15 January 2014

Edward Steichen: Painting Or Photography ?

Overshadowed by his photographs, the tonalist paintings of Edward Steichen have fallen into a black hole, victims of aesthetic snobbishness.  The poetry of his early landscapes has been under-appreciated in most accounts  as has the importance of painting to his overall aesthetic.  Steichen once appraised his style, to “make things disappear and seem to melt into each other,” resulting in “a great feeling of peace overshadows all.”   And that style was formed during a childhood in the Midwest.  The small wood lots of Milwaukee where he took his first photographs taught him the magic of enclosed spaces, “hemmed in by scrims of shadows that hint at the limits of perception.”   

For Steichen, painting and photography were equal  arts.  He wanted his photographs to receive the same prolonged attention that paintings were given. It would be academic but possibly foolish to speculate which way the influences flowed in his work. Steichen made his living and his reputation with photography, but his seemingly effortless shifts inspired suspicions of dilettantism and envy in his peers.. 

Steichen used techniques he learned from painting to achieve the effects he wanted for his photographs. It was by accident, spilling water on the camera lens and jarring the tripod during an exposure, that he learned how to achieve the subdued tones he was looking for.  To get the crepuscular effect you see in The Pond – Moonrise (1904) he applied coats of Prussian blue and platinum to the print.  

The result of a painstaking series of  multiple printings and hand-tinting, Pond-Moonrise is one of Steichen’s characteristic photographs of painterly seductiveness.   Charles Caffin described the effect in Camera Work (1910): "It is in the penumbra, between the clear visibility of things and their total extinction into darkness, when the concreteness of appearances becomes merged in half-realised, half-baffled vision, that spirit seems to disengage itself from matter to envelop it with a mystery of soul-suggestion."     Steichen had taken this picture during a visit to the Caffin home in Mamaroneck, on Long Island Sound.

Alternatively, Steichen cropped his paintings to create theatrical effects, using  the  technique of cropping, introduced by photographers, often using trees  like a proscenium arch to frame a scene (as he did in Nocturne – Hydrangea Terrace – Chateau Ledoux (1913) in the collection of the Musee d'Orsay).  Trees are the essential elements in a Steichen landscape, as they were for the Celts, for the Yaqis with the talking tree, for the ancient Greeks with the dryads, and on and on.  Trees suggest the spiritual or the sacred in a way that an entire vista  dissipates
For many decades the connection between painting and photography was not talked about or not taken seriously.  So profoundly shaken had accepted beliefs about what constituted a work of art been by the introduction of photography, not to mention the magical aspects of mechanical reproduction of images, that few artists or critics wanted to turn over that rock and those who did were generally ignored.  To give just one example, the Belgian artist Fernand Khnopff  (1858 – 1921) often had a photographer take pictures of Khnopff's drawings that the artist then hand-tinted, thereby creating a discrete new work.  The works had been exhibited in public yet, after Khnpff's death when the contents of his estate were sold off, friends were surprised at the extent of the artist's photographic equipment.

The Steichen family had immigrated from to the United States from Luxembourg in 1881 when Edward was two years old; Lilian was born in 1883.  (Lilian would graduate from the University of Chicago in 1903 with honors in Philosophy.  She married the poet Carl Sandburg in 1908.) At age fifteen Edward left school to help support his family, He apprenticed with  a local lithographer where,  having taught himself to take pictures, Steichen talked his employer into replacing woodcuts with photographs,  He then talked his friends into  renting a space and hiring a model to pose for drawing classes. The paintings he saw at the Layton Gallery in Milkwaukee were his first teachers:  the Frenchmen Bouguereau and Bastien-Lepage and an American tonalist, George Inness.  Even as an adolescent, Steichen saw no need to choose between painting and photography; the proofs is in the images.  It takes effort to tease apart what effect was achieved with what technique(s).  

In 1900,  twenty-one year old Edward Steichen made a declarative move: he would study painting in Paris and Lilian would go with him, to study literature.  Armed with a letter of introduction from the photographer Clarence White, Edward and Lilian presented themselves at the Camera Club, where Edward showed his portfolio of  paintings, drawings, and photographs to Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz  was impressed enough to purchase two photographs but, undeterred, the Steichens continued on their way.  

The small town of Voulangis, east of Paris, appealed to Steichen immediately.  In Voulangis (c.1900-02) he photographed the woods through the scrim of a  lavender mist.  While other photographers exploited the deep velvety tones produced by platinum printing, Steichen created the  illusion of a wide range within the narrow confines of delicate tints,  from lilac to gray.  In the hands of this master printer,  moist air becomes an almost palpable scrim through which the forms of trees and a pony seem emerge from a dream.
Moving back and forth between New York and Paris became routine for Steichen.  In 1906, married and with two daughters, Steichen was once again in France to study painting and he chose Voulangis as home.  The painting Moonlit Dance – Voulangis (1909) commemorates a memorable summer evening when the dancer Isadora Duncam performed outdoors there.  The figure at the front is Duncan, an ecstatic figure reaching up toward some ghostly mist above the trees. And, according to the Aperture Foundation, it was at Voulangis that Steichen took his last photograph in France before war rboke out in 1914. (Heavy Roses, Voulangis).

 Edward Steichen - Moonlight - Winter - Milwaukee, 1902, gum bichromate print, University of Georgia, Athens. 

Edward Steichen - Voulangis, c. 1900-02, platinum print, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

 Edward Steichen - The Pond - Moonrise, 1904, platinum print with hand-tintting, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

Edward Steichen - Moonlight On the Narrows - Hudson River, 1907, oil on canvas,  Lunder Collection,Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, ME.

Edward Steichen - Moonlit Dance - Voulangis, 1909, oil on canvas, Portland Museum of Art, ME.

For further reading: 
1. Edward Steichen: The Early Years by Joel Smith, Princeton University Press: 1999.
2. Steichen's Dance - Art Conservator - Spring 2008 issue , Williamstown Art Conservation Center, Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, MA.
At top - Edward Steichen - Rock Hill - Oyster Bay - Long Island, 1920, gelatin silver print San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


christian said...

Hi Jane,

Many thanks for this wonderfully informative and excellent piece on Steichen.I have not tried very hard and thus have never been really able to understand the 'discounting' of Steichen and his work in photography. As a young guy I was totally fascinated by his 'Family of Man' exhibit which I saw in NYC, and became totally baffled when I learned later that it was/is rather 'disrespected' in photo history circles.

Jane said...

Hello, Christian. Thanks for your interesting comments. Steichen did many things well and achieved commercial success, too. One thing I didn't touch on was his pursuit of horticulture, at Voulangis and elsewhere. There were those who were jealous of his successes and critics who accused him of being a dilettante. And photography was a controversial medium, lest we forget.

Tania said...

Oh, it's beautiful ! I did not know this artist. His universe reminds me Degouve de Nuncques's paintings. Thank you very much, Jane.

Jane said...

Tania, intriguing comparison because Steichen was born in Luxembourg.