Edward Steichen

Edward Steichen at my desk.

I won’t pretend to be a scholar of photography, but paging through Edward Steichen’s work is a source of inspiration and delight for me. Edward Steichen was one of the photographers in the 20th century who had a career spanning a large chunk of the technological advances that were made. He was a pillar in the photo succession movement He was a champion of photography and the power of the visual language. He curated the famous “Family Of Man” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, was a very successful commercial photographer and, pretty much was a giant influence to photography as we know it. His work is in every major museum with a photography collection

While no book can compare with seeing the real images, Steichen’s Legacy does pretty good justice to the originals.

Edward Steichen printed in platinum, creating images that were the foundation of the pictorialist movement. That’s what I’m going to briefly focus on.

I love his treatment of darkness in his early work. As a platinum printer, I struggle to achieve clear, powerful information in shadows. Platinum can handle very subtle shifts in tone, and working in a deep palette is possible but tricky. Platinum can’t compete with the intense blacks available in gelatin silver printing, but that is like comparing the tones between electric and acoustic guitars. With platinum, you create what I like to call “implied darkness”. In technical terms, that means your Dmax (maximum black) might not be as dark as “Smell The Glove“, but you can create a sense of black by working with the contrast and color of your print. In non-technical terms, imagine the tones and contrast of light just after sunset.

The early solution to achieving a darker Dmax was using gum bichromate over the platinum print. This allowed Steichen to create mood through color and density that would have been otherwise impossible. A brief description of the gum printing process is as follows: mix a pigment (water-color paint) with gum arabic and potassium dichromate. Paint this on your paper, expose to light with your negative in a contact printing frame. When the exposure is how you like it, develop it in water. You can paint several layers of color onto an image. This is only a quick thumbnail sketch of the process. More information on the process can be found here.

Gum Over Platinum

Gum Over Platinum

I respond to pictorialism because the images are not so concerned with looking like photographs. Cameras are able to register tremendous detail which makes them indispensable for a variety of technical recording purposes. This has always been the case. Some of the pictorialist images are a little too “emotional” in response to the notion that photography couldn’t be considered art. At that time, the only art forms up for serious consideration were painting, drawing and the like. Photography was too “scientific” or “real” and could only be used for documentary purposes. That isn’t to suggest that great art wasn’t made with a camera shortly after the invention of the medium.  Steichen was one of the first photographers to bridge that space and define the genre in the 20th century. His technical skill matched with lyrical vision was essential to furthering the art of photography. He was in the right place at the right time but he also defined the time.

When I am looking for a little inspiration for my own work, Steichen serves me very well. If you have even the smallest amount of interest in the platinum printing process, this book will provide more than enough information to get you started.