Dover’s History Trip- Part III

By David Vestal Back to


This is the third installment of a series in which David Vestal gives insight into historic photographs selected from Great Photographs from Daguerre to the Great Depression, a book and CD-ROM published by Dover Publications and used with their permission.

089. Mission, Santa Clara Pueblo, by Adam Clark Vroman, 1899. Probably a dry plate. The slanting sunlight says morning or afternoon, I can’t tell which. This is an admirable photograph by a man well known for his photographs of the Hopi people, which are well worth seeing. There’s at least one very good book of his work.

095. Portrait—Miss N. (Evelyn Nesbit), 1902, by Gertrude Käsebier.

095. Miss N. [Evelyn Nesbit], by Gertrude Käsebier, 1902. Miss N. was a famous beauty, and Käsebier was one of New York’s great portrait photographers, well known for her exquisite use of soft-focus lenses and her sense of shimmering light.

This portrait isn’t typical: it is sharper than much of her work, and doesn’t shimmer.

097. The Flatiron, 1905, by Edward Steichen.

Gossip: Laura Gilpin, who was a young admirer of Käsebier in the 1910s and became her friend, told me in the 1970s that when Alfred Stieglitz stopped making soft-focus pictures, he hurt Käsebier’s feelings by insisting that she should go in for sharpness, too. Laura said he was really mean about it. Käsebier was right to go on making fuzzy pictures because she made such good ones. They were right for her. This portrait, though unfuzzy, still represents her well. Note the beautiful use of clear black shapes around the white figure.

097. The Flatiron, by Edward Steichen, 1905. I’m not sure of the medium. At that time Steichen mixed them freely. At a guess, call this a multiple gum-bichromate platinum print, a term vague enough so it might even fit. I’ve seen some of his MGBP prints from that time, and they are rich. The Flatiron Building was new and famous, and everyone who could get there (23rd St. and Fifth Ave. and Broadway) photographed it. Terminally artistic though it is, this is a splendid photograph, and I’m much pleased by how good it looks in inkjet, printed from Dover’s CD-ROM.

098. Alfred Stieglitz at 291 [Fifth Avenue], by Edward Steichen, 1915. By that time the negative was probably on film instead of a glass plate, and the print might be on a silver chloride paper or platinum paper, sold at photo stores. A nice touch is the signature on the face of the print, with the year in Roman numerals, which shows that it’s art. It’s a pleasant portrait and looks spontaneous, which may or may not be true. Steichen and Stieglitz were both very good at publicity but would have denied it with horror. I had never seen this picture before and liked it as soon as I saw it in Dover’s book. I like it partly for its modesty: it doesn’t try to impress us.

098. Alfred Stieglitz at 291 [Fifth Avenue, 1915, by Edward Steichen.”

291 Fifth Avenue(old style–the numbers have all changed) was north of the Flatiron Building. Steichen had a studio there and turned it over to Stieglitz, who first called it “The Little Gallery of the Photo Secession” and later just “291,” the street address, but with mystical overtones. Steichen progressed from being a protégé of Stieglitz to being a collaborator. It was Steichen, in Paris, who sent work by such new and unknown artists as Picasso and Matisse to Stieglitz, who was the first to exhibit them in the USA. Then came the Great War and disagreement: Steichen favored England and France and went into the US Army in 1917, and Stieglitz wished that Germany would win. They never really got together again.

099. The Sea of Steps—Wells Cathedral, 1903, by Frederick H. Evans.

099. The Sea of Steps−Wells Cathedral, by Frederick H. Evans, 1903. Probably a film negative, definitely a platinum print, aka a platinotype. Evans was a bookseller, and, being the person he was, I imagine he sold only books that he liked. When not selling books, he photographed, and more often than not he photographed the interiors of cathedrals and other buildings of which he approved. He also did portraits, and the one he made of his protégé, the young artist Aubrey Beardsley, is remarkably expressive and fine. Evans wrote, “I think portraiture by the camera can give a far greater, more intimate sense of identity than any save the work of the very greatest painters,” an observation that also applies to his photographs of cathedrals. He liked his photos “pure,” meaning unmanipulated. He rejected any picture that didn’t satisfy him when printed “straight,” with no local work to make any part of it lighter or darker. Platinum printing, which is self-masking to a considerable extent, greatly facilitated his work, and he did it beautifully. When platinum paper was discontinued, he tried printing on bromide paper and hated it. So he stopped photographing. I have seen some of his attempts on bromide paper, and they are miserable, so he was right. My best inkjet of this Wells Cathedral picture is much better than his bromide prints but falls far short of his platinum prints, which have a satisfying unity that my inkjet lacks. Its tones are all clear, but they don’t fit together as well.

110. Vortograph of Ezra Pound, 1917, by Alvin Langdon Coburn.

110. Vortograph of Ezra Pound, by Alvin Langdon Coburn, 1917. Before and during the first World War there was a great flowering of avant garde art and literary movements. One was Vorticism, the brain child of a British painter and novelist, Wyndham Lewis. Coburn was a young American aesthete who photographed well and independently and went to live in England, where he made sure to meet the best known British artists and intellectuals. He was talent- ed, innovative and ambitious, and his photos of Great Men went into a book titled Men of Mark. I suppose Wyndham Lewis was a Man of Mark. This photo is the only source of my inference that he influenced Coburn. Ezra Pound was a poet’s poet, yes, greatly respected, and probably deserved it. As you see, the photo consists of four expos- ures superimposed, and it’s a handsome piece of work. I suppose it was a quadruple exposure in the camera, though it might have been a four-part or club sandwich in the printing frame, or two double exposures combined, or….I can’t figure it out. Maybe you can. Regardless of its puzzle aspect, I quite like the result, which I never saw before.

Cut to the 1950s. The Museum of Modern Art issued a long list of photographers in its collection: Alvin Langdon Coburn was listed as dead. Later the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY, where Beaumont Newhall was amassing another great collection, printed a portfolio of photos by Coburn, which I reviewed for some nonpaying publication. I liked his pictures and, trying to understand this unique photographer, wrote that he seemed to be a very industrious butterfly. A few weeks after that was pub- lished, I got a letter from Coburn, alive and well in Wales. He’d seen the review and was pleased with my description. His letter ended with an invitation to visit him “next time you’re on this side of the pond.”

About the Author

David Vestal
David Vestal is a photographer and teacher whose publications include The Art of Black & White Enlarging (1984) and The Craft of Photography. His photographs are exhibited internationally and are found in numerous private and public collections including New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. The wit and wisdom of his commentaries have long earned him a strong following among readers.