Stieglitz Steichen Strand at the Metropolitan Museum

Over this past weekend I went up to New York to see the Steiglitz, Steichen and Strand exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I had been hearing about the show from a number of people and wanted very much to see it based on their comments, but approached with some apprehension, as rumor had it that the show was too darkly lit and hard to see. That assertion was patently not the case – the only reason it was hard to see the show was the milling hordes in the exhibition salons. Bad for me, good for the museum, as it means attendance is at healthy levels.

The show features three seminal figures in early 20th century American photography – Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Paul Strand. Stieglitz is the connection between Steichen and Strand, as it was through his gallery and publications such as Camera Notes and Camera Work that both other artists were launched to the public. Steichen and Strand represent opposite ends of the art photography spectrum in many ways – Steichen was very much in the photography-as-painting school of soft focus lenses and heavily manipulated prints, whereas Strand, who got his beginnings in the same theoretical approach, represents the “new” photography-as-photography idiom that declared photography should be accepted as an art form for its own merits, rather than try to emulate painting or drawing.

Stieglitz’s work in this show bridges both schools. Works ranging from his early New York street scenes and his Equivalents through his Georgia O’Keefe nudes and his late “straight” photography which returned to New York City as viewed from his gallery and apartment windows. The Strand work on display did little for me – they had a limited selection of his Mexico portfolio, which is his most interesting work to my taste.

As an aspiring gum bichromate printer and quasi neo-pictorialist, the work of greatest interest to me was the Steichen segment of the exhibit. Were it not for the constant need to evade elbows and heels, I could easily have spent an entire day looking at just the Steichen room, studying the prints. On one wall, they had Steichen’s “The Pond – Moonlight”, and three variations of the Flatiron building, representing the descent into twilight and nightfall. I had only ever seen these prints reproduced in books before, and so no book reproduction can do them justice. Previously, I had no idea the scale of the originals – I envisioned them to be at most 8×10 inches in size. In fact, the “Pond – Moonlight” and Flatiron prints were something in the 12×15 to 14×17 inch size range – quite dramatic. Not only is the paper surface wrong, but the subtlety of the color palette is lost to the printers’ inks. I have yet to figure out how Steichen did it, but the gum image itself had a surface to it that was as if they had in fact been lacquered, not formed from multiple exposures in sensitized chemicals. In other images, notably some nudes, brush strokes were clearly visible, adding texture and movement to the figures. It made me wish that Steichen were still alive or that I could go back in time to interrogate him about his gum materials and techniques.

Unlike the Steichen work, Paul Strand’s images were very much in the scale I was used to seeing them reproduced. However, the majority of his work whether silver gelatin or platinum/palladium was a rich brown color, printed dark and low in contrast. Most reproductions tend to boost the contrast and render his work in black/white/gray tones, which gives a very different impression of his work.It is perhaps the Strand work at the show that made people feel that the exhibit was under-lit, as his work is printed dark enough that it is hard to view in anything other than brilliant illumination. The rationale for this difference between original prints and reproductions I can guess at – people are expecting “black-and-white” photography to look, well, black-and-white, and even vintage work is expected to be somewhat contrasty. It is entirely possible that Strand went on to print his work with more modern silver-gelatin papers that have the cool-tone black-and-white look we think of today, and this was merely a sampling of his early prints from early images, therefore the book reproductions are not deliberate manipluations of his work – I have not seen enough vintage Strand prints to know.

One last aside – I saw a number of Stieglitz prints marked “Silver-Platinum prints”. I’ve never seen or heard of this particular medium before, so if any of the assembled ears here have any input on what makes a “Silver-Platinum Print”, please pass that along!

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