Inspiring Prints: “The Black Canyon” by Edward Steichen

If you’re honest, I suspect you’d admit that the image shown here more than likely wouldn’t make you stop for a long glance, let alone a second glance… based strictly on what you can see from this small thumbnail on a busy web page. Nevertheless, when I saw an original print of it in a New Mexico gallery one day back in 2007, it stopped me in my tracks.

This is “The Black Canyon”, by Edward Steichen. In its original form, made by Steichen himself, it’s a gum bichromate print a bit under 15 x 19 inches in size. From what I can tell, there are only a couple of Steichen’s own prints of this work in existence. I was fortunate to see one on display at Andrew Smith Gallery, then in Santa Fe. I saw quite a few amazing prints during my 2 or 3 visits to the gallery in the mid-2000’s, but none impacted me as much as “The Black Canyon.”

I had been working at digital photography for a few years. After spending much of that time focused on wrestling with digital images in the processing workflow, in 2004 I stumbled almost by accident into digital inkjet printing. Print isn’t wired into digital photography and electronic image sharing, certainly not the way print is so integral to film photography, but I quickly knew I wanted to pursue print. I never practiced film photography to any extent, and never spent time in the darkroom. Because of that, initially I didn’t have the language of print deeply embedded in my expression of photography.

Edward Steichen, 1907, “The Black Canyon”, gum bichromate print

It wasn’t until I saw the print of “The Black Canyon” that I had an epiphany about the nature of print. At least in the realm of art (which is where I operate), the purpose of a print is not to reproduce reality, nor to mimic the image seen on-screen in a digital working process. Rather, a print is a created object in its own right, existing on its own terms with its own aesthetic qualities.

Thinking about “The Black Canyon”, I realized for the first time that my job as a printer wasn’t to make something that looked like the real world, nor something that fully matched my digital working view. Rather it was to make something that stood on its own and expressed something to viewers by tapping into their perceptions, emotions, beliefs, hopes, fears, curiosities, memories… in other words something above, below, within, in addition to the literal facts of what is shown.

Steichen’s print of “The Black Canyon” grabbed me in ways that I still can’t fully explain, especially considering where I was at in my own work in 2007. The print lacked the hallmarks of modern imaging. Rather than being full of rich colour, contrast, detail and so on, it was dark, low-key, lacking detail, a type of greenish toned monochrome (characteristic of gum bichromate) that wasn’t what I thought of as black-and-white. In any photo review I knew of then, I suspect “The Black Canyon” would have been sharply critiqued. Yet despite everything this print seemed not to have going for it, I found it magnetic, elemental, evocative, suggestive, powerful… it drew me in.

Essayist Ronald J. Gedrim writes:

What drove [Steichen], however, was a passionate connection to his subject matter. For all the creative methods and artistic currents of the day that Steichen employed and furthered, they were but a means to expression. For this reason, there is no single school by which to label Steichen. […] The aesthetic puzzle of Steichen’s early work is perhaps even more complex, and he made aesthetic decisions with the same abandon he brought to his choice of technical processes. The technical elements of his photography, however, were always subservient to the emotional connection he felt with his subject.

Ronald J. Gedrim, essay “The Aesthetic Puzzle” (from Todd Brandow and William A. Ewing, 2008, “Edward Steichen: Lives in Photography”, FEP Editions LLC)

I dug up more background on Steichen’s early work and learned that he was a leading practitioner of Pictorialism, by which I was in turn influenced in my own work. Gedrim further writes in his essay:

This emerging new photography was Pictorialism. It drew upon the repertoire of both European and American painters […]. In its sensitivity to the moment, Pictorialism dispensed with the conventional and the trite. Sentiment was to be distinguished from sentimentality, where sentiment went behind the appearances of things to reveal the inherent emotion and beauty that might be found in a given subject.

Ronald J. Gedrim, essay “The Aesthetic Puzzle”

Steichen in particular, and the early Pictorialist school of photography in general, opened me up to the expressive potential of print when I stopped trying to make it only appear to be in reference to the real world subject matter, or to mimic the view on the monitor. “The Black Canyon” will always be at the very top of my personal list of most inspiring prints.

If there are prints that have inspired you, I’d love to hear about them. Feel free to comment here on this article, send me an email, or comment on Facebook.

Print note: To read a bit more about “The Black Canyon”, see this page at the Musée d’Orsay web site. The Parisian museum’s collection holds what may be the only other copy of this print in addition to the one I saw in New Mexico.

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