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Archive for October, 2011

One of the greatest photographers, and maybe the greatest photographer who ever lived, was Edward Steichen.

Steichen embraced the concept of accident and mistake as essential to the creation of beauty. He flirted with disaster. At one time he was comissioned to do a series of photographs of Rodin and his work. Here are the risks he took: He decided to photograph Rodinamong his plaster casts, he decided to shoot his pictures with available light from the windows of Rodin’s studio, he took the photographs at night by moonlight; he manipulated the plates during development; he risked not having another moonlit night to repeat his session.

The results, as I would expect, were magnificent.

But Steichen set out to be a painter, not a photographer. Here is one of his best paintings:

Steichen Self Portrait, 190. Oil on canvas

Steichen Self Portrait, 1901. Oil.

So why do we hardly ever see a painting by this exceptionally good painter?

Steichen followed the modern trends in his photography and his art. As fashion dictated, he dropped his romantic atmospheric approach in favour of geometrical abstractions. Then one day he just stopped painting and burned all the paintings in his studio. The story goes that he saw that his gardener copied one of his paintings with such skill and ease that he felt that painting was nonsense. By contrast his self-portrait could be copied by none but the most skilled of craftsmen.

In this early painting as in his early photographs, Steichen aims for a kind of a blurry, melting, mistiness… darks merging into darks, and lights merging into light. the photographers of the time called this “pictorial photography”, and it included such techniques as blurring his lenses with petroleum jelly and manipulating his negatives and prints in the darkroom.

Sadly, as cameras got better, photography became more mundane and matter-of-fact.

We seek out and we love the mystery in life, the mists, the shadows, the smoke, the rain. It is sad that in photography this was lost as equipment improved, but in painting, the artist’s vision remains, as ever, blurred and darkened, as if seen through tears.

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