Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Photography of William Post @ BYU

by Bren Jackson

William Post’s simple, small platinum prints, sixty of which are now on display at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art, do not shout for attention. Rather, it is the images’ unassuming presence that intrigues and draws the viewer in. Primarily landscapes, Post’s images emphasize the solitude and quiet majesty of turn-of-the-century rural New England. The exhibition, The Quiet Landscapes of William B. Post, organized by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts and at BYU through May 28th as part of a national tour, is the first exhibit devoted to the artist since his death in 1921. It explores the thirty-five year career of the broker turned photographer and places him in the context of the larger photographic movement known as “pictorialism.”

Post associated himself with Pictoralism largely because he believed that photography was a fine art that could simply be “art for art’s sake.” He became a leading member of Camera Club of New York and his work won the respect and admiration of Alfred Stieglitz. Post’s interest in landscapes, the play of light, and abstraction can be traced to Impressionism, while his elongated formats and understated aesthetic are attributed to Japanese art forms.

Despite the quiet rural spaces of much of Post’s photography, traces of human existence underlie both his subject matter and printing techniques. These traces of human presence underscore man’s connection with earth and his ability to draw nearer to the divine through nature. The spiritual connection between man and nature is found in the signature piece of the exhibition, “Intervale, Winter” (1899). Faint footprints lead the viewer’s eye to the horizon. Unobtrusive, these footprints quietly suggest human existence amid the vast foreground. Footprints, in this case, do not vandalize the otherwise untouched snow, but complete the scene by making a faint diagonal that leads the eye towards the horizon. The trees placed conspicuously along the high horizon provide a stark contrast against the snow and hazy sky—perhaps reminding us of life after the harsh Maine winter. Post and his contemporaries considered landscapes to be a true form of religious art. Pictoralism, much like Romanticism, sought to commune with nature and lead the viewer to spiritual rejuvenation.

The Industrial Revolution of the early 19th-century corrupted the idealistic tranquility commonly associated with rural landscapes in both Europe and America. Dangerous factories, over-crowded cities, and mass-production inspired amateur photographers to capture the simplicity of the countryside using complex printing methods. Pictoralist photographers created art for art’s sake and Post took particular interest in the production and development of each print by experimenting with various formats, chemicals, and paper. Like the Arts and Crafts movement popularized by William Morris, Pictoralism emphasized the individuality of each artist. Although Pictoralism pitted itself against industrialization, it contained no political or controversial connotations. The primary focus remained on the individual emotion of each viewer as it relates to the scene.

“Wintry Weather” (c. 1903)

Simplicity and an understated aesthetic may be the key elements to Post’s success. He doesn’t include more than is necessary. As with Impressionism, the viewer is left with the essence of the scene. His photographs are not of a particular place, but of a particular feeling, as seen in “Wintry Weather” (c. 1903).  This photograph, along with several others, was taken in Maine, where Post eventually made his permanent home. Although Post worked in the United States, he was undoubtedly influenced by the Impressionists working in Europe at the time. In “Untitled” (1900), we see that Post shares Monet’s interest in capturing the nuances of light. Nature is more monochromatic in the winter, so Post worked primarily in the cold to capture the subtle gradations of light and dark. Untitled is similar to Monet’s Water Lilies in the fact that the horizon line in both is absent. The water and the flowers become abstractions removed from space as we understand it. Post’s open compositions, unusual visual angles, and focus on light invite the viewer to find a place within each landscape.

“Untitled” (1900)

Many of Post’s photographs are influenced by what may be called a “Japanese aesthetic.” They are refined, elegant, and simple. Like Japanese scroll paintings, Post uses an elongated format for his photographs as seen in “Untitled” (1898). Here, the image consists of only a cherry tree in full blossom. Thus, the composition can be broken into three simple shapes: the grass, the trunk, and the top of the tree. In other works, Post places sparse, dark trees along a light background of snow as if they were painted on rice paper by a swift calligraphy brush. Post’s interest in Japanese art came as a result of his trip to Japan in 1891, as well his knowledge of Japanese-influenced European movements like Impressionism.

The Quiet Landscapes of William B. Post at Brigham Young University’s Museum of Art is a companion to the Museum’s exhibition of pre- and Impressionist paintings. Paths to Impressionism includes Monet’s “Les Nymphéas, Paysage d’eau” and notable works by Childe Hassam, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, and Camille Pissarro. These exhibits complement one another and serve as gentle reminders of how art and nature work together to be simply beautiful.


Bren Jackson is an Art History major at Brigham Young Univeristy. Bren plans to gain a graduate degree in museum education and work with children. She leaves later this month to serve an LDS mission in the Brussels, Belgium/Netherlands Mission, Dutch-speaking.

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