It’s February 2020 and I’m looking at two prints laid side-by-side on a work table in the Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Photography. Each shows a wooded pond in Westchester County in the dark of night, the moon rising, shining dimly between the trees that line the far edge of the water. In each case it is the same scene—the same brute visual information—and both images are rendered in soft focus, with a similarly Romantic atmosphere. But they are different.
On one side is Moonrise—Mamaroneck, New York (1904) by Edward Steichen; the artist gave it to MoMA in 1964. Beside it is a second print of the same negative, also an original from Steichen’s hand that had been recently acquired as part of a large gift. The path that brought it to the museum was circuitous: the artist originally gave it to Alfred Stieglitz, who sold it in 1906 for seventy-five dollars—at that time a relatively high price. It then made its way, via several private owners, to the Gilman Paper Company Collection and, in turn, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who auctioned it for 2.9 million dollars, then the most ever paid for a photograph. The anonymous buyer turned out to be Gayle Greenhill, a longtime supporter of MoMA’s Department of Photography, and after she died her extensive collection went to the department, where I encountered the Steichen print.
The works I saw in 2020 are two of the only three surviving original prints of this photograph—the third is owned by the Metropolitan. This is why they sold the one they had acquired from Gilman: it was, to a pragmatic way of thinking, a spare. But I can’t help wondering what it would have been to see all three at once, because each of the two I looked at in 2020 had a very different visual effect. The MoMA print is cool, with a fairly consistent blue-green tonality, while the recent acquisition is warmer and more varied in color. In particular, the moon glows with a rich and complex hue that at times approaches yellow-orange. As a result, the images create very different relationships with the viewer. I felt a kind of push-pull: both images are seductive, but the MoMA print keeps you at arm’s length, on the surface. The color of the Greenhill print, on the other hand, seems not just to invite you in, but to body forth and envelop the gaze.
These differences are owed to Steichen’s darkroom practices—he used a wide range of difficult alternative processes that allowed him to modify the effect of the final print with great precision. Chief among these techniques was combination printing: multiple, layered photographic prints, in various materials, on a single support. Both of the photographs I saw are combination prints, but they were executed in different ways. Steichen was closely engaged with the problem of how to create color effects in photography, and he experimented widely in pursuit of this goal. The MoMA work has two layers. First a platinum print (the preferred image material of those creating self-consciously “artistic” photography at that time) and then a ferroprussiate—or cyanotype—print that enriches the grayscale platinum, endowing the final image with its blueish palette.
The Greenhill photograph is more intricate. Again the foundation is a platinum print, but then Steichen carried out several subsequent printings in pigmented, photosensitive gum bichromate. The gum bichromate process allowed Steichen to introduce multiple colors in particular parts of the photograph, and to directly modify the final image during the printing and developing stages—using a brush he could “paint” in the pigmented gum. Despite its flexibility, this technique presented significant practical challenges. The gum emulsions are extremely sensitive to changes in humidity and temperature, and the registration of each layer has to be precise to avoid spoiling the final image. Steichen had mastered this laborious and exacting technique, and he used it to create a small number of masterpiece prints in the early years of the twentieth century.
Steichen’s combination prints defy much of what we today expect from photographs. Since William Henry Fox Talbot’s popularization of positive-negative photographic printing on paper, the quality that has come to define photography most powerfully is its reproducibility. Using negatives, a photographer can make copies of their work that are functionally interchangeable, thus allowing for wide and easy circulation of images. The explosion of digital photography moved us a lot further along this path: now photographic images need not be tied to any original negative or material substrate, but circulate freely as information. The implicit virtuality of an infinitely reproducible image is now made literal—the photographs most commonly encountered in day-to-day life are no longer physical objects in any straightforward sense.
By contrast, Steichen’s combination prints (and those made by other historic or alternative processes, like daguerreotypes or tintypes) are obdurately material. They have an artifactual quality that I feel palpably when I encounter them. More than that, they are unique, and reproducing them would be a task more like copying a painting than editioning a conventional photographic print. The differences between the two prints I saw in 2020 made this very clear.
Although they might not have framed it in these terms, to Steichen and his fellow-travelers in the Pictorialist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the uniqueness of a combination print—the importance of the artist’s direct intervention in the printing and developing of a particular photograph—was a significant selling point. The Pictorialists wanted to secure the status of “Art” for photography, which was widely described as a merely mechanical, rather than artistic, process. They believed that the way to do this was to imitate the effects of more established mediums, like painting and printmaking, that were already accepted as effective ways to express the truth of an artist’s subjective experience.
Ultimately, the Pictorialists would not succeed in convincing the wider world that a photograph was “Art” in the same way that a painting was. In fact, after World War I Steichen himself lost interest in this agenda, focusing instead on using photography as a tool of mass communication. The center line of self-consciously artistic photography shifted instead towards unmanipulated prints that privileged sharp focus and a capacity for direct reportage, qualities that came to be considered most essential to the medium. In the 1910s, Alfred Stieglitz, once Steichen’s mentor and a leader of international Pictorialism, began to champion such “straight” photographs, identifying the hard-edged and raw images of Paul Strand as the most truthful artistic photography of the moment.
This way of thinking is easily described in familiar modernist terms as a kind of formalist medium-specificity—the idea that artistic value inheres in the artwork’s investigation of those qualities most unique to a given medium. Although manipulated photography has been widely practiced throughout the entire history of the medium, the value system associated with medium-specificity and straight photography would dominate the mainstream of artistic practice for much of the twentieth century. And it was broadly in these terms that photography would begin to achieve widespread acceptance within the art world during the 1970s. Within this narrative, a work like Moonrise—Mamaroneck, which operates outside much of what is usually understood to be important about photography, represents an aberration: a mistake, or at best a curiosity.
My experience of the prints at MoMA suggested something different. Moonrise—Mamaroneck still has much to teach us, even today, about what photography can do. How do we understand the function of photography? And more importantly, perhaps, where do we locate its value?
From its invention, photography has been recognized for its ability to communicate ostensibly reliable information about reality. It is, after all, “the pencil of nature,” producing images whose relationship with their subject is indexical rather than symbolic or iconic, easy to imagine as direct transcriptions or even physical imprints of phenomena in the world. But the Edward Steichen who shot Moonrise—Mamaroneck in 1904 was after something else. He and his Pictorialist colleagues located the value of a photograph in its ability to convey an artist’s subjective experience, expressed as directly as possible in a language of visible signs that was borrowed largely from painting, drawing, and printmaking. A formalist working some decades later might have agreed that the value of a photograph comes from its ability to convey the perspective and experience of the artist, but they would frame this rather differently, emphasizing engagement with the qualities they saw as most distinctive and essential to the medium of photography itself.
What my encounter with Moonrise—Mamaroneck and its counterpart from the Gayle Greenhill Collection impressed upon me is that none of these ways of thinking can exhaust all the ways we might experience the works themselves. Photography’s documentary function, consistently undermined throughout its history, looks particularly shaky in an era of Photoshopped Instagram posts and deepfakes. Traditional modernist narratives, too, have been long discredited as guarantors of value, whether they take an expressionist or strictly formalist tack. So what is left? Certainly, the image itself remains, still capable of provoking an experience that is embodied and specific—but this can’t mean the same thing in 2023 as it did in 1904.
However close my attention to the particularity of the prints themselves, they were and are embedded in a network of reproductions and recontextualizations, from the photogravure that appeared in the April 1906 issue of Stieglitz’s Camera Work to the illustration that accompanies this essay—a century and more of circulation, interpretation, and elaboration. This decentered way of conceiving the artwork can never provide the same sensation as an encounter with the thing itself. But replicating such a specific experience is neither necessary nor even desirable. Instead, what we find is precisely the opposite: multifariousness of meaning, the possibility of experiencing the work in ways that are radically different.
And ultimately, being responsive to this openness of meaning enriches my experience of the two prints themselves, each with its own distinct physicality and emotional register. Now that the modernist project has run its course, now that digital technology has so thoroughly transformed the way images are circulated and understood, the seeds of a larger constellation of meaning become visible even in Steichen’s unique and palpably material photographs.