The Libby Prints

Slide Show of Libby Prints

Click here to view a slide show of Francis Orville Libby's images. This is a representative sample of Mr. Libby's work.

Francis Orville Libby: A Forgotten Master of Photography

Researched and written by PCC member Dave Kirkwood

During his lifetime, Francis Orville Libby (born 1881, Portland, Maine; died 1961, South Portland, Maine) earned a national and international reputation as a master fine arts photographer. His work was Pictorialist, a once-dominant but now almost forgotten photographic style.

As a teenager he had successfully exhibited his photographic work and went on to graduate from Princeton University in 1903 with a degree in fine arts. In the newly formed Portland Camera Club's 1900 salon, he received a commendation ribbon, an event noted in a local newspaper.

He joined the Portland Camera Club in 1906 and maintained his membership until his death. His abilities were quickly recognized—within eight months of joining, he was recruited to lecture the club members on "Composition."  Over the next two decades he held various offices in the club, including the presidency. His name became known nationally and internationally in the photographic world. At the time he carried on a parallel, successful career as a fine arts painter.

Fame, in the early days of art photography, was earned by displaying one's pictures in camera clubs' "salons" in the United States, Great Britain and Continental Europe. These were, and still are, highly competitive juried shows. Their original rationale was to acquaint the public with the best in art photography, which, in many quarters of the art and museum worlds, was not considered art but merely scientific reproductions of the scene. Mr. Libby was prolific in entering his pictures and soon was well-known for his artistic skills. What was probably the capstone of his career was being invited to act as the jury for the 1922 London Salon (at the time one of the three most prestigious in the world), followed by being accepted as a Fellow in England's Royal Photographic Society, an honor few American photographers attained.

Mr. Libby worked exclusively in a style called Pictorialism, a word that has had a number of meanings in the twentieth century. First, it simply meant "art photography." But soon, those advocating acceptance of photography-as-art split into two warring camps: One, which emerged first, became Pictorialists, advocating the belief that acceptance was through imitating painting and sought calmness, serenity and soft and romantic techniques; the other, the "straights," sought to rely on the innate advantages of the camera, such as sharp focus, specificity and "impact." One goal, however, diametrically opposed ways to get there.

Pictorialists dominated art photography for almost 30 years. For the Pictorialist, creating the negative was only the beginning of achieving artistic creativity. Often using a soft-focus lens for atmospheric effect, the print was then manipulated through a variety of manual methods, including pencil, ink and razor blades, or by changing exposure, eliminating portions (or entirely) picture elements or adding elements. One of Libby's frequently used techniques was to darken the picture to imitate moonlight and drop in a crescent moon for atmosphere.

But the Pictorialists lost the battle. By the 1930s, few professional photographers were using pictorial techniques. Mr. Libby continued in the early 1930s to try to re-energize his side by serving on the board of a group called The Pictorial Photographers of America. Pictorialism continued in camera clubs, but ultimately succumbed to cultural trends and photographic innovation and grew progressively closer to its old rival's style.

The word Pictorialism has devolved into being only the name of an amorphous category. Some camera club competitions are divided into "nature" and "pictorial."  "Nature" includes any picture that shows no evidence of human influence. "Pictorialist" is "everything else."

As Pictorialism vanished into the fog of the past, so did the names and reputations of even its most devoted acolytes. But with the revival of interest in older photographic methods and styles, it is beginning to reappear for historic evaluation. The wheel of history is once again turning.