Archive for Alfred Stieglitz

Northern Exposure: The Landscapes of David Milne

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2010 by Liz Hager

David Milne, Dark Shore Reflected, Bishop’s Pond, 1920
Watercolor on Paper, 38.8 x 55.6 cms
(Private Collection)

Feeling is the power that drives art. There doesn’t seem to be a more understandable word for it, though there are others that give something of the idea: aesthetic emotion, quickening, bringing to life. Or call it love; not love of a man or woman or home or country or any material thing, but love without an object—instransitive love.

—David B. Milne, “Feeling in Painting,” 1948

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

The Titans of 19th and early-20th century landscape art were amply represented in last summer’s meaty exhibition “Expanding Horizons: Painting and Photography of American and Canadian Landscapes 1860-1918” at The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.  The roster of American painters and photographers was an impressive one—Frederick Church, Albert BierstadtThomas Eakins, Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keefe,  Timothy O’Sullivan, Edward S. Curtis, Carlton Watkins, and Alfred Stieglitz were among the many whose work filled a seemingly endless array of gallery rooms.

For this American visitor, however, the most exciting discoveries in the exhibition were to be found in the ranks of the Canadian artists, a group not as well known below the border. By arranging the exhibition according to six major themes, the curators provided visual evidence of the ways in which Canadian artists were influenced by styles and events in the US over the 60 plus years covered by the exhibition.  But this organizing principle also made evident clear points of differentiation and, in doing so, highlighted the essentially Canadian approach to landscape art.

David Milne, White, the Waterfall (The White Waterfall), 1921
Oil on canvas, 45.8 x 56.3 cms
(National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa)

Lacking the notion of Manifest Destiny, Canadian artists were never seduced by epic proportions and panoramic vistas. The talented Group of Seven, working in the first quarter of the 20th century, focused on exploring the unique quality of the Canadian landscape.  As a group, their paintings evoke intimate, understated beauty. Additionally, Emily Carr’s soul-full renditions of native peoples and nature were a lovely surprise. American painter Allen Tupper True came to mind as a kindred spirit.

David Milne (1882-1953), however, was far and away the most exhilarating find of that summer day. Present in Milne’s work are the powerful sirens created by Matisse—vibrant line work, sinuous and often voluptuous forms, as well as daring color choices. And yet Milne managed to harness these elements to produce a uniquely expressive statement; his work illuminates the remarkable beauty to be found in the ordinary corners of the natural world.

David Milne, Black and White Trees and Buildings, 1915/6
Oil on canvas, 51.5 x 61.5 cm
(National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa)

A contemporary of the Group of Seven (although not a member) Milne, was every bit as talented, but never attained commensurate public recognition in his lifetime. By choice, he led an often-solitary and financially-impoverished life. Voluminous letters make clear the extent to which Milne chose artistic expression over financial success, though he worried mightily about providing for his family.  As David P. Silcox observes in his David Milne: An Introduction to His Life and Art: for Milne “the making of art meant following a solitary track, not joining art movements or societies, even if it meant living for many years in relative obscurity.”

Milne attended The Art Students’ League in 1904.  Although he attempted a career in fine art afterward, earning an income soon necessitated full time work as a commercial illustrator.  One of only three Canadians, he exhibited five paintings in the 1913 Armory show. In 1915 he exhibited at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. These must have been rays of affirmation for the young artist.

David Milne, Side Door, Clarke’s House, c.1923
Oil on canvas, 30.5 x 40.7 cm
(Courtesy McMichael Canadian Art Collection)

Milne’s New York experience was interrupted by World War I. Having joined the Canadian army too late to see action, Milne was sent just after the Armistice to record his impressions of the French and Belgian battlefields for the Canadian War Memorials program. Upon his return to the United States the artist became increasingly more reclusive, relocating from New York to the solitude of the Berkshire and Adirondack Mountains.

Success eluded him over the ensuing decade, however, and in 1928 he moved to a series of locations both outside Toronto and in more remote, rural Ontario. The years of the Great Depression were highly productive ones for Milne. He painted a huge numbers of landscapes, the occasional interior or still life, and, beginning in the late 1930s, an increasing number of fantasy and Biblical scenes. This shift to  “spiritual” concerns corresponded with an almost exclusive return to the watercolor medium. For the remainder of his life Milne produced very few oil landscapes.

David Milne, Painting Place III, 1930
Oil on canvas, 51.3 x 66.4 cms
(National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Vincent Massey Bequest)

In the last years of his life, Milne was diagnosed with cancer. He sketched and painted until the end, when finally a virulent stroke took his life at the end of 1953. He is buried in an unmarked grave in a Toronto cemetery.

Fortunately, since his death, David Milne’s legacy has become better understood. After Milne’s death, art critic Clement Greenberg remarked:

To claim that Milne was arguably Canada’s ‘greatest painter’ is not extravagant. . . I would class him with such as Marin and Hopper in my own country. But he can hold his own anywhere.

(Letter to David Silcox 12/18/1991, from Painting Place: The Life and Work of David B. Milne)

Milne is remembered as the inventor of the multiple place color drypoint (a process similar to etching that does not require acid bath).  The National Gallery of Canada and other institutions have organized retrospectives since his death. The Metropolitan and British museums presented a comprehensive exhibition of Milne’s watercolors in 2005; in fact, in the last decade the British Museum began to acquire a number of Milne works.

This American hopes for more Northern exposure in the years to come.

Wider Connections

David Milne cybergallery at National Gallery of Canada
David P. Silcox—Painting Place: The Life and Work of David B. Milne
Group of Seven repository—McMichael Canadian Art Collection
Katherine Lochnan—David Milne Watercolours
Maureen Mullarkey—“Gilding the Lily” (review of the “Painting Toward Light” Milne exhibition)

Winter Wonderland: New York in the Snow

Posted in Christine Cariati, Fine & Decorative Arts, Photography, Printmaking with tags , , , , on December 13, 2009 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Charles Parsons, Central Park, Winter: The Skating Pond, 1862
Hand-colored lithograph, Currier & Ives
Bequest of Adele S. Colgate, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Unidentified photographer, Skating in Central Park, New York, c.1890
New York Historical Society

The Byron Company, Skating in Central Park New York, 1894
The Byron Collection, Museum of the City of New York

Alfred Stieglitz, Snapshot—From My Window, c.1901
Appeared in Camera Work XX, 1907

Alvin Langdon Coburn, The Octopus, 1912
(Madison Square) Photograph, platinum print
Ford Motor Company Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art

André Kertész, Washington Square, New York, 1954
Photograph, gelatin silver print
Cleveland Museum of Art

A History of Lace in Seven Portraits: Gloria Swanson

Posted in Fashion, Fine & Decorative Arts, Lace, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2009. All Rights Reserved.

Editor’s Note: This is the eighth and last installment in VR series on lace in portraiture. Other chapters include: Prologue, Beatrice d’Este, Elizabeth I, Nicholas Tulp, Louis XIV, Clement XIII, and the Duchess of Alba; or click here for all posts in the series.

Edward Steichen—Gloria Swanson, 1924Edward Steichen, Gloria Swanson, 1924
Silver platinum? print
(Museum of Modern Art, NY)

Steichen and the Starlet

Edward Steichen already enjoyed an international reputation as an artist/photographer, when, in early 1923, he was offered the most prestigious and lucrative position in photography’s commercial domain, that of chief photographer for Condé Nast’s flagship magazines, Vogue and Vanity Fair.

Over the course of the next 15 years, on assignment with Vogue, Steichen established the look of fashion photography that still influences the way fashion is shot today.  (Consider what the work of George Hoyningen-HueneHorst P. HorstRichard AvedonRobert Mapplethorpe and Bruce Weber would have been without Steichen’s trailblazing.) In the process, he swept away the pre-War fussy and fuzzy style of fashion photography replacing it with a crisp, detailed and highly-theatrical presentation that would better serve the emerging modernist couturiers. Unlike Man Ray or Erwin Blumenfeld, the two other art photographers of the period who lent their talents to the fashion and glamour industry, Steichen eschewed high-art stylistic features in his commercial photography, preferring a pragmatical approach that wasn’t overly high-art.

Steichen—Cartier earringsEdward Steichen, Kendall Lee, Cartier Earrings, 1925
©Condé Nast

In many respects Steichen’s images of “Hollywood” for Vanity Fair are not altogether different from his work as a fashion photographer. And why wouldn’t they be? Celebrities, like haute couture, function on some level like luxury goods, visually consumed at least by lovers of fantasy. Steichen’s approach to celebrities was also detached and slick, not unlike Art Deco, the reigning style of the time.

Edward Steichen—Poiret fashions, 1911Edward Steichen, Poiret Fashions, 1911
from Art et Décoration

Vogue was not Steichen’s first foray into fashion. In 1911, he had produced what may have been the first series of fashion shots—gauzy images of Paul Poiret couture for an article in the French magazine Art et Décoration. They are pure Steichen of the period, perfectly in keeping with the Pictorialist style, for which he was then famous. But Vogue propelled him to a an entirely new stylistic pinnacle as the first truly-effective communicator of the essential (and largely unattainable) glamour embodied by haute couture.

In the wake of WW1, the integration of industrialization into all aspects of life was profound. With mechanization came high-rises and urbanization, consumerism and mass market advertising. The glorification of the machine had ramifications throughout the fine and decorative arts; most underwent radical transformation. The stylized floral motifs of Art Nouveau became the hard-edged and pseudo-erotic Art Deco. Cubism, Futurism, de Stijl, and the Bauhaus were all inspired by notions afloat in the “Machine Age. “ Steichen was at the forefront of the transformation in photography.

By 1914, when he was commissioned as first lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps, Steichen had already abandoned the Pictorialist style so emblematic of the pre-War era. Throughout his war career, he would favor greater realism, which he expressed through strong light-dark contrasts, attention to detail, and sharply-focused effects. When he resumed his own photography after the war, he pursued this new direction.

Edward Steichen—Pastoral Moonlight, 1907Edward Steichen, Pastoral Moonlight, 1907
photogravure, from Camera Work.

By the time of his appointment to the Condé Nast publications, Steichen had come to believe that photography was the modern means of communication, even though this belief meant a break with his mentorAlfred Stieglitz (and the Photo-Succession group), who clung to the view that photography should strive to attain fine art status.  For Steichen, the consummate promoter, the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair provided an irresistible platform to fully realize his artistic goals.

Edward Steichen, Across the Salt Marshes, Huntington, 1905
oil on canvas
(Toledo Museum of Art)

In regard to his fashion work Steichen recognized the need for greater realism: “My first contribution to the fashion photograph was to make it as realistic as possible…I felt that, when a great dressmaker like Vionnet created a gown, it was entitled to a presentation as dignified as the gown itself, and I selected models with that in view.” (Edward Steichen—A Life in Photography) Given the studio circumstances under which he shot and the constraints inherent in reproduction at the time, this meant a move to artificial lighting, which required large assisting crews. Steichen was no longer a single artist, he was an enterprise.

In a break from existing norms of fashion photography which featured the couture in the limelight,  Steichen staged his models in elaborate scenarios. Their fictional personalities took center stage;  the lines and contours of their bodies artfully set off by pieces of furniture or accentuated by the backdrops. The actual costumes were often treated as a secondary detail.

Edward Steichen—White, 1935Edward Steichen, White, 1935
(Museum of Modern Art, NY)

Steichen had always recognized the value of networking. He started his Great Men series in the early 1900s and continued making portraits of well-placed people—business- and statesmen—for much of his life. His assignments for Vanity Fair in Hollywood opened a different, and in many ways, a more important door for his career. In the early years of his contract, Steichen traveled annually to Hollywood, where he networked with an entirely new group of celebrities, stars who were recognized by millions of people. Steichen was already well-known as a fine-art photographer; Vanity Fair would introduce his work to the masses.

Edward Steichen—Fred Astaire, 1927Edward Steichen, Fred Astaire—Top Hat in “Funny Face,” 1927
(Museum of Modern Art, NY)

In these portraits, Steichen established the visual language of glamour that is fused to this day with celebrity. Not surprisingly, he utilized the very same techniques that he had developed to so effectively sell fashion. The theatricality of dramatic lighting and poses reinforced the fantasy that was emblematic of Hollywood—men were dashing; women liberated. Here too his legacy lingers. Consider Annie Liebovitz.

Edward Steichen—Ah Wilderness, 1933Edward Steichen, Eugene O’Neill and George M. Cohan—”Ah Wilderness,” 1933
(Museum of Modern Art, NY)

By 1924, Gloria Swanson was a leading screen actress. On screen, Swanson cultivated the image of an exotic, mysterious, and, at times, slightly dangerous, woman. Off-screen she was stunningly frank, outrageous, and a shrewd business women. In all her worlds, Swanson was the embodiment of the modern, liberated woman. Though “different,” Swanson always connected emotionally with her audience, a key reasons for her long run in Hollywood.

Gloria SwansonGloria Swanson in her monkey fur cape.

The actress was Hollywood’s first “clothes horse,” and audiences flocked to her films to view her wardrobe as much as her performance.  Her fashion ensembles, hair styles, and jewels were legendary (her annual budget for jewels was reported to be $500,000). The actress had been oft-photographed, mostly in full costume for studio publicity shots.  Steichen’s was not the the first formal portrait of the actress. But it must surely be the most provocative.

Gloria Swanson in the 1920s.

The session that produced this portrait was a long one, with numerous changes in costumes and lighting. At the end of the session, Steichen seized a piece of a black lace and hung it playfully in front of Swanson’s face. The actress grasped the concept immediately. She instantly dilated her eyes and became the leopard camouflaged by leafy shrubbery, watching her prey.

With its dark foliage perfectly aligned against the triangle of Swanson’s eyes and forehead, the lace veil is central to the provocative effect of the portrait.  One can’t imagine that such an arresting effect —the mysterious, the lethal, the glamorous and the savage—would have emanated from a portrait without the veil.  Was the portrait a covert statement about what Steichen really saw in Swanson—in Hollywood?  (Curiously, though the one aspect of all his other portraits missing here is overt glamour, though perhaps this is exactly why the picture, among Steichen’s many celebrity shots, connects so well with the viewer.)

The Lace

Quaker LaceQuaker Lace (machine-made) inspiration for Demakersvan chain link fence below.

Given the date of the portrait, unless the piece of lace Edward Steichen held up in front of Gloria Swanson’s face  was antique, it was most-likely machine-made, perhaps by a company such as Quaker Lace (now defunct).  And in this, the Swanson portrait is emblematic of the final chapter in our history of lace—mechanization.

Lace making machines existed as early as 1805, when Joseph Jacquard (of mechanized loom fame) made important adjustments to the “lever machine.” Jacquard paved the way for full-scale mechanization of lace production. The actual death knell was sounded in 1841, when further improvements allowed lace—both gimp and motifs—to be made entirely by machine. The market was soon flooded with inexpensive lace, which was well-within the purchasing range of the middle-class. Drawing widely on the fine and decorative arts of past ages, some of the better machine lace producers replicated hand-made laces exceptionally well.

Demakersvan, Chain link fenceDemarkersvan Studio, Chain Link fence inspired by Quaker Lace Company design.

The advent of machine-made lace at first pushed hand lace-makers to come up with more complicated designs beyond the capabilities of early machines. Eventually, however, it pushed them out of business almost entirely. Further, on the consumption side, by the 1920s, the traditional cultures that still made lace by hand were disappearing in the wake of increasing urbanization. As the demand for handmade lace ornamentation on traditional costumes and haute couture died out, the textile was relegated to household goods, such as napkins, table cloths, and curtains.  And even then machines provided the bulk of the production.

Though nearly extinct by the early decades of 20th century, today hand-made lace endures in small pockets largely in Europe. With the exception of a tiny amount of high-end couture, the customer base for hand-made lace is predominantly the curious tourist, purchasing a tablecloth or set of napkins.

Though a decorative ornament, lace has left an indelible mark in the world of fine art. As this delicate textile has jockeyed its way through the annals of fashion, its use has been captured and preserved by many a prestigious artist. From its origins as a luxury good, enjoyed by the privileged few, through the mechanization of its production and resulting dissemination to a mass consumer market, lace is inextricably intertwined with the march of human civilization. A just legacy for a textile made by the intricate twisting of threads.

Tord Boontje—Grass Hair pieceTord Boontje, Grass Hair piece inspired by Quaker Lace Company pattern (©Tord Boontje studio).

Wider Connections

Edward Steichen: High Fashion
Lace in Transition (contemporary designers interpret Quaker Lace Company patterns)
Patricia Johnston—Real Fantasies: Edward Steichen’s Advertising Photography
Decorating with Lace
Pat Earnshaw—How to Recognize Machine Laces

A Sense of Place: Marsden Hartley in Berlin

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, People & Places with tags , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

marsden hartley, lighthouse

Marsden Hartley, Lighthouse, 1915, oil on canvas, 30 x 40″ (courtesy Christie’s).

Marsden Hartley was largely misunderstood during his lifetime. Depending on one’s viewpoint, the artist was either woefully out of step with or gloriously ahead of his time. Undoubtedly, much of this mismatch was the result of Hartley’s eccentric personality, peripatetic lifestyle, and restless experimentation with different styles. The cause of his art was certainly not helped by Clement Greenberg, who in the 1940s did much to sideline the artist through his dismissal of the place of the “Stieglitz artists” in modern American art. (Greenberg’s championing of  John Marin as the link in the stylistic chain from Impressionists to Abstract Expressionists had perhaps everything to do with his desire to unseat Stieglitz as the reigning monarch of modernism.)

Perhaps not so amazingly then, there have only been three comprehensive shows of the artist’s work since his death in 1943.  But Hartley’s early relegation to the dustbin of art history has been our gain. Unlike others of the Stieglitz circle (O’Keefe springs to mind) his work hasn’t been overexposed to near trivialization.  Thankfully, Hartley has been resurrected to his rightful place in the history of modernist art.  To the unjaded eye his work still looks way ahead of its time.

To be sure, the painter’s catalog is painfully uneven. His lesser work ranges from derivative to just plain uninspired.  But Hartley could soar too, and his best works still pack a punch that offers an unvarnished emotional view into a bygone era.

marsden-hartleye28094painting-no-47-berlin-1914-1915-oil-on-canvas-hirshhorn

Marsden Hartley, Painting No.47, Berlin, 1914-1915, oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 31 5/8″ (courtesy Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden).

Hartley was deeply imbued with the Transcendentalist concept of “place.”  Though often referred to as “the painter from Maine,” the artist was actually an extensive traveller, a restless seeker of spirituality. It was Berlin during the early years of the First World War that coaxed the first true rays of brilliance from the painter, providing him with emotional and creative sustenance.

In 1912 the artist embarked on his first European journey, financed by Stieglitz. During his stay in France, the artist frequented the salon of Gertrude and Leo Stein, where he fell under the spell of Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso.  In the spring of 1913, he moved to Berlin.  “I like its ultra-modernity and I like the calmness of the people.” he wrote in a postcard to Stieglitz (1/1/1913.) As he settled inspired him: “I cannot estimate to you the worth of this German trip—it has given me my place in the art movement in Europe—I find in this my really creative period,” he wrote to Stieglitz, shortly after arriving in the German capital. (Postcard to Stieglitz, 2/1/1913.)

The city itself was not Hartley’s subject; the intense stimulation provided by the city encouraged him to look within for his subject matter. Certainly, Blaue Reiter members Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, whom Hartley met in Berlin, deeply influenced his thoughts on spirituality and art.  However, on a visceral level, it was the masculinity of a capital city teeming with military officers that seduced him. Further, in Berlin’s prominent gay subculture Hartley must have felt a true sense of belonging.

Marsden Hartley, Portrait of a German Officer, 1914, oil on canvas, 68 1/4 x 41 3/8 ” (courtesy: Metropolitan Museum; Alfred Stieglitz collection).

The outbreak of war in August of 1914 and the subsequent loss on the Western Front of his close friend and probable lover, Lieutenant Karl von Freyburg, threw Hartley into deep grief. The artist discarded an existing project and began pouring his feelings onto 12 canvases. Known as the “War Motif” series, this body of work would become his passionate memorial to von Freyburg and, by extension, to the generation of men who surrendered their lives in the trenches. Contemporary Wilfred Owen equally captured the sentiment of sacrificial love in his poem Greater Love: “Till the fierce Love they bear/Cramps them in death’s extreme decrepitude.”

The horrors of trench warfare were still to come as Hartley began his project in late 1914. In the first year of the Great War, armies went to battle as they had for centuries, with pageantry and fanfare. Hartley’s iconography—Germanic flags, company ensigns, mystical numbers, von Freyburg and his own initials, the Iron Cross—perfectly captures the essence of the 19th century military, while the abstract jumble of forms mirrors the chaos that the closely-connected Europeans must have felt in those years.  Rendered in flatly colored forms and energetic brushstrokes, these paintings still look altogether more modern than most other American work of the time.

Perhaps then the true genius of the Berlin paintings is that they at once capture an old world dissolving sorrowfully into history and herald a dynamic modern world to come.

* * *

In December 1915, amid the growing tensions between Germany and America, Hartley was forced to leave Berlin. Re-entry into American culture was difficult for him, not in the least because the subject matter of his “War Motif” paintings was interpreted as glorifying the German cause, causing many to question his patriotism.

Wider Connections

Alfred Stieglitz portrait of Hartley

Peter Schjeldhal on Marsden Hartley in The New Yorker

Marsden Hartley & American Modernism

Roberta Smith—Marsden Hartley’s World

My Dear Stieglitz—The Letters of Marsden Hartley and Alfred Stieglitz

Pat Barker—Regeneration

First World War Poetry

The Dreamy Images of Heinrich Kühn

Posted in Female Artists, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , on February 22, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

heinrich-kuhne28094miss-mary-and-edeltrude-lying-in-the-grass-ca-1910

Heinrich Kühn, Miss Mary and Edeltrude Lying in the Grass, ca. 1910, autochrome (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art).

In July 1907 inveterate scientific tinkerer and photographer Heinrich Kühn (1866-1944) rendezvoused with Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Frank Eugene in Bavaria, where the four of them tested a new process called autochrome. Commercially introduced by the Lumière Brothers in 1906, autochrome is an additive color plate process, whereby a glass slide is coated with starch and silver halide granules, exposed to light, and processed into a coloured transparency on glass, which can be viewed by holding up to light or projecting onto a screen.

Through continued experimentation with the autochrome process, Kühn created some of his most striking images—the dreamy, romantic photographs of his family and friends.  Like other Pictorialists, Kühn believed in manipulation of the photographic negative to achieve painterly ends. While others chose to manipulate the image through the negative, no hand is overtly present in Kühn’s photographs. With their soft-blur focus and steep compositional angles, these images of Miss Mary (Mary Warner?) and Edeltrude (his daughter) are as beautifully rendered as any painting. Kühn has imbued the scenes with idyllic charm; absent the distraction of details around them, the two women exist in a reverie all their own. Further, were it not for the clues provided by their costumes, these photographs with their large abstracted shapes might be mistaken for more contemporary works.

Largely as a result of these works from the period between 1907-1910,  Kühn has become known as the foremost representative of the Pictorialismus (photographic pictorial) movement  in Austria.

heinrich-kuhne28094miss-mary-and-lotte-at-the-hill-crest-ca-1910

Heinrich Kühn, Miss Mary and Edeltrude at the Hill Crest, ca. 1910, autochrome (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Not too long after 1910, however, Kühn abandoned the Pictorial style for a straight-forward approach that would show off the medium’s strength for capturing the “real world.”   By the end of World War I, Stieglitz and Steichen too had moved on. The movement officially died when Stieglitz dissolved the Photo-Succession and his Camera Work magazine.

Wider Connections

Elizabeth Pollock—Heinrich Kühn: An Exhibition of 100 Photographs

Heinrich Kühn in the Art Institute of Chicago

Anzenberger Gallery—Heinrich Kühl portfolio, images ca. 1910

Imagon lens, a Heinrich Kühn invention

20th century autochromes

Paul Strand and the Birth of Modernism in Photography

Posted in Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , on November 9, 2008 by Liz Hager

Note: this is the second in a two-part series that begins with “The Possibilities of Expression”: Photographic Pictorialism

By LIZ HAGER

“The work is brutally direct. Devoid of all flim-flam; devoid of trickery and of any ‘ism’; devoid of any attempt to mystify an ignorant public, including the photographers themselves. These photographs are a direct expression of today. We have reproduced them in all their brutality.”

—Alfred Stieglitz, Camera Work, number 49/50, June 1917

Paul Strand—New York, 1917Paul Strand, New York,  published in Camera Work 1917, photogravure.

Alfred Stieglitz began publication of his second journal, Camera Work, in 1903. The first issue launched the Photo-Secession group. In the years between 1903 and 1910, Camera Work was the pre-eminent showcase for “pictorial” photographers, Photo-Secession members and other photographers who work emulated painting style. Beginning in 1910, Stieglitz devoted an increasing percentage of pages in the magazine to contemporary art.  The August, 1912 issue, for example,  was devoted solely to the painted and sculptural work of Matisse and Picasso.

Strand had been introduced to photography in high school; his first teacher was documentarian Lewis Hine and his mentor’s commitment to social improvement through photography can be felt in all of Strand’s work.  In 1907, the school’s camera club took a field trip to Stieglitz’s “291” gallery, where Strand fell decidedly under the spell of Photo Secession members Gertrude Käsebier, Edward Steichen, Clarence H. White, and Frederick H. Evans.

After 1913, Stieglitz published six final issues of Camera Work. He saw the potential of a young Paul Strand (1890-1976), but early on ironically criticized him for his soft focus, pictorialist approach. By 1915, Strand had had a break-through;  with New York City as his subject he created sharp-focus semi-abstractions and journalistic portraits of street people.  Rightfully impressed, Stieglitz devoted the final two issues (numbers 49/50) of Camera Work to this body of work. In Strand, he remarked that he had seen the photographic equivalent of Picasso’s abstraction.

Fascinated by the Cubists, Strand had experimented with greater abstraction in his compositions, gradually abandoning arecognizable picture plane and comprehensible subject matter.

Paul Strand, Abstraction, Twin Lakes, Connecticut, silver gelatin print 1916, 12 15/16 x 9 5/8 in (photo ©1997 Aperture Foundation /Paul Strand Archive)

Photographs Strand made in the summer of 1916 are thought to be the first significant abstractions intentionally made with a camera. In the most abstract (above) the picture plane has been reduced to a series of flat interlocking shapes. Thus, forms alone, unattached to any pictorial reality, have become the photograph’s subject. Thus did photography take a step into the era of modernism.

A version of “Abstraction” apparently appeared in the last issue of Camera Work. (Unfortunately I can find no pictorial record of it.) Regardless, the Strand issues of Camera Work nailed the pictorialism coffin forever shut. Printed with a harsh strength on thicker paper and a more resonant ink, they were far removed from the delicate and ethereal reproductions of the earlier issues. The issue was Stieglitz’s treatise on future of photography.

Stieglitz rediscovered photography through Strand and, over the next few years, devoted himself again to his own work. The influence of Strand’s uncompromisingly direct style can be plainly seen this later work of Stieglitz. Although he occasionally thought of publishing further issues of Camera Work, it never happened.

Wider Connections

Photography Now—Paul Strand

Aperture—Paul Strand

Abstraction, Twin Lakes (alternate version)

Georgia on His Mind: Alfred Stieglitz & Georgia O’Keefe

“The Possibilities of Expression”—Stieglitz and the Birth of Photographic Pictorialism

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , , on November 8, 2008 by Liz Hager

Note: This is the first in a two-part series, which continues with Paul Strand and the Birth of Modernism.

By LIZ HAGER

The arts equally have distinct departments, and unless photography has its own possibilities of expression, separate from those of the other arts, it is merely a process, not an art.

—Alfred Stieglitz

stieglitz-gossip-1905

Alfred Stieglitz, Gossip—Katwyk, 1894 (published in Camera Work 1905)
half-tone reproduction, approximately 5 x 8.”

Photographs are widely viewed as a veritable record of reality, if only a brief moment of reality. This view conveniently dismisses the contradiction inherent in the photographic act: that an agent with editorial inclinations operates a mechanical instrument without editing aptitude.  Thus, at the most basic level, a photographer composes the reality a viewer sees.  Beyond that, technical manipulation has existed since the photographic medium was invented.  And yet, photographic doctoring, when outed, is still denounced as deceit. In any other medium, it would be accepted as artistic license.

There was a time when photographers eschewed objective or “straight” photography and actively sought artistic expression. The “pictorialism” movement came into vogue beginning around 1885 following the widespread introduction of the dry-plate process. It reached its apogee in the early years of the 20th century under Alfred Stieglitz and his colleagues in the Photo-Secession movement.

No one person was more instrumental in establishing photography as a medium of fine art than Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946).  His body of photographic work might have accomplished this on its own, but Stieglitz also tirelessly promoted the artistic attributes of the photographic medium through a range of activities, including gallery exhibitions and two journals. Curiously, the eventual acceptance of photography as a fine art medium played a large part in pushing painting beyond its representational boundaries.

steichen-portrait-1903

Edward Steichen,Portrait, published in Camera Work 1903,
half-tone reproduction, approximately  6 2/3 x 5 1/5″

Breaking away from the established New York Camera Club in 1902,  Alfred Stieglitz organized the exhibition, “American Photography arranged by the Photo-Secession,”  which brought together like-minded photographers, including Eduard (later Edward) Steichen, Gertrude Käsebier, Clarence H. White. They would soon formally establish the Photo-Secession movement. With an objective to free their medium from its status as the “handmaiden of science and commerce,”   it’s not a surprise that they turned to emulation of the painting and print-making styles of the day—primarily the Impressionists.  The “painterly” photograph was achieved through several means—laborious hand coating of papers with metals and chemicals to enhance the gauzy and stipple effects, as well as by manipulation of the negative or print through double exposure, softening of the focus, and over drawing. The Photo-Secessionists chose to work within the thematic categories already staked out by painters—portraits, landscapes, nudes, mythical/historical scenes, and everyday activities.

In 1903 Stieglitz launched his journal Camera Work, the vehicle through which he showcased the work of the Photo-Secessionists (including new members like Alvin Langdon Condon), as well as European colleagues, such as Baron Adolf de Meyer (both of whom formally joined the group later).  From the body of work that was presented on the pages of the magazine, the photographers’ debt to painting is well-illustrated. How closely Stieglitz’s “Gossip” above resembles certain Impressionists in composition and theme. Steichen’s portrait below bears a striking similarity to Matisse and Degas portraits.

Incredible as it seems, Camera Work, published quarterly from 1903-1917, was the first photographic journal to be visual in focus; it featured multiple reproductions per page, although the scale of the originals was obliterated by the identical sizing of the reproductions.  Stieglitz was a renowned perfectionist and the magazine was printed according to exacting standards—wherever possible photographs were reproduced from negatives using the photogravure technique (an intaglio process used to reproduce photographs); the photogravures were printed on fragile, translucent Japanese tissue, then mounted on high-quality art paper in a shade complimentary to the tonal variations of the images.

de-meyer-still-life-19081

Baron Adolf de Meyer, Still Life, 1908,
photogravure, approximately 6.45 x 8.8″

Stieglitz would continue to publish Camera Work until 1917. The final issue featured the thoroughly modernist work of photographer Paul Strand.

Wider Connections

Camera Work

The Art of the Photogravure

Baron de Meyer / Portrait Gallery

Stieglitz at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set Collection

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