Sunday, 24 October 2010

Research: Edward Steichen

“A portrait is not made in the camera, but on either side of it.” Edward Steichen

I'd like to pretend, I have an encyclopedic knowledge of photographers, that when pressed, I could instantly rattle off a list of the most important and influential photographers of all time. Sadly, this isn't the case. I could probably bluff my way through a conversation with the casual enthusiast (dropping an Ansel Adams here, or a David Bailey there), but, if confronted by a genuine student of photography, I would probably only succeed, in embarrassing myself. So, having made this admission, I'd like, if I may, to introduce you to Mr Edward Steichen.

Edward J Steichen by Nickolas Muray
If I'm being perfectly honest (and that would appear to be the case), I've never heard of Edward Steichen...correction, I hadn't heard of Edward Steichen. That is, until about a week ago. Whilst looking at Marie's blog, I came across a link to: Steichen in Color. This is a book discussing Steichen's experiments with the different methods of creating colour photographs, in the early part of the 20th century. Always eager to expand my knowledge, I quickly ordered a copy, and simply had to wait for it to arrive. When it did, I wasn't disappointed. My eyes have since been opened, not only to a highly accomplished photographer, but to the great contributions he made to photographic art. As a result, I've decided to change the theme of my main assignment, and include more colour, than I'd originally intended.

Frances Farmer, September 21, 1937 by Edward Steichen

I really like this portrait, the wistful look on her face and subtle catchlights in her eyes, encourage an emotional connection with the subject. You find yourself wondering what she's thinking about while she poses. I think the texture and colour of the backdrop, combined with the muted nature of her clothes, also gives the picture an interesting tonal quality. Produced as a 33.5 x 25cm colour print,  Steichen used a complicated process known as dye imbibition. I won't pretend I understand the process, but it involved the production of three negatives, each of which would then have been turned in to dye absorbing gelatine matrix (no, me either.) these matrices would then have been placed on a piece of paper, and the absorbed dyes would have been secreted on to the paper, creating a colour image.

Charlotte Spaulding Albright 1908: Autochrome By Edward Steichen
Before taking up photography, Steichen trained as a painter. When you look at his work, you can easily see how this has influenced his approach to photographs. His portraits are often highly stylised, with the models formally posed and containing traditional props, such as a bouquet of flowers. I think this traditional approach was also the result of his desire that photography be considered a proper art form. A good example of this, is his picture of Charlotte Spaulding Albright. It reminds me of Gustav Klimt's painting Adele Bloch-Bauer I. Klimt's painting was completed in 1907, only a year before Steichen's autochrome. Looking at them, they both successfully convey the regal nature of the subject, and the texture of Miss Spaulding Albright's clothes, closely echoes the complex patterns present in the picture.

Adele Bloch Bauer I, by Gustav Klimt
Although I could never hope to replicate the complex methods Steichen used. If possible, I'm going to try and include a pose, or object in some of my pictures that will act as subtle reference to his work.

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