Steichen Camera work 14
Camera Work #14 cover design
© Edward Steichen

Not only Steichen made me think about black and white as pure and simple stylistic expressive choice, as actually all the characteristics of the photography, but also the characteristics of his platinum prints ridicules the never-ending technical research that aims to obtain a formal perfection on antique print techniques. The continuous research of deepest blacks, maximum details, absence of imperfections and stains is nonsense and a masochism act. The evolution of the photographic techniques always tries to simplify and improve the procedure to get technically perfect, clear, contrasted, prints with a huge tonal range. I think it’s kind of stupid to print with an antique technique, on a hand-made paper and spend months to try to ameliorate it to the point of creating the perfect print, as it would have been printed by a machine. If the expressive choice is the formal perfection in the pure sense of the term, well: let’s print digital! The choice of using antique print procedures is more coherent when the goal is achieve non-conventional images.

In the middle of the pictorialism of the turn of the century

Steichen solitude
© Edward Steichen

After platinum, the displaying Steichen, une épopée photographique head on with beautiful gum bichromate prints. Absolutely wonderful and perfect, probably the best I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Curiously, blacks are far deeper and prints much more contrasted in relation with platinum. The exact contrary of what is expected. Gum gives black shadows only when lots of prints are overlapped, while with platinum is extremely easy. Rationally, bichromate gum would be used for delicate images while platinum for contrasted images. But Steichen works exactly in the opposite way. This is a teaching for all those who think that each antique technique is destined to a unique type of photography, or even to a unique subject. Each technique can in fact be adapted for every personal exigencies.

Steichen Self portrait
Self portrait
© Edward Steichen

One of the bichromate gum I mostly adored is “Self portrait”. I noticed with pleasure that the print interventions weren’t limited to the developing phase. In this print there are several evident, direct and accurate interventions. Steichen actually applied light blows on the palette, the brush, the line on the background and the collar of the shirt, directly adding brush strokes of white color on the picture. They turned out to be some exceptional expressive and technical interventions. A humiliating defeat for those who go on a crusade against digital, sustaining that digital images are not Photography because interventions twist their nature turning pictures into non-photographical images. People should at list stop pretending not to know photography history. Interventions on images, sometime even more radical than the nowadays computer retouching, were born together with photography and were absolutely common at the beginning of last century. Digital didn’t do anything but giving some more tools to photographers.

Steichen The Pond-Moonlight
The Pond-Moonlight
© Edward Steichen

The overview on antique printing techniques ends with some large-sized carbon prints and some wonderful photogravures. These last are outstanding and I do understand why Steichen and Stieglitz considered them as real printings and not only simply photographical reproduction. Finally, having the possibility to see the real The Pond-Moonlight, that is at the moment the second most expensive picture ever, has been an emotional moment.

Talking about pictures, and not only about technique, almost all the images of the pictorialism are amazing. Some more “beginning of century” type, some despite pictorialism are extraordinarily modern.

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