Issue #176  11/18/2010
Photo Books: Steichen's Hues, Fielding's Children

By Matt Damsker



Foreword by Joanna Steichen, introduction by Alison Nordstrom and Jessica Johnston. Sterling Innovation, an imprint of Sterling Publishing, New York/London. 127 pages, approximately 60 color prints; hardbound; $25 US, $32 CAN. ISBN No. 978-1-4027-6000-6. Information: http://www.sterlingpublishing.com .

Though best known for his classic black-and-white images, Edward Steichen (1879-1973) was a pioneer of color photography, beginning early in the 20th century when he adopted the Lumière brothers' one-of-a-kind autochrome process. He later turned his restless eye to the modern dye imbibition technique (more familiarly branded as dye transfer and Technicolor), producing a broad variety of fashion and celebrity portraits for the likes of "Vogue" and "Vanity Fair" magazines, as well as images of his beloved Connecticut gardens.

Many of those splendid prints were bequeathed by Steichen's late wife, Joanna, to the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, NY, and they form the basis of this excellent hardbound portfolio. Joanna Steichen's introduction regales us with some affectionate details of their May-December marriage, while Eastman House curators Alison Nordström and Jessica Johnston provide a more technical overview of Steichen's color work, noting the highly saturated and enduring qualities of dye imbibition--a transfer of dyes from three gelatin matrices, bred from three separation negatives, on a sheet of gelatin-coated paper.

This long-favored process allowed color photographers a large measure of control of the finished print, since it required the independent transferring of each of its three colors (magenta, yellow, cyan) onto the paper. Steichen's experimental bent resulted in some wonderful series, most notably his ravishing 1940 images of flowers in a vase, for which he intentionally mismatched each of the three gelatin matrices with different colored dyes, creating surreal versions of the multi-colored blooms. Ultimately, few if any of the mismatches prove more interesting than the true-colored version (the off-colors seem mostly bleached, burnt or unfinished), with its gorgeous profusion of reds, yellows and whites against an elegantly black background. The series is finely reproduced here.

So are the many more conventional images of Steichen color, including two dreamy, Pictorialist autochromes (recently discovered) of socialite Charlotte Spaulding Albright, circa 1908, in flowing gowns, her hair pinned up in the fashion of the day, her gaze far off, evoking the paintings of John Singer Sargent by way of Gustav Klimt. More touching, in their way, are the less formal images of Steichen's wives and daughters, posing for him with bouquets, sunflowers, tennis rackets, or sensitively staring at his lens. These early works culminate in a stunningly mysterious "Portrait of a Young Woman" (1940), black-hatted and wool-scarved.

Progressing through Steichen's magazine work of the 1930s, the book offers a fascinating variety, from the garish (Anna May Wong, in Oriental silks) to the stilted (a model in a bonnet, posed unconvincingly with a flower basket) to the nobly iconic (Eleanor Roosevelt, Clare Booth Luce, Collette). Ultimately, we remain most thankful for Steichen's mastery of black-and-white, but these color shots remind us that he weighted all of his exposures with a deep sense of the world's infinite hue.



Foreword by Alan Thomas, introduction by Britt Salvesen, essay by Vince Aletti. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago/London; 137 pages, 68 duotones; hardbound, $55. ISBN-13 No. 978-0-226-24852-3. Information: http://www.jedfielding.com ; http://www.press.uchicago.edu .

This unique monograph, published to accompany an exhibition of the same name last year at the Chicago Cultural Center, documents the faces and, perhaps more so, the life force of the children at several schools for the blind in Mexico City. Jed Fielding--a widely noted, collected and award-winning photographer who studied with Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan at the Rhode Island School of Design--took his time in distilling this strangely inspiring essence, capturing these images between 1998 and 2005, and they are very much of a piece.

Shot mostly in close up, these black-and-white exposures are warmly toned and, no surprise, richly expressive, reflecting their subjects' sightless experience of a world that seems, to us, mostly interior. The unseeing eyes, some of them hooded and dark, others milky and pupil-less, others simply shut, can be hard to look at, but Fielding's camera draws us into the metaphysic of sight in a fresh way, emphasizing the fierce physicality of his subjects, refusing to idealize or romanticize them. As Britt Salveson notes in the book's introduction: "Blindness is…generously represented as a symbolic category but less often considered as somatic reality."

Thus, the faces of these children convey intensity, often joy, and a sense of flight, whether their bodies are sprawled on the ground, arms flailing, or when they merely gaze upward, in the grip of some unimaginable wonder. Inevitably, they convey secretiveness and a troubling remoteness--the closer Fielding comes to their flesh, the farther away from us they seem. We can comprehend them better from a middle distance, seeing them claw and gnaw playfully at each other, enacting the primal need to connect, to reach outside their body-worlds, turning toward the sound of Fielding's frequent command, "Look at me!"

Formally and stylistically, his photography can't avoid echoes: Siskind's gelatin-silver richness, Avedon's frontal portraiture, Arbus's hauntedness, but ultimately Fielding has created his own visual vocabulary with these images. It is a byproduct of his subjects' photographic innocence, or as Vince Aletti observes in his essay: "They had no public, camera-ready faces, only open, wonderfully changeable expressions that Fielding shaped, exaggerated, or softened with plays of shadow and light."

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)