more avant-garde subjects. That Brigman was a woman photographing nudes in turn-of-the-century America is remarkable. Her proud female nudes reveling in nature were more than enough to shock the post-Victorian world, but she and contemporaries Imogen Cunningham and Adelaide Hanscom went one step further by also photographing male nudes.
The unbridled wilderness of the High Sierras worked in perfect harmony with her style and artistic eye and she received high praise for these qualities in her work. Her female nudes emerging from the landscape were her best known and most celebrated images. These images shocked some and were seen as new and exciting to others; but whether positive or negative, Brigman usually elicited a strong response. Brigman became a respected and influential artist and her unique artistic flair and free lifestyle influenced many who encountered both the woman and her work. Her local influence is illustrated by an article in the San Francisco Call, in which she was a frequent subject: “Mrs. Brigman belongs to the school of Secessionists who have revolutionary ideas in the art world. Her work shows an unusual strength and abounds in original and striking ideas. Not only in executions are the studies remarkable but the choice of subjects marks their creator as a woman of more than ordinary genius.”
However, Brigman’s painterly photographs of nymphs in the wild were not always enthusiastically received. Both her technical skills and finishing techniques were targets of criticism. There were also many who could not understand the appeal of the new pictorial style and they were quick to criticize Brigman and her contemporaries. The best documented and most colorful example of this controversy is her battle with realist photographer Edwin R. Jackson concerning an exhibition at Idora Park in Oakland. “Mrs. Brigman takes an unclothed scrawny dame,” said Jackson, “who looks as if she had not jerried to a square meal for a month, fixes her upon a piece of macadam somewhere, photographs the thrilling scene and calls it ‘The Squeal of the Rocks’.” Brigman retorted: “Jackson is pitifully jealous of any work that does not conform to his own ideas, and besides he is no gentleman. The petty attempt to belittle my work ‘The Soul of the Blasted Pine’ is quite…Jackson.”
Brigman led the charge against narrow-minded views on photography and stood as an influential member of the community. She associated with artists from all disciplines and her studio became an important meeting place for artists. The painter William Keith and writer Jack London were among her friends. Journalist Emily J. Hamilton visited her studio in 1907 and took particular interest in the portraits she saw. “The portrait studies are very wonderful revelations of varying human personality. There are portraits of poets, painters, singers and sculptors.” Not surprisingly, she also did many portraits of her photographer friends, many of whom did portraits of her as well. Among them were Oscar Maurer, Frances Bruigiere, Emily Pitchford, and William Keith. They often photographed one another and there is speculation that some of Brigman’s nudes are of well-known photographers of the time.
She had many associations, but during these early years she felt most strongly connected to her Photo-Secessionist comrades on the East Coast. In 1905, Brigman wrote to Stieglitz of her feelings of isolation:
I get very restless sometimes because of my great distance from the scene of activities. I feel lost almost—I am, so far as I know the only Secessionist in California, but it’s all right somehow, somewhere.
In 1910 Brigman made her long-anticipated visit to New York, Stieglitz and the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession—her self-described Mecca. “It was one of my gifts of the gods, that I met in those little rooms with their sunny gloom, nearly all of the Fellows.” She went on to say, “For eight months I had the privilege of really being at home there. There the deeps within deeps of people pictures, conditions and myself were revealed.” During her time on the East Coast, she made several visits to the Little Galleries (also known as 291) and spent three weeks studying photography under Clarence White in Maine.
Back in the Bay Area, Brigman inspired many artists and photographers during the nearly thirty years she photographed. She was friend and mentor to many young photographers including Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, and Louise Dahl Wolfe. In the late 1920’s, however, the popularity of the Pictorial style gave way to the crisp, realist style of the modernists. Pictorialism had become passé and those who chose not to move with the times found themselves left by the wayside. At this point, Brigman had begun to move away from photography in favor of poetry. As a result, the work of this extraordinary woman was overlooked for several decades.
In the 1970’s there was a resurgence of interest in Brigman and her work, especially through the efforts of Therese Heyman at the Oakland Museum. Heyman is responsible for the earliest research into Brigman. This culminated in a one-woman show at the Oakland Museum in 1974. Over the course of the 1980’s and 90’s her work appeared in more and more exhibitions featuring pictorialists, women photographers and landscape photography. In recent years, there has been a mass surge of interest in Brigman as an individual, resulting in a solo exhibition including the most comprehensive collection of her work ever mounted. The show was organized by the Santa Barbara Museum of Modern Art and curated by Karen Sinsheimer. It ended in November and will travel to The George Eastman House in Rochester, New York (March 23–June 9, 1996), to the Heckscher Museum of Art in Long Island, New York (August 10–October 6, 1996) before returning west to the Oakland Museum in September of 1997.
In both the show and the accompanying exhibition catalog, many rare and lesser known pieces were included alongside her better known work. This illustrated the scope of her work from the familiar dreamlike nudes in the landscape to her portraits and beach landscapes of the 20’s and 30’s. The exhibition catalog, A Poetic Vision: The Photographs of Anne Brigman ($19.95) included an essay by Susan Ehrens, which is a wonderfully thorough piece on Brigmans life and career.
As we move into a new century, in the midst of yet another revolution in photography, it seems fitting that the work of Brigman should again be in the spotlight. Her strong and fearless approach to both life and Art is still as remarkable and inspirational in our age as it was in hers. In her role as photographer, and later as poet, she expressed her timeless views on womanhood, the oneness of nature and humanity and the importance of true self-expression. The issues that she faced nearly a hundred years ago are still facing us today—as we ponder the relationship between humans and nature and where photography fits into it all.
Brigman, Anne. Songs of A Pagan. Caldwell, Ohio: Caxton Printers, 1949.
Brigman, Anne. "What 291 Means To Me." Camera Work, July 1914, p. 17–20.
Ehrens, Susan. A Poetic Vision: The Photographs of Anne Brigman.
Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1995.
Palmquist, Peter. Camera Fiends and Kodak Girls. New York: Midmarch Press, 1989.
Stieglitz, Alfred. Camera Work, No. 6, April 1904, p. 53.
“A Few Kind Words Of Criticism Upon the Work of Each Exhibitor,” Camera Craft 5, No. 2 (June 1902), 46.
“Lens Study by Annie W. Brigman,” Camera Craft (Oct. 1906), p 400.
Letters, Anne Brigman to Alfred Stieglitz. Alfred Stieglitz Archive, Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, Oct. 14, 1905.
The San Francisco Call, June 8, 1913, p 32.
The San Francisco Call, March 6, 1908, p. 4, Col. 2.
The San Francisco Call, Oct. 18, 1908, p. 17, Col. 4.