ALFRED STIEGLITZ'S PALLADIUM PHOTOGRAPHS AND THEIR TREATMENT BY EDWARD STEICHEN
DOUGLAS G. SEVERSON
The undocumented treatment of this significant body of work presents an intriguing puzzle to conservators, curators, and historians alike. It may never be solved. It is always possible that a reliable written record of the treatment exists, but the probability of locating such a document is dwindling. It is also possible that some analytical technique that does not require unacceptable sampling of originals will be found to solve the riddle. But at present we can only gather the clues available in existing sources and offer informed speculation.
While one print suffered measurable change during one exhibition, subsequent monitoring of similar prints on exhibit has shown no reoccurrence of this phenomenon. On the other hand, it was apparent to the observers assembled at the Stieglitz Colloquy that the treated and untreated photographs display noticeable differences in tonality, surface character, and retouching. O'Keeffe's letter to Daniel Rich, Doris Bry's recollections, and the very fact that so many treatments occurred, indicate that, prior to 1951, the vast majority of Stieglitz's palladium photographs must have undergone at least two dramatic changes: (1) discoloration from their original state sufficient to require treatment, and (2) restoration to a “very much improved” appearance after the treatment. But have these photographs continued to change over the past 40 years? If so, is it because of the treatments or in spite of them? “Steichen does something to them that clears them, and to me it seems a good thing to do…. He thinks it will give the prints a much longer life” (O'Keeffe 1950). Whether this statement proves prophetic or ironic remains to be seen. But it is hoped that this investigation contributes in some manner to our knowledge and appreciation of these photographs and to their safekeeping for generations to come. Crawford (1979, 107) has commented:
Any curator, anticipating the day his museum might go up in flames, should resolve to run for the Stieglitz prints first. Posterity needs them…. Stieglitz makes us see the relationship that exists in photography between the image and the surface that carries it—a relationship in which each contends with, yet depends on, the other. His images are tactile objects full of their own physical substance, yet do not seem anything other than photographs. No other photographer did this with as much variety and inventiveness as Stieglitz, or with as profound a sense of the qualities necessary to carry it off.
I would like to specially thank Constance McCabe and Nancy Reinhold for their key contributions to this research. Thanks also to Roy Perkinson, Nora Kennedy, Jill Sterrett, and Sarah Greenough for sharing insights about the Stieglitz prints in their collections, and to Sylvia Wolf for her critical review of this manuscript. Finally, I want to publicly express my appreciation to Doris Bry, who has been extremely generous to me with her time and her recollections.