A Venetian Canal Stieglitz, Alfred  (American, 1864-1946)

"It conveys the true spirit of Venice, that poetical city of ‘broken fragments and washed out colors’ that reflects in its quaint melancholy the history of a sumptuous past."

This striking photograph summarizes the results of Stieglitz’s nine years of study in Europe. It was taken during Stieglitz’s four-month European honeymoon in 1894 and his first trip to Venice since 1887. Shortly after his return to New York, Stieglitz created a photogravure from the negative. Clearly satisfied with the result, he published the image four times between 1897 and 1899 in influential photography magazines and books. In its careful composition, use of soft focus, and straightforward printing methods, without manipulation or retouching, A Bit of Venice epitomizes the qualities sought in pictorial photography. At the forefront of circa-1890 European photography, pictorial photographers recognized that, while much was to be learned about composition and point of view through the study of contemporary painting, they could achieve effects with their cameras unattainable in any other medium. In his Venetian photographs, Stieglitz presents a point of view not unlike that to be seen in James McNeill Whistler’s much-discussed Venetian etchings (1879-80), but in A Bit of Venice he captures a damp mystery that could be suggested only with a camera.

The influence of European painting always lurks in Stieglitz’s images from the Venice honeymoon trip. The photographic negative provided Stieglitz with the raw material for the final photogravure. "My hand camera negatives are all made with the express purpose of enlargement and it is but rarely that I use more than part of the original shot," Stieglitz wrote in 1897, adding that "prints from the direct negative have but little value." His change of attitude over the years is evident in his reuse of the 1894 negative in the early 1930s in a gelatin silver print. Revealing that the 1897 photogravure represented only about a quarter of the original negative, the later more complete image lacks the mysterious quality of the photogravure. For example, one hardly notices the unsettling presence of the man coming through the distant arch at the right.

The caption to a later reprint of this image (Alfred Stieglitz, Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum [exh. cat., Malibu, 1995]) suggests that the photograph’s somber mood may reflect Stieglitz’s "first realization that he and [his wife] Emmeline [Obermeyer, who had loathed the stench of the canals and the shabbiness of the people who most interested Stieglitz as subjects] were motivated by quite different priorities." The marriage in fact lasted until 1924.

From Picturesque Bits of New York and Other Studies, a landmark in photogravure and photography as fine art.

It was during Stiegitz’s years as editor of Camera Notes that he began exploring the artistic possibilities of photogravure. In 1897, the very year that Camera Notes commenced, the prestigious publisher R. H. Russell issued Picturesque Bits of New York and Other Stories, a portfolio of twelve of Stieglitz’s best-known early images printed as oversized photogravures. So important was this project to Stieglitz, that he personally made the transparencies used in plate making, and then supervised the printing of the entire edition of photogravures. So pleased was he with the results that he signed a limited deluxe edition of the portfolio and allowed the photogravures to be sold individually. Stieglitz felt these prints had high-art value and were no less intrinsically works of art because they were printed by photogravure. Such photogravures joined the great tradition of fine printmaking established by artists like Durer and Rembrandt. (Peterson)

We have been accustomed to see the fine tones and graduations of our best workers so utterly ruined in the process of engraving and printing that we are agreeably surprised at the wonderful delicacy and transparency of these examples. They are printed on heavy plate paper, 14×17 inches, and each plate is presented in a color appropriate to the subject. We might take exception to the tint employed in the “Glow of Night,” where the desire to reproduce the yellow glare of the incandescent and other lights glowing through the fog and mist of a rainy night on Fifth Avenue has led to the employment of colors that are singularly disagreeable. Perhaps our photographic experience heightens this repugnance, because the tones, ranging from yellow to a somewhat dirty greenish black, recall the effect of an aristotype badly sulphurized in a combined toning and fixing bath. It is possible that the print will be more satisfactory to an artist, or to an art lover, who has never dabbled in photography. In all the other cases the colors are admirably chosen. (Murray)

The photogravures were printed in an edition of twenty-five on plate paper using different ink colors. Stieglitz himself made the steel engravings from the diapositives (positives made from negatives) and used rapid plates to preserve the detail and softness of the originals. In addition, he directly supervised the printing of each image. Picturesque New York was apparently an earlier title of the portfolio. (Lunn)

The pictures vibrate with atmosphere–fog, snow, streetlights reflected on wet pavements. The word “bits” suggests fleeting impressions caught by a highly selective eye, the crystallization of experience similar to the effects sought by Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle in the Imagistic poetry they would invent in the next decade.” (Trachtenberg)

A two-page advertisement for the portfolio appeared in a small catalogue issued by publisher RH Russell in 1897 stating specifics for the portfolio as well as photographs, which Stieglitz sold individually. “The twelve subjects, together with an introduction by W.E. Woodbury, are issued in an artistic portfolio. Price, $10.00 There will also be an Edition-De-Luxe in a special binding, limited to forty copies of the first impressions, each plate signed by Mr. Stieglitz. Price, $25.00 Single Proofs of any of the plates. Price, $2.00, each. Artist’s Proofs, signed by Mr. Stieglitz. Price, $5.00, each.”

Even with this marketing push by RH Russell as well as others, it is doubtful that many of the Picturesque Bits portfolios were sold, especially the $25.00 Edition-De-Luxe edition signed by Stieglitz. Book seller catalogues around the turn of the 20th century remaindered original $10.00 “ordinary” copies of the portfolio to $5.00. The now accepted total copies of this seminal portfolio in the history of photography numbers a mere 25 copies: “The photogravures were printed in an edition of twenty-five on plate paper using different ink colors.” NGA

Reproduced / Exhibited

Greenough, Sarah, and Alfred Stieglitz. Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set : the Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Photographs. Washington, D.C: National Gallery of Art, 2002. Pl 148

Crawford, William. The Keepers of Light. Dobbs Ferry: Morgan and Morgan, 1979. p. 35

Hoffman, Katherine. Stieglitz: A Beginning Light. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. no. 131.

Pollack, P. The Picture History of Photography: From the Earliest Beginnings to the Present Day. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 1998.p. 265

References

Picturesque New York was apparently an earlier title of the portfolio. See Photo-Secession: Catalogue 6 [exh. cat., Lunn Gallery, Graphics International Ltd.] (Washington, 1977), 124–125.

Stieglitz, “Reviews and Exchanges: ‘Nach der Natur’,” Camera Notes 1 (January 1898), 85.

William M. Murray, “Reviews and Exchanges: ‘Picturesque Bits of New York, and Other Studies,’” Camera Notes 1 (January 1898), 84–85.

https://www.nga.gov/research/online-editions/alfred-stieglitz-key-set/portfolios-and-published-photographs.html

Alfred Stieglitz | The Key Set: The Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Photographs: Volume Two 1923-1937: Sarah Greenough: National Gallery of Art, Washington| Harry N. Abrams, Inc. : 2002: p. 937

https://photoseed.com/collection/group/picturesque-bits-of-new-york-and-other-studies/ (cited Oct. 11, 2022)

Trachtenberg, Alan; Reading American photographs: Images as History: Mathew Brady to Walker Evans‬: 1989: Hill and Wang: New York: p. 184

Peterson Christian A et al. Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Notes. 1st ed. Published by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Association with W.W. Norton 1993.

Lunn Photo-Secession: Catalogue 6 [exh. cat., Lunn Gallery, Graphics International Ltd.] (Washington, 1977), 124–125.