45th Annual Meeting – Photographic Materials Session, May 30, “Moonlight and Midnight: The evolution of Edward Steichen’s ‘Moonrise’ prints” by Kaslyne O’Connor, Ariel Pate, and Sylvie Pénichon

This talk was a good example of collaborative art historical and material science research. Two of the three authors, Kaslyne O’Connor and Ariel Pate, discussed a study that revolved around two gum-platinum prints by Edward Steichen from his 1904 “Moonrise” series in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago that had titles and dates under question. Each print had been referred to by different names (“Midnight Lake George” and “Moonlight Lake George“), and varied in tonality and surface sheen (you will notice that the prints have the same titles and dates on the Art Institute of Chicago website). Furthermore, the image in one of the prints is flipped horizontally.

A letter from Steichen to Stieglitz talks about “Midnight Lake George” being a platinum print followed by blue print, then greenish gum varnish. This letter is a valuable piece of information, along with X-Ray Fluorescence and Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy that gave characteristic signals for Prussian blue, platinum (“Midnight…” had more), palladium, mercury (traces in “Midnight…” only), chromium, iron (“Moonlight…” had more), and lead for both prints. Still to be determined is the distribution of Prussian blue throughout the print, which would suggest the cyanotype process vs. a Prussian blue watercolor wash over the entire surface of the print. Clip marks at the print edges did displace the gum layer, thus revealing a blue layer below, which could be a hint that the cyanotype process was used. Examination of “Midnight…” under ultraviolet light exhibited a green fluorescents characteristic of linseed oil.

A Camera Works supplement from 1906 refers to “Moonlight…”. A 1910 Albright Art Gallery catalog for the “International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography” refers to “Moonlight…” having been made using a platinum gum process “peculiarly [Steichen’s] own”. Ultimately, a timeline was proposed by the authors using the information gathered from this research, which supports the 1904 (“Midnight…”) and 1909 (“Moonlight…”) printing dates for each. More apt titles were also proposed–”Road to the Valley, Moonrise” for “Midnight…” and “Road to the Valley, Moonrise Lake George” for “Moonlight”. Something that was noted that I found to be particularly interesting was that Steichen became less “poetic” in his later years, and retitled many of his prints.

Also to note, this project was born out of a previous project to create the website The Alfred Stieglitz Collection, a rich resource recommended to visit.