ALFRED STIEGLITZ'S PALLADIUM PHOTOGRAPHS AND THEIR TREATMENT BY EDWARD STEICHEN
DOUGLAS G. SEVERSON
The photographs of Alfred Stieglitz have inspired, mystified, provoked, and illuminated viewers for more than a century. Stieglitz was born during the Civil War, but his images and ideas are often central to discussions of the most contemporary photography (fig. 1). Stieglitz's portraits of his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe, made over a period of nearly 20 years, are perhaps his most celebrated and timeless images (fig. 2). The prints were executed with a variety of photographic techniques and styles. A hand on an automobile may be rendered in silver for greater contrast, while a softly lit neck or torso is printed with platinum salts to emphasize the subtlety of tonal gradation. Stieglitz's use of the palladium process, by itself or in combination with platinum, is the primary focus of this investigation.
Edward Steichen, Portrait of Alfred Stieglitz, 1915, platinum print, 29.6 × 24 cm. Art Institute of Chicago, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949.827. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago
Alfred Stieglitz, Portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe, 1918, palladium print, 25.1 × 20.2 cm. Art Institute of Chicago, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949.745. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago
The vast majority of Stieglitz's palladium prints were treated shortly after his death by his fellow photographer Edward Steichen. The exact nature of this treatment is uncertain. The following passage from a letter written by Georgia O'Keeffe in January 1950 (O'Keeffe 1950) to Daniel Catton Rich, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, is the most explicit reference yet found to the procedure. It refers to untreated prints that were already in the Art Institute pending acquisition:
Doris [Bry] is leaving next week. She will stop and see you. I hope you will let her take certain prints of Stieglitz that look stained. Steichen does something to them that clears them and to me it seems a good thing to do. I have just finished mounting a number from the key set that are very much improved. I trust Steichen to do this and I would not feel that way about anyone else. He thinks it will give the prints a much longer life.
Decades later, this mysterious treatment may be having an adverse impact on these photographs. It is hoped that a discussion of the changes that have occurred in these palladium prints will contribute to our understanding of the stability of these objects and enable us to make better-informed decisions about their storage and exhibition.