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Posted November 2011 in Significant Portfolios
I’ll admit to never having stepped foot on any Hawaiian island, but I did “drive” a few roads in Honolulu recently thanks to Google’s Street View feature, all for the sake of checking out the topography near Maunalua Park, its proximity to Fort Shafter; the island’s oldest military base nearby, and the more distant city of Honolulu itself, an approximate 11 minute trip according to its algorithmic brain trust.
My reasoning for this is the newest addition to this site, an album of gorgeous gum bichromate photographs circa 1900-1910 I’m calling Hawaiian Landscape | Japanese Garden Album, possibly taken by a very gifted amateur photographer who called senior Army headquarters in Honolulu home. What made me pursue this research path? Since no attribution or even titles to the photographs exist in the album, I could only rely on the one clue left in it: a single photographic support stamped “Official Business” evidently used as a mailing envelope.
On the back of it is a return address for the United States War Department, based in Honolulu, further known as Headquarters Hawaiian Department. The other clue was the envelope’s addressed recipient. And this is where the trail gets really maddening, because it is mostly deliberately rubbed out. Just enough to fail any military censor but enough for me to figure out it was addressed to a Commanding Officer, also based in Honolulu. More online checking showed the term Hawaiian Department didn’t come into official use until early in 1913, which then presented another conundrum: the final mounted photograph in the album shows a nighttime view of San Francisco’s Market Street during the September, 1904 encampment of the Sovereign Grand Lodge of the United States and Canadian Independent Order of Odd Fellows.
But photographic archeology can be my peccadillo sometimes. In revisiting “the envelope”, I of course could not leave well enough alone. I went ahead and searched for a Commanding Officer whose first name was Thomas, the name that seems to make sense to my feeble gray matter since the sole letters “Th” appear under the Commanding Officer recipient address stamped on it. The name of Major Thomas J. Smith, who headed the Hawaii Ordnance Depot for the U.S. Army in Honolulu in 1917 was a lone result that turned up, placing it farther away from the working 1900-1910 dates I’ve assigned this album based on the final 1904 image included in it. In that case, I or anyone else may never know who took these lovely- and in the case of surviving artistic photographs from the Hawaiian Islands at the turn of the 20th century- very uncommon and rare photographs.
But the real-life photographer in me does want to give someone credit for them. Were the photographs assembled for the album after the person left military service, if they were ever enlisted in the first place? In that case, the photographer simply re-purposed an old piece of correspondence-addressed to himself or someone else- to throw everyone-and especially yours truly- off his or her trail.
So Aloha to your memory anyway, whomever you are. And thanks for this record of Hawaii from a place lost in time. If desired, please visit here to begin your Hawaiian vacation.
Posted November 2011 in Significant Portfolios
2012 will mark a century since a lovely collection of photographs of Italy were taken and assembled into a personal, miniature Grand Tour type album recently added to our collection here at PhotoSeed. As photographs, I feel they stand on their own strong merits but alas, an elusive missing piece for posterity is a record of their maker. Stamped on the cover is the simple title of its’ contents: Jtalien 1912 (Italy 1912). After purchasing it from a gentleman in Holland several years ago, I quickly deduced the photos were of German origin.
In this regard, language was the clue. Other German material in our archive contains this early spelling for Italy in the German language as well as Italian using the capitol letter “J” instead of an I: Jtalien and Jtalienische. But what sealed the deal for me was the curious addition to the album in the form of a later mounted snapshot of a group of 12 men wearing military clothing. A small sign propped up in front of them states “1914 Feldzug 1915”.
From this photograph I determined they are wearing World War I issue, Imperial German Army uniforms. “Feldzug” further translates to “Campaign” in German. I’m no military expert, but these guys don’t exactly look like they have just returned from the front lines. Instead, they are smiling, one holds a cigar, and another bearded soldier propped up in the back row poses for the camera while placing his hands on the shoulders of his comrades. Two women flank the group and appear to be nurses of some kind. A military hospital setting? Or perhaps soldiers on an extended R&R assignment? Is the same elusive photographer responsible for the marvelous images in this album sitting among them? And why not the possibilty one of the nurses could actually be our photographer? How did this album end up in the Netherlands, which remained neutral during The Great War? For these questions I have no answers at the moment, just more questions.
Another potential clue to the album’s familial origin is the inclusion of a photograph of two women sitting side-saddle on horses. They may only be part of a larger party connected with the album’s fox hunt gathering photographs or merely a separate moment of repose while they take a pleasure ride in another location.
My own hunch is the woman looking directly into the camera on horseback is the same woman shown in a separate album photograph. In it, she presents several gifts-a bottle of wine (?) and clutch of flowers to a group of Italian village children, several barefoot. But again, deductions, not facts.
What I can say conclusively about the album’s 60 or so mounted photographs is they are a visual delight and important record of Italy before the outbreak of World War I. Some of the images are strikingly beautiful: the Italian countryside in particular but also of subject matter one rarely sees in “typical” Grand Tour type albums (not the commercial or snapshot variety) : carefully framed and presented images of dirt roads, life in a back alley, a woman in bonnet caught unawares while most likely harvesting mussels at the seashore, a mysterious detail of a gate affixed with several crosses as well as many of the country’s famous landmarks and important Roman Catholic churches.
These photographs are not topographical records but instead are done with a pronounced pictorialist aesthetic. Printed in multiple colors (ozobrome-a transfer pigment process-may be a hunch for some) and mounted on colored supports-they are individual jewels waiting for your own critical eye. Please follow this link to make your own Italian pilgrimage to the past.
Posted September 2011 in Significant Portfolios, Typography
The process of preparing material for this website has been a real education for me. In picking apart and studying the components making up the two latest French portfolios added: L’Épreuve Photographique (The Photographic Print) for 1904 and 1905, knowledge has come in both large waves and tiny revelations. One of these waves has been some of the poetic, profound, and often humorous writing of French art historian and critic Émile Dacier.
Here is an example of him speaking of his perceptions on the artistic photographic plates-included in his preface to the 1904 portfolio:
“These are the memories of distant lands, these are the tragedies and comedies of the street where chance is the great director, and here the pressure of crowds, the galloping squadrons, the shock waves on the breakers…”
And earlier, his delightful account of Photography and photographers in the dark ages-before their creative impulse was set free:
“Photographers! These terrifying figures to children that their souls have kept long stubborn grudges! …To visit these murderers as children we had to dress up-like the condemned. After the mandatory cutting of the hair, torture ensued by the shaking of the neck yoke…”
Tiny revelations: the editor of L’Épreuve Photographique, Roger Aubry, was not only a photographer and inventor, but a passionate balloonist who survived a crash into the Grand Palais in 1905 while taking photographs above Paris. And another: the very typeface that survives in some of the signage used in the Paris Métro train stations- Auriol, was designed by namesake George Auriol, a French artist, type and graphic designer who used his new typeface as well as other Art Nouveau elements in his commission of L’Épreuve Photographique by the Paris publisher Librairie Plon.
In 1903, Aubry had taken over the editorship of the Librairie Plon’s Annuaire Général et International de la Photographie. (General and International Directory of Photography) Published in Paris, this was an annual encompassing a little bit of everything photographic, but with a more scientific focus in keeping with the tradition of the publication. I was fortunate to have bought a copy of the 1905 edition many years ago, and used it as a reference work when preparing these galleries. “Directeur”, another way of saying “Editor”, is the title assigned Aubry for this publication as well as for L’Épreuve Photographique. My respect for his work in compiling these portfolios keeps in step with the tradition of the enlightened city of Paris, their place of publication. We have additionally prepared a PhotoSeed Highlight for this work here, with a further link to all 96 plates making up the portfolios.
Posted March 2011 in Exhibitions, Significant Portfolios
When I found out last year the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City would be mounting a show on three of the greats: Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Paul Strand, I made a mental note that it would perhaps be the only time some of the greatest photographs of these masters would be assembled as a group for public view in my lifetime. Earlier this year, with daughter in tow from spring break, we made our way up the stairs to the Met’s 2nd floor photographic galleries. Before getting to the good stuff however, I made a beeline for the merchandise—conveniently placed right at the entrance. All I can say is that now I’m the proud owner of a Camera Work hat, apologizing only later to aforementioned daughter and her friend that good, old dad could not resist the idea of giving additional promotion to one of the greatest photographic journals ever printed. Never heard of Camera Work? Then be sure to pay a visit to PhotoSeed’s good friend Photogravure.com, where you can view every plate from the journal beginning here.
The nature of this post concerns something I saw under one of the display cases in the first gallery at the show devoted to the work of Alfred Stieglitz: the Metropolitan’s copy of Picturesque Bits of New York And Other Studies.
What intrigued me the most was that it was opened to the first plate in the portfolio showing Stieglitz’s iconic image known as Winter, Fifth Avenue. What really got me excited was the fact it was printed on chine collé and additionally signed and titled by Stieglitz. Speaking of merchandising, over a century earlier he had teamed up with New York City publisher Robert Howard Russell to produce this portfolio. As an added bonus to the book-buying public, forty “Edition-De-Luxe” copies of the portfolio in a special binding, done from the first impressions with the plates signed by him, were offered at $25.00 each-a king’s ransom for the time. The Met’s copy is one of these special copies.
With just a bit of cursory research from my own library as well as online resources, I discovered that the first issue with this portfolio most likely had to do with Stieglitz promising more than he could pull off. An early promotional advertising poster for R.H. Russell’s involvement with the portfolio spelled out an apparently early incarnation of the title for the work: Picturesque New York. It prominently features the Winter, Fifth Avenue photograph printed as a photogravure. 1.
“In the late 1890’s Stieglitz began a series of photographs of New York that would explore the city’s “myriad moods, lights, and phases”…2.
Had Stieglitz hoped he could assemble enough new material for this portfolio to show his true American roots before finally going to press? The quote highlighted above is believed to refer to work Stieglitz undertook after publication of Picturesque Bits but it is not inconceivable he wasn’t thinking about the New York project much earlier. After all, besides the four images appearing in this portfolio, his early New York work including The Terminal (1893), The Asphalt Paver (1892-3) as well as his general interest in photographing New York’s citizenry including the less fortunate (see Five Points, New York-1893) may have given him impetus enough to pull it off.
The concession finally made by Stieglitz to include some of his “greatest hits” taken from abroad still eliminated (for one copy writer of the time at least) the word “Bits” in the portfolio title. In a “Special Editions For Book Lovers” advertisement issued by R.H. Russell appearing in at least one source: (The Bibelot, 1897), the working title of the portfolio was Picturesque New York And Other Studies. 3.
Finally, a definitive source appeared including the elusive Bits: a booksellers catalogue issued by none other than R.H. Russell towards the end of 1897. In it, the following copy appeared opposite a full-page photograph of A Bit of Venice from the portfolio: 4.
“A few years ago the possibilities of the photographic camera were unrecognized, but we are gradually awakening to the fact that in the hands of an artist this instrument may be made to give something more than mere pictorial records of scenes and events. The leader in this country is undoubtedly Mr. Alfred Stieglitz, and some examples of his work are here for the first time made accessible to the public. The portfolio contains twelve superb reproductions of his best work. They are printed by the photogravure process on plate paper, 14x17 inches. The first question that will be asked on viewing these pictures will be “Are they really photographs?” and such a question would be only natural, inasmuch as they in no way resemble what we have been accustomed to regard as photographs. “Winter on Fifth Avenue” is one of the best in the collection. Here we see one of the stage coaches coming down Fifth Avenue in the midst of a blinding snowstorm. The effect is thoroughly realistic, and one cannot but admire the courage of the man who makes pictures at the height of a storm, at a time when other photographers have stowed their cameras away waiting for a fine day. “The Glow of Night” is a photograph taken at midnight, and gives a perfect reproduction of New York at that hour. The electric lights and the reflection on the wet pavements are all rendered with startling fidelity. The scenes are by no means confined to New York. We have a charming bit of Venetian landscape, a scene on a Parisian Boulevard on a wet day, and some Dutch and Italian scenery. The twelve subjects, together with an introduction by W.E. Woodbury, are issued in an artistic portfolio.”
1. Lot # 265: In: Photo-Secession | Catalogue 6 : Lunn Gallery-Graphics International Ltd: Washington DC : 1977: p. 124
2. See: Alfred Stieglitz | The Key Set: The Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Photographs: Volume Two 1923-1937: Sarah Greenough: National Gallery of Art, Washington| Harry N. Abrams, Inc. : 2002: p. 938
3. R.H. Russell advertisement: In: The Bibelot: A Reprint of Poetry and Prose for Book Lovers, chosen in part from scarce editions and sources not generally known: 1897: Volume III: Edited by Thomas B. Mosher: Portland, ME: p. 401
4. Books & Artistic Publications-Illustrated & Descriptive List of the Publications Of: R.H. Russell: 33 Rose Street, New York: 1897