Steichen Flatiron
Flatiron © Edward Steichen

The first European retrospective of Edward Steichen has been presented during the last months of 2007 at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. It was an exhibition I had to visit because, even if I knew the most famous images of Steichen, I barely saw his original works of his first pictorialist years. Moreover, the 450 photos that were part of the exhibition were a sure promise to deepen the knowledge of one of the most prolific and incisive photographer of the last century.

The exhibition starts, as expected, with the first pictorialist pictures of the beginning of the long Steichen career. I deeply looked all the pictures from the technique side, as I am an insider and a printer of antique techniques, even if I didn’t forget the aesthetic side.

The malediction of Ansel Adams

Steichen, Pool Milwaukee
Pool, Milwaukee
© Edward Steichen

I was suddenly hit by the platinum prints of Steichen. They completely detach from contemporary platinum prints that are all characterized by deep blacks, tonal range as long as a piano keyboard, bright and soft whites, elevated contrast and legibility of shadows, where the separation of tones is always excellent. I do know for my personal experience that it’s not easy to completely brighten high lights, where often a little veil or a warm tone remains, even if that doesn’t take away luminosity to whites. In spite of everything, contemporary platinum/palladium blacks are always the deepest.

The assumption that deepest blacks come from platinum prints is a boast of photographers that use this antique print procedure as one of the platinum most attractive characteristic. In the ambit of fine art digital print, the arrival of new ink generation for printer was nothing short of a news that surprised, as it allows higher dmax than the traditional platinum one. The fact is, platinum and palladium seem to rhyme with darkest shadows, where details remain decipherable, opaque and not lucid shadows, but with an absolutely elevated dmax.

Steichen Rodin penseur
Rodin penseur
© Edward Steichen

Steichen platinum prints, for example Pool, Milwaukee, all have diametrically opposed features. The darkest shadows of the image never get over a bright grey, without achieving a level that could be defined black. Whites are practically absent, therefore the tonal range is short, pictures are grey and the contrast is missing. Prints seem obtained by negatives developed for prints on fiber paper, highly underexposed on ultraviolet during the printing.

Obviously Steichen was a great printer and the print characteristics do not depend by errors but probably they are a precise aesthetic choice. Looking at all these prints has been an amazing experience and brought me to a series of reflection.

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