Thursday, 14 February 2013

Edward Steichen, Self-Portrait, 1915

In 2007 I saw the exhibition Edward Steichen: Lives In Photography at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. I've recently been looking at the exhibition catalogue again. The exhibition was an overview of Steichen's life's work, from his earliest photographs from the 1890s to the celebrated exhibition designs of the 1950s and 60s. The Self-Portrait of 19151 comes at the end of Steichen's Pictorialist phase, in a transitional period which continued through to the 1920s, where Steichen began relearning his art. It's also from a period of exile, when, due to the war, Steichen was forced to abandon his house in France (where he had begun to devote a large part of his time to plant breeding) and return to America.

What do we see in the photograph? Steichen, confident in a dark suit with a bow tie and white shirt, apparently engages the viewer with his direct gaze. I describe this engagement with the viewer as apparent, for reasons I'll return to. Alongside the figure of Steichen, and level with his gaze is a large plate camera, the tripod of which can be seen in the shadows below. Of the mechanics of the camera, the lens is the most prominent: the wooden framework can be discerned, indeed there is a small plaque with some writing on, presumably with details of the camera's manufacturer or dealer. There is what looks to be a diaphragm aperture apparently in front of the lens (it may conceivably be an elaborate lens hood), that this is not between the lens elements as part of a leaf shutter arrangement suggests this is what's known as a barrel lens. If this is a barrel lens, then in all probability there is a Packard shutter, a focal plane type, between the lens and the plate. The shutter release curls down below the camera and leads the eye to Steichen's obscured right hand resting on his hip. It's probably a pneumatic bulb release for the date of the photograph. There's a small amount of blur due to movement at the end of the cable as the bulb was squeezed. Steichen's right hand, held folded against his body with the arm's elbow resting on a prop that can be dimly seen (this is echoed by a shape above Steichen's right shoulder that may be the edge of an easel). This hand is apparently relaxed, but, between the forefinger we cannot see and the thumb, this is may be holding a lens cap in the shadows. The top left hand corner of the image is cut off with a light-toned out of focus arc. The reflection on the surface of the lens appears to confirm that this is the edge of a circular or at least arched mirror, the surface to which the camera lens was pointing. The upside-down reflection in the lens shows the top of the mirror silhouetted against a window, providing the strong, frontal yet diffuse lighting for the self-portrait.

Returning to Edward Steichen's gaze, what the camera recorded and the photograph's effect are two separate things. The gaze is not at us, the viewer, of course, nor is Steichen looking at his own reflection - because this would not produce the effect of his image looking directly at us from the photograph. At the moment when he squeezed the bulb to release the shutter, Steichen must have been looking into the camera's lens. The glass plate that the image was recorded on cannot be seen in the photograph, although we know it must be there: in the shadow of the mirror's reflection on the lens, the darkness we see is an open aperture that leads directly to the photographic emulsion on the glass plate at the very moment that the latent image is being formed. In some sense, all photographs are an indexical link to their moment of creation by their very nature (this may still be true, but muddied, in the digital age), but the tradition of photographers' self-portraits in mirrors which include the camera that is taking the picture turn this into an open dialogue: by necessity, the camera's lens faces the subject, and the shutter must be open, the dark chamber of the camera being filled with light to record the image on the plate, film or sensor.2
Thinking about the Self-Portrait of 1915, the idea that, theoretically at least, the mirror allows one to see the surface of the photograph as it is being formed, for me, has an aspect of the uncanny. Many years ago, for my BA dissertation, I wrote an oblique investigation into why I found photography fascinating. I began my research by looking at photographers and photographs that embodied something of the Freudian Uncanny, but very quickly the essay abandoned any reference to particular works and became purely concerned with theory. I joined the dots from Sigmund Freud to Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, and my conclusion was that the uncanny was located in the photograph's relation to death, that the photograph was a symbolic but disguised (and therefore uncanny) memento mori.3
Although overstated for purposes of making my argument, this still holds. We can see Edward Steichen looking (present tense) into the lens of the camera at the moment light is causing a reaction on the surface of the photographic emulsion; at the time of writing Edward Steichen died (past tense) forty years ago. That we understand these two tenses coexisting is uncomfortable. Steichen, to a degree, understood this too, in as much as the construction of the photograph needs a future viewer for his speculative gaze to engage with. However, it is the thought that through the blank eye of the camera we know that, potentially, it is possible to see the fundamental moment of creation as it is occurring that is to me uncanny here.

1. The best reproduction online of the Self-Portrait of 1915 is here:
2. Jeff Wall's Picture For Women (1979) is perhaps the best example of this; David Campany wrote a whole book on the photograph.
3. "For Death must be somewhere in a society; if it is no longer (or less intently) in religion, it must be elsewhere; perhaps in this image which produces Death while trying to preserve life." Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida.

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Jonathon Cape, London,1982
Todd Brandow and William A Ewing, Edward Steichen: Lives In Photography, FEP Editions, Minneapolis, 2007
Sigmund Freud, The 'Uncanny', Penguin, London, 1985
Alfred Stieglitz, Camera Work The Complete Photographs 1903-1917, Taschen, Koln, 2008

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