It is a stunning and surprisingly modern original-negative, hand-pulled, dust grained Talbot Kilc photogravure by Frank Eugene, which appeared in Stieglitz’s Camera Work 30 in 1910 – one hundred years ago. The artist and the image are both icons in the history of photography. The image is held in the collections of the most prestigious photography museums in the world and there are fewer than 200 copies in private collections. So how was it possible that I purchased this rare vintage print, beautifully framed, for only $250? It was not damaged, faded or in any way compromised.
The photographer, Frank Eugene (1865-1936) is regarded as one of the most significant figures of the Pictorialist movement at the turn of the century and is mentioned in almost every anthology written on the history of photography. His revolutionary work incorporated a synthesis of painting, etching and photography and was often the subject of heated debates over weather or not a photograph should/could be ‘manipulated’ in order to achieve an artistic effect.
Borrowing from his experience as a painter, Eugene aggressively scratched on his negatives to remove or reduce unwanted details and to enhance the expressive characteristics of an image.
“What made Eugene so attractive not only to his contemporaries but also to Stieglitz was his totally unorthodox method
of rubbing oil onto the negatives and adding cross hatching with an etching needle sometimes leaving only small portions
of a picture recognizably photographic.” Naef p.96
Critic Charles Caffin, who authored the landmark book Photography as a Fine Art (1901), also validated Eugene’s technique …
“only a trained and gifted photographer was in the position to create such delicate images and alter their power of
expression so masterfully by manipulating them… The print, printed as it is on Japan paper, conveys every impression
of an etching, having the beautiful characteristics that one looks for therein: spontaneousness of execution, vigorous and
pregnant suggestiveness, velvety color, and delightful evidence of the personal touch. The art is still in the womb of time,
its possibilities becoming wider and more appreciated; being new, one learns that the old standards and points of view
do not necessarily apply to it, and more and more realize the need for an open mind”
Eugene’s unorthodox methods were controversial to say the least, and struck a nerve in the American ‘photography as art’ movement of the day amplifying the ongoing debate over weather manipulating a photograph to make it art is acceptable and justifiable.
In Eugene’s own words…
“It has often been said that the [Horse] photograph was reminiscent of an etching. But that was in no way intended.
The banal surroundings which were inessential and disruptive to the photograph as a whole were removed from the
negative with a retouching knife, but nothing else was changed, neither the light nor the shadows, nor the form and line
of the animal’s body.”
Eugene’s aim was to suppress the inessential in favor of the essential.
Very little of Eugene’s work survives today – a typical fate of much that has to do with the history of photography and an indication of how little is known about the medium and how low esteem that part of our cultural heritage is held.
If interested in this image, I will be donating it to the 2011 George Eastman House Benefit Auction and hopefully there it will command a price more in line with its pedigree.
Caffin, Charles H. Photography as a Fine Art: The Achievements and Possibilities of Photographic Art in America. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co. 1901
Naef, Weston. The Collection of Alfred Stieglitz – Fifty Pioneers of Modern Photography. New York: The Viking Press, 1978
Pohlmann, Ulrich. Frank Eugene: The Dream of Beauty. Munich: Nazraeli Press 1995
Prodger, Phillip. The Impressionist Camera: Pictorial Photography in Europe, 1888 – 1918. Merrell and the Saint Louis Art Museum, 2006