The American group came to be known as the Photo-Secession, the name Secession coming from groups of artists in Austria and Germany who had broken away from the academic establishment. Composed of carefully selected pictorial photographers, the society often did the best and most original photography produced in the United States and abroad. Their rejection of establishment photography was aptly summarised in “Photograms of the year” for 1900: “That wealth of trivial detail which was admired in photography”s early days and which is still loved by the great general public…. has gone out of fashion with advanced workers on both sides of the Atlantic.”
The Photo-Secession Gallery, better known as “291” at 291 Fifth Avenue in New York, was devoted to these photographers and their aesthetic. The gallery was not limited to photographers, but also to painters who were finding new modes of expression, such as Picasso, Matisse, Maurer, and Freuh. Many critics held the opinion that 291 was the only focal point of “Modern Art” in America until the Armory show in 1913. It was in these gallery rooms that the ice was broken for modern art in America.
Composition, massing of light and shadow, arrangement of lines, development of curves, were the means. With them they sought values, textures, character, any aspect which would appeal to the emotions of the viewer. Characteristic of the photography of this new movement was the employment of special printing processes for example gum bichromate, and of artwork which lessened the detail on the finished print. The movement was not without its critics. Sadakihi Hartmann reacted strongly to the idea of manipulating photographs, and decried those who strove hard to make their pictures seem as if they were not photographs at all. In American AmateurPhotographer 1904 he wrote: “We expect an etching to look like an etching, and a lithograph to look like a lithograph, why should not then a photographic print look like a photographic print?”
It was not that he objected to retouching or “dodging”: “”And what do I call straight photography,” one might say, “can you define it?” Well, that”s easy enough. Rely on your camera, on your eye, on your good taste and your knowledge of composition, consider every fluctuation of color, light and shade, study lines and values and space division, patiently wait until the scene or object of your pictured vision reveals itself in its supremest moment of beauty, in short, compose the picture which you intend to take so well that the negative will be absolutely perfect and in need of no… manipulation.”