Edward Steichen’s photograph of the moon rising over a reflective pond suggests the moon’s beauty and mystery, the silvery quality of its light, and its illusory proximity to the Earth. With images like this, Steichen was declaring photography’s great artistic potential, placing it on a par with painting and drawing and arguing for its inclusion among the fine arts. He and his peers sought to distance their work from pictures taken by amateurs and commercial photographers by making prints that looked more like drawings or paintings. They used elaborate darkroom techniques and many layers of chemical processes to achieve these magical effects.
Additional text from Seeing Through Photographs online course, Coursera, 2016
The colors in this photograph were not captured by the camera but were concocted later by Steichen in the darkroom, where he also sketched the reeds and grasses in the foreground. These marks of the artist’s hand were the young photographer’s way of showing that the picture was not an ordinary photograph—it was, rather, a work of art.
Raised in Wisconsin, in 1900 Steichen made his way to New York, where he met the older and more seasoned photographer Alfred Stieglitz and soon joined him in a vigorous campaign to establish photography as a fine art. Although at first they failed to impress a broad public, they encouraged many talented young photographers to think of themselves as artists and so initiated a rich tradition that flourished for more than half a century.
For Stieglitz and Steichen, pursuing the artistic potential of photography meant rejecting its practical functions in the modern industrialized world. They retreated into an aesthetic realm of refinement that venerated, for example, the purity of nature. Pure as it was, however, the nature that they photographed was rarely wild. Mamaroneck surely was more peaceful a century ago than it is today, but it was already a suburb of New York to which Steichen often went to escape from the rigors of city life.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)