Louis Pierson, Countess de Castiglione, c. 1860

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Louis Pierson

Countess de Castiglione, c. 1860

albumen print

Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY


This photograph is a work from the French photographer, Louis Pierson. It’s a vertically compositional portrait, and was taken in black and white. Countess de Castiglione, the female in this photograph, was a famous celebrity member in French upper class in the mid 19th century. The most well known rumor probably would be that she was a mistress of the French emperor, Napoleon III.

Compare to other early portraitures taken in the mid 19th century in Europe, this portrait of Countess de Castiglione obviously shows a totally different atmosphere. The gesture of the woman, though sitting still, does not face straight forward to the camera. She is about 45 degree left side turned, and only her right eye facing to the camera based on the photograph we see here.

She doesn’t look stiff at all. Her body gesture tells us that and also her face expression. The image produces a sense of mystery, or a kind of playful spirit. If there is anything that makes this photograph become an important piece in the history of photography, it must be the pose that she uses something to cover most of her face but her right eye. The eye, looking up to the camera, seems to be hiding something and shows a powerful strength to the viewers.

The focal point is very concentrate on her eye and her right hand, which holding the viewfinder like object. Around the focal point, we can also discover her hair with different colors and her fancy clothing’s and all the accessories. While other parts of her body are almost blurred into the dark background. However, there is a halo light area sets behind her head on the background, which enhances the mysterious effects even more and attracts people’s attentions to her eye. The halo, the hole of the viewfinder, and the eyeball also produce a repetition of circle pattern. They give the image a magical moment and look really fascinating. 

Hans Bellmer, "La Poupée" (The Doll)

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Hans Bellmer, La Poupée (the doll), 1934-35, Silver Gelatin with applied color, 5.4 x 5.5 in (George Eastman House)

Hans Bellmer’s photographs of La Poupée, or The Doll, were taken in Germany in the mid 1930’s. This image was originally produced in black and white by the artist anonymously in 1934, and caused him to be forced to flee Germany by the Nazi party in 1938.  He later joined with André Breton and the Surrealists in Paris and republished the work in color under the title “Poupée, Variations Sur le Montage d'une Mineure Articulée” (The Doll, Variations on the Assemblage of an Articulated Minor)

This particular image, taken around 1934, is interesting in both technique and subject, and is hard to define.  La Poupée borders on portraiture and still life.  While the photo is closer to a still life, as it is an arrangement of objects and props, there is still a sense of humanity and individuality in the pile of doll parts shown.  This photo is clearly surrealist photography at its best. The overt sexuality and reference to female beauty as a thing to fear was typical to the surrealist movement. 

The square framing creates a harmonious image, one that calls attention to the spiraling of the figure and balance of the composition, which would not be as strong if it were rectangular.  The square creates certain symmetries and balance as well as a very intentional framing of the subject.  The image is an aerial view of the subject disorienting any connections to a place or setting.  There is also very little depth which adds to this sense of disorientation

Bellmer also chose to color this image, which calls attention to various parts of the form. Dislocating them even more from each other. As a result these elements become foreign objects and appear to not be part of a woman at all.  The use of color on the doll also directs your eye around this photo in a very circular and even manner.  It is also interesting to note Bellmer’s choice of coloring the disjointed hand red.  This gesture seems to be a nod at DeChirico’s The Song of Love.  DeChirico was a very influential painter to the Surrealist and The Song of Love was a quintessential painting in the creation of the movement.  Bellmer’s red hand is just as out of place and disconnected as the rubber glove in The Song of Love. 

Compositionally La Poupée spirals around a center point.  The edges of the photo are generally bare and much darker; however, there are a few details, like the chair leg on the right edge, that remind the viewer of the frame.  Bellmer also positioned the fabric so that it would not be completely centered.  This choice balances out the photo, since the figure is so heavily engaged with the right side.  All in all though the background is sparse giving the figure dominance. 

The chair in the photo is broken, mimicking the gesture of the doll, as well as becoming one with the doll in places.  For example the placement of the bow and the connection of the red hand and chair leg with color. 

The conventions Bellmer used are what make this image so strong.  Everything was done intentionally to draw the viewer into the picture and show them what and how to see. 

lex mitchell 

Oscar Rejlander, "Hard Times"

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Oscar Rejlander, “Hard Times,” ca 1860, albumen print (double exposure), 13.9 by 19.9, (Rochester, NY: George Eastman House

Swedish photographer Oscar Rejlander began his career in the arts as a painter copying master paintings, who eventually switched to photography.  Reijlander’s photography is considered to fit in the high art category by aligning his photographs with paintings. Rejlander’s main focus was portraiture photographs. He also worked along with Charles Darwin, experimenting with portraying human expression.

“Hard Times” displays a genre scene of an adult male, adult woman and two young kids.  The male figure in the photograph is shown sitting on a bed with a depressed and sorrowful expression.  The lady figure in the photo is lying on the bed behind the man holding her child tightly to her chest.  The second child in the photo is sitting on the floor leaning against the bed eyes closed with exhaustion.  Although the subject of the photograph is unknown, the scene most likely depicts a family going through hard times, most likely economic struggles.  "Hard Times" was taken in the 1860s which can be deciphered from the clothing of the figures.  The family subject of the photo also seems to be of middle class.  Rejlander believed that babies created the purest and strongest feelings of emotion.  He included two children in his photograph, intensifying the idea of “hard times” in the photograph.

Rejlander used combination printing of his albumen prints to create “Hard Times”, this technique combines two images into one, creating double exposures.  The adult male and female figures are seen faintly again in this photograph, as a double exposure. The over-expossed image in the background displays a contradictory scene of the married couple looking stable and imaginative.   These wispy ghostly figures provide ideas of death as they look like spirit figures. The mother, eyes closed and laying horizontally in bed is shown facing up at the double exposure of the couple.  This set up acts as a dream of the female, pining for her old life. As the past and dreams of the families once economic status and happiness.  The public at this time felt combination printing created false photographs, but they actually add to the theme of distress and struggle.

The left side of the photograph contains a yellowish brown stain, a light leak which most likely developed during the process of combination printing.  The walls behind the figures are blank and cold, directing our focus completely on the figure.  The most significant figure seems to be that of the adult male.  The father figure is the largest and is sitting vertically, only his full expression can be seen.  The other family members either have their eyes closed or their faces are in profile so that the expression cannot be seen.  The father seems to be deranged, displaying striking pupils that pierce his top eyelids.

Caroline Mills

Edward Steichen, The Flatiron, 1904 (printed 1909)

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Edward Steichen, The Flatiron, 1904 (printed 1909)

Gum Bichromate over platinum, 47.8 x 38.4 cm (18 13/16 x 15 1/8 in.)

(The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The photograph, “The Flatiron” by Edward Steichen, is a black and white cityscape depicting one of New York City’s most iconic landmarks. Steichen’s photograph was taken in 1904, just two years after the building’s completion. There is the silhouette of a man in the foreground, his back to the camera, wearing a top hat and overcoat. He is the only figure that is clearly defined. Tree branches, also silhouetted in the foreground, divide the image horizontally and vertically, obscuring the view of the Flatiron Building.

There is a heavy contrast between the foreground and background. The darkness of the foreground draws the viewer’s eye back to the background where the mighty Flatiron stands. The building is monumental when compared to the size of the silhouetted man in the foreground. The top of the building extends beyond the frame—demonstrating its impressive stature. There seems to be little activity on the streets but not much can be distinguished due to the high contrast. The streets are glistening, wet as if it had just rained. The trees and light from the lamp posts are reflected on the watery pavement.

The photo is a gum bichromate over platinum print. It is vertically oriented (18 13/16 x 15 1/8 in.), presumably to accentuate the height of the building. The photograph has a very atmospheric quality—instantly setting a mood for the viewer. The shadowy, silhouetted shapes create and aura of mystery as little can be identified on the streets. The work by Steichen reads as more of a painting than document, illustrating the use of photography as a form of artistic expression.

Edward Steichen, Flatiron

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The Flatiron, 1904
Edward Steichen, Gum bichromate over platinum print 18 13/16 x 15 1/8 in. (47.8 x 38.4 cm) Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1933 (33.43.39)

American Photographer, Edward Steichen, is one of the premier photographers in American History. His early collaboration with Alfred Stieglitz in his magazine, Camera Work, gained him the recognition as having published some of the first modern fashion photographs of the century.

This image, The Flatiron, came just after he began his collaboration with Stieglitz, during a time that he was just starting to experiment with color photography, though the first color development process, (Autochrome Lumière), did not come onto the market until 1907. The method used in Steichen’s The Flatiron involved suspending different colors of pigments in multiple layers of light-sensitive gum arabic and potassium bichromate bases. This method also produced a photograph with a hazy, almost dream-like quality, with the sharpest details of the building blurred by the fog of the twilight.

The image itself was taken from street level, looking down the wet, foggy block of New York City down at the monumental Flatiron building, the monumentality of which is aided by Steichen’s decision to shoot in a vertical orientation. The building itself is the focal point, centered and highlighted by the yellow pigment used in the development process. The Flatiron building also takes up three-quarters of the frame, and its central placement divides the image into two equal parts. Silhouettes of trees, reminiscent of Japanese woodcuts that were popular at the time, grace the foreground of the image, accompanied by a mysterious carriage and passerby, making their way down the glassy sidewalk. Despite the hazy quality of the print, the image is one of great depth, with obvious spaces being depicted in the immediate foreground, the middle ground, and distant background. Its cool palate and strong use of shadows/silhouettes add to this image’s atmosphere of mystery.

Timothy Mulcare

Alvin Langdon Coburn, "The Octopus; New York, 1912"

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Alvin Langdon Coburn, “The Octopus; New York, 1912,” Platinum Print, 42.3 x 32.2 cm.

Alvin Langdon Coburn’s photograph entitled, “The Octopus” was taken in New York city, depicting Madison Square under a blanket of snow. Coburn choose to take this vertically oriented landscape photograph from the perspective of a high up skyscraper looking down on the park below. Coburn is well known for using these aerial perspectives to show the sense of disorientation that comes along with being in such a massive city. This, along with his use of soft focus, give the photograph an ethereal and almost abstract quality.

The photograph shows the octopus like forms of the walking paths and the dark looming shadow of what appears to be the building from which the photographer took the image. The upper left part of the image, where the skyscraper’s shadow falls over the park trees below is the main focal point of the image. Coburn not only choose to focus on this intersection between the natural world and the manmade world, but he increased the dramatic quality of this collision by giving this area of the photograph the most contrast and the most dark.

Coburn’s choice to include the shadow of the skyscraper instead of the structure itself extends the space of the image, making us interested not only in the snow covered park below, but what is outside of the image. However this being said, because of the use of soft focus the other parks of the image remain equally as interesting due to the blur and the complete elimination of a horizon line. The only thing left for the viewer to gain a sense of scale from is the tiny figures visible in the upper most part of the image.

The image itself is a platinum print with a beautiful range of tones from the pure white of the snow to the deep black of the barren tree trunks and the tip of the skyscrapers shadow. Coburn’s images are very abstract and experimental in style due to his use of photography as a deeper means for expression and his manipulation of more traditional photographic conventions