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!

This gum bichromate thing…

This morning I started another gum print. Got two layers on today. I think I’m being deviled by that constant enemy of all hand-coated processes, low humidity. When my paper dries between coats, it dries out so much that when you apply a second layer, the paper starts to buckle even when you have the paper taped down to mask the borders because the gum emulsion is so much wetter than the paper. This means you have an uneven coat with some areas in the valleys between the buckled areas on the paper that get too much pigment, no matter how carefully you work the coating. I’m still getting the kinks out of the mixing process, as getting the right amount of pigment for any given color is a long cycle of trial and error.

The John Dugdale School

In doing a bit of browsing around today in response to a Facebook posting, I came across a link for the John Dugdale School. I once had the opportunity to take a two-day seminar with him at his studio in New York City. The experience of studying with him was transcendent – I count that weekend as one of the greatest influences ever on my photographic trajectory. The fact that his VISION is so strong even with his sight almost entirely gone is just one of the inspirational things about working with him. He’s also the only person I’ve ever felt comfortable enough with as a photographer that if he asked me to pose nude for him, I would. He’s such a brilliant, gentle soul, full of searing honesty, that being around him brings out the same in you, and helps you make more revealing, connected photographs. My intent is to find out if the school is still operating, and take another seminar with him when the weather is warmer. John, you see, is a bit like John Coffer – he prefers to live a 19th century life, with minimal trappings and intrusions of the electronic world. His farmhouse in upstate New York has no central heat or air conditioning, most likely no phone and definitely no internet. I wouldn’t be surprised if the road is dirt, for that matter. I’ve posted a link to his website for the school in my links. In any case, here’s to you, John, may you make many more photos for many decades to come!

And now for something completely different… a Rolleiflex

I do on occasion actually shoot smaller format images, and even color once in a while. Here’s a graffiti grab shot I took with my Rolleiflex 2.8 E. Exposure unrecorded.

Graffiti, Wall, 14th Street

This was as much a test of film as it was playing with a camera. I was trying out the new Kodak Ektar 100. I’d say from this it was a great success. This was a scan from the negative, using Digital ICE for dust removal, a tiny bit of Unsharp Masking, and a little bit of color correction. No other manipulation.

New studio space!!!!

I have a copy of the lease in hand now, so it’s official. I will be moving in to my new (shared) studio space January 15. I’ll be shooting and teaching classes out of 443 I (Eye) Street, NW. It’s walking distance from Chinatown and Mount Vernon Square Metro stations, a short bus ride from Union Station, and there is on-street and off-street parking available nearby. Watch this blog for an announcement about a studio open house, and a schedule of classes. I expect to have my first class in March.

Pre-acidification of Rives BFK

Well, my experiment with pre-acidification of Rives BFK for doing palladium/platinum/Ziatypes was a success. I got a flawless Ziatype over which I will now try several gum layers. My pre-acidification consisted of a 5 minute bath in 5% Oxalic Acid. I sized the paper AFTER the acidification bath. Image to follow.

Here is the image with the first two layers of gum over Ziatype. Colors are Alizarin Crimson and Sepia. I’m planning on doing at least two more layers, probably another sepia or burnt Sienna and then another red, maybe something deeper red.

Heart In Hand

Photography, Alternative Processes, Really Big Cameras, and other cool stuff

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