Unreal Nature

February 15, 2017

A Tremulous, Waning, Crepuscular Light

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… The subject existed for them as something desired, but not actually contacted.

This is from New York: Capital of Photography by Max Kozloff (2002):

… With their repeated contacts, their principles of selection, and the development of urban types, photographers became eloquent in sustaining long-term ideas about New York.

It’s not just that the image describes it, it also draws out certain features, to which later photographers respond in kind. As it builds, this dialogue becomes an imaginative continuum that attributes notions of worth and consequence to even a humble human settlement. It would be fair to call these notions the beginning of myths. Even when myths are partially grounded in fact, they uphold the dream a people has of itself. As New York was never a humble place, its myth could hardly be modest.

[ … ]

Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), who came from a wealthy German-Jewish family in Hoboken, New Jersey, was a man of independent means who announced himself as a cosmopolitan aesthete and a messiah of photography as a fine art.

His circle (known as the Photo-Secession) numbered, among others, Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966), Edward Steichen (1979-1973), and Karl Struss (1886-1981).

steichen_flatiron
Edward Steichen, Flatiron Building, 1904

… They shared a loyalty to Walt Whitman’s apostolic vision of America’s grandeur, if not his egalitarian ethos. For their subject, they chose New York’s growth, manifested through an efflorescence of towers just then rising before their eyes. In their intellectual temperament, they were Symbolists, devoted to “a higher reality.”

[line break added] In their artistic sympathies, they were Tonalists, indebted to Camille Corot, James McNeill Whistler, and George Inness (whose later work at Montclair, New Jersey, is a direct precedent of Steichen’s landscapes). So, the first thing to notice when looking at the work of the Photo Secessionists is its paradox: a eulogy to the most up-to-date urban forms visualized through a pastoral style.

This “Pictorialism” acted as a filter that transformed a drab urbanscape — at least critics thought it drab, even ugly — into picturesque schemata. The filtered effect was realized through muted shades and half lit zones, although Steichen also used a soft-focus lens to achieve his poetic goal. A tremulous, waning, crepuscular light affects this pictorial vision of the ultra-modern.

[line break added] It was a sign of their precious taste that the Pictorialists executed their imagery through the exquisite modulations made available by platinum prints. They added simplicity to refinement through a compositional sense, influenced by Japanese woodcuts, that flattened the volumes of motifs, rendering them as dark silhouettes in a twilight sky. The subject existed for them as something desired, but not actually contacted.

… Not only does the pictorial veil obscure the forms of the tower and other “monsters,” it effects an emotional distance from them as well. There’s more than a hint of nostalgia in this distance, for the disembodied banks and buildings appear to recede in time, as if, together, they comprise a profile that will have to be remembered. The scrim through which they’re perceived acts as the gauze of memory. Though animated by steam and smoke, the Lower Manhattan of Stieglitz’s City of Ambition of 1910 has a spectral quality that does not auger confidence in the scene to come.

stieglitz_cityofambition1910
Alfred Stieglitz, The City of Ambition, 1910

To be continued.

-Julie

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