Edward Steichen’s 1904 masterpiece is both a high point of pictorialism and a unique artwork. It’s also one of the world’s most valuable photographs, writes David Clark.

Edward Steichen - The Pond Moonrise

© 2009. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence

In February 2006, Edward Steichen’s The Pond Moonrise was offered for auction at Sotheby’s in New York. The 41x50cm photograph was being sold by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which already had another, slightly different version of the print in its extensive collection. Although the print was expected to reach a high price, the art world was stunned when it more than doubled the previous world record and sold for more than $2,900,000 (around £1,600,000 at the time).

In some ways it seems extraordinary that a photograph, which in theory could be reproduced countless times, could command such a sum. However, this particular image possessed a special combination of features that made it especially rare and valuable.

First, there was the picture’s historical significance. It was a landmark image in the development of photography as an art form and arguably one of the finest pictorialist images ever made. It was also a print that had been hand-crafted by Steichen, one of the most important photographers of the 20th century.

At the time it was made, in 1904, Edward Steichen (1879-1973) was in his mid-20s and in the first phase of his long and influential career. Although born in Luxembourg, his family had emigrated to the US in the 1880s and Steichen became a naturalised US citizen in 1900. He took up photography in his teens and the early years of the century saw him rapidly establishing an international reputation for his work.

Pictorialism, a movement in photography led by Alfred Stieglitz, was highly fashionable and Steichen became one of its leading proponents. In 1902, Steichen had been one of the founder members of Photo-Secession, a group that aimed to promote photography as an art form, and his work appeared in Stieglitz’s journal Camera Work.

The Pond Moonrise was photographed near Mamaroneck, Westchester County in New York State, on Long Island Sound, possibly while Steichen was staying at an art critic friend’s house while recuperating from typhoid. Steichen often returned to the subject of moonlit scenes in his photographs and paintings of the period. However, manipulating photographs for artistic effect was central to pictorialism; photo-historian Gerry Badger believes that it was shot probably at dusk and that the Moonrise effect is created by printing down to make the image darker than it actually is.

The second important feature about The Pond Moonrise is its rarity. Steichen produced the image as a platinum print, which was coated with layers of gum bichromate applied manually with a brush. Although pre-dating the introduction of colour photography by three years, the multiple emulsions gave the print a subtle blue-green hue.

The resulting image also had a great richness of tone and a beautiful, almost luminous quality. Although Steichen made two other prints at around the same time, the nature of the process meant that each print was slightly different and unique.

The final feature that made the image so valuable was its provenance. The print came directly from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection and had been originally donated by the former owner, Alfred Stieglitz.

Steichen himself went on to change his style completely after the First World War, devoting himself to modernism and later carving out a highly successful career both as a commercial photographer and as an editorial photographer on Vogue and Vanity Fair. In 1946, he began a new phase of his photographic career when he became director of the photography department at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In 1955, he curated the enormously influential Family of Man exhibition, which subsequently travelled to 96 countries and was seen by more than nine million people.

Steichen’s abandonment of art for commerce made him a controversial figure for many of his contemporaries, but he remained unrepentant about his change in direction. On his 90th birthday, Steichen said: “When I first became interested in photography, I thought it was the whole cheese. My idea was to have it recognised as one of the fine arts. Today I don’t give a hoot in hell about that. The mission of photography is to explain man to man and each man to himself.”

Yet despite Edward Steichen’s rejection of early work such as The Pond Moonrise, and the artistic ideals that inspired it, none of his images is more highly prized than this early pictorialist masterpiece.

Edward Steichen – Recommended Resources

Edward Steichen: Lives in Photography by Todd Brandow and William A Ewing is a wide-ranging study of Steichen’s career. For information specifically on his early work, see Edward Steichen: The Early Years by Joel Smith.

There is currently no official Edward Steichen website, but www.wikipedia.com’s Steichen page contains basic information and useful links to other websites. Also, www.artcyclopedia.com has links to museum websites that contain Steichen’s work.