The broad spectrum of colour that leaps out of the bouquets of flowers in these photographs reveals the skill, knowledge and innovation with which Steichen approached his photography. Steichen’s experimentation paved the way for colour photography by investigating how a single photograph could produce a vast array of different coloured prints when manipulated in a certain way.
The heavily saturated effect achieved with these particular photos relied on a technique known as ‘dye imbibition’. Dye imbibition is the same process as dye transfer, which is a trade name. The process behind the technique is a subtractive method of printing, which creates the dynamic colours, such as the unusual bright whites and blacks. This hyper-real vibrancy was also achieved through further experimentation with the process whereby Steichen intentionally coordinated the inks incorrectly in their respective gelatin matrices during the printing stages.
Edward Steichen (1879-1973) lived through decades of discovery, development and improvement of photography and indeed shaped much of this. He died in 1973 aged 93 but in his lifetime he was recognized as one of the great photographers of the 20th century. Although painting was his first love (a love which prompted him to travel to Paris in 1900), his eye for composition, colour and lighting would lend well to his career as a photographer.
Steichen studied the revolutionary Autochrome process – one of the first colour photography methods – which was patented by the Lumiere Brothers in France in 1903. Not simply satisfied with following one process, Steichen was constantly striving for innovation so he experimented with early techniques of cyanotype and ferro-prussiate printing and also toning prints with gum bi-carbonate.
In 1902 Arthur Stieglitz founded the Photo-Secession Group with the aim of promoting photography as a fine art. Steichen became one of the main contributing photographers and his work appeared in many of the group’s gallery exhibitions at the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession. The gallery would later be known as the 291, after its address on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan (the gallery was supposedly housed in the same building in which Steichen lived). It was also Steichen’s Paris connections which led to Matisse, Rodin, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec and other French painters of the time first being introduced to the American public through exhibitions at the 291.
During the First World War Steichen joined the United States Army and in 1917 he was tasked with creating an aerial photography unit in Northern France to gather intelligence about artillery positions and troop movements behind enemy lines. In 1923 Steichen was hired by Condé Nast. For purists like Stieglitz, Steichen was selling out to commercialism. Yet according to the New York Times “he would soon make his name as the first modern — and Modernist — fashion photographer, interpreting fashion and celebrities in a style that would influence later generations.”