05 April 2011

Photography Pioneers

"The Flatiron" Edward Steichen (1904)

I love photography, especially early examples. Is there anything more beautiful than a gelatin silver print? So a few weeks ago I headed to the Met to view the exhibit “Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand.” Featuring 115 images from the Met’s collection, the exhibit proved why these three were pioneers in the field of American photography at the turn of the century.

Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Paul Strand helped to further the cause of American photography, creating new camera techniques and elevating photography to an art form. Stieglitz, considered the father of modern photography, founded the influential journal Camera Work in 1903 and both Steichen and Strand’s works were featured heavily in its pages.

 "Georgia O'Keefe—Hands" Alfred Stieglitz (1917)

Of the three, I was most familiar with Stieglitz. I had just seen many of his New York photos a few months before so was keen to see examples of another of his favourite subjects—his wife Georgia O’Keefe. Stieglitz liked to photographer her, a lot (he made more than 300 portraits). Many of the photos are of her parts—face, breasts, feet. He especially liked to photograph her hands, which were, upon inspection, quite beautiful.

 "Blind" Paul Strand (1916)

The work of two of Stieglitz’ protégées round out the exhibit. Strand wanted to capture the movement of the city (he would later go on to work in documentary film) and everyday people. He would often attach a trick lens to his camera in order to get his shots without the subjects looking at the camera. His work exemplifies early street photography, and its immediacy gives many of his photos a modern look.

 "Untitled" Edward Steichen (1904). This woman could be a sitter for John Singer Sargent.

But it was Edward Steichen whose work I enjoyed the most. Steichen had partnered with Stieglitz to open the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession (later known as 291), which brought European artists’ work to the attention of Americans. Steichen, who had started out painting, applied his painter’s eye to the lens and many of his photographs have a dream-like quality to them. Probably his most famous photo in the exhibit is of the iconic Flatiron building. Many have photographed the building, including Stieglitz, but Steichen’s photo stands out. Appearing at first to be a painting, the blurriness of the light and silhouetted figure adds a romantic air to the photo (and brings to mind the setting for a Victorian mystery).

The exhibit is only at the Met for a few more days (until April 10). If you can’t make it, there is a wonderful exhibition catalogue that contains reproductions of many of the photographs.

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