Pictorial Artistry is the most lavish publication of pictorial photography produced after World War I. This five-and-a-half pound volume contains 40 hand-pulled gravures, spiral bound on ample pages in an edition of 1,000 numbered copies. Fassbender produced the film positives used for making the plates, supervised the plate making, chose the ink colors and oversaw the printing. A full page of text describing the photographer’s reaction to the subject, the picture’s composition and the equipment used accompanies each photogravure. Many of the images in the book are rural scenes, atmospherically soft and morally uplifting.
Fassbender was an inveterate optimist who wished to portray only the good in life. Pictorial Artistry was initially praised for its rich photogravures, but its timing was unfortunate. In 1941, the United Stated entered World War II and anti-German sentiments (against both Fassbender and the publisher) halted distribution of the book until the end of the war. Fassbender had personally covered much of the publisher’s expenses, ultimately losing several hundred dollars on what is today a highly collectible title. This book can be considered the final work of the pictorial era to be produced in photogravure.
Adolf Fassbender (1884-1980) was born in Grevenbroich, Germany, a small town near Cologne. Before entering the military, he initially assisted a photographer in Freiburg, Germany and subsequently worked in Dresden (where he also studied drawing and painting), Vienna (where he began specializing in hand-colored miniature portraits), and Antwerp. In 1911, he immigrated to the United States. He was first employed by the Selby Sisters and in 1921 opened his own New York studio. For the next seven years, he produced commercial, illustrative, and portrait photographs, some of which were exhibited at national conventions of the Photographers’ Association of America. He closed the business in 1928.
At about this time, Fassbender became interested in pictorialism and began making creative pictures with the camera. He exhibited in pictorial salons for twenty years, beginning in 1925, when his work was first accepted by London’s Royal Photographic Society. He presented solo shows in 1934 at the Camera Club of New York and in 1951 at the Smithsonian Institution. He joined camera clubs in New York, received honorary memberships from groups elsewhere, and was a founding member of the Photographic Society of America.
Fassbender shared his techniques and theories by writing for the photographic press. He began in the early 1930s with a short series of articles in Camera about various control methods. His article "Why Bother," about the importance of manipulating the negative, was printed over time by three different publications. Most significant was his book Pictorial Artistry: The Dramatization of the Beautiful in Photography, published in 1937.
After closing his studio in the late 1920s, Fassbender made his living as an instructor. He taught photography at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences from 1930 to 1935 and in the late 1940s at the Central Branch Brooklyn YMCA. He also conducted private and group classes at his Manhattan and New Jersey residences and lectured to camera clubs and professional conventions throughout the country. Over the course of his teaching career, from which he retired in 1970, he had more than 18,000 students.
Fassbender, Adolf, and Christian A. Peterson. The Pictorial Artistry of Adolf Fassbender. , 1994. pl. 2
Fassbender, Adolf, and Christian A. Peterson. The Pictorial Artistry of Adolf Fassbender. , 1994