Putting the Bits back into the Picturesque

When I found out last year the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City would be mounting a show on three of the greats: Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Paul Strand, I made a mental note that it would perhaps be the only time some of the greatest photographs of these masters would be assembled as a group for public view in my lifetime. Earlier this year, with daughter in tow from spring break, we made our way up the stairs to the Met’s 2nd floor photographic galleries. Before getting to the good stuff however, I made a beeline for the merchandise—conveniently placed right at the entrance.  All I can say is that now I’m the proud owner of a Camera Work hat, apologizing only later to aforementioned daughter and her friend that good, old dad could not resist the idea of giving additional promotion to one of the greatest photographic journals ever printed. Never heard of Camera Work? Then be sure to pay a visit to PhotoSeed’s good friend Photogravure.com, where you can view every plate from the journal beginning here.

     The nature of this post concerns something I saw under one of the display cases in the first gallery at the show devoted to the work of Alfred Stieglitz: the Metropolitan’s copy of Picturesque Bits of New York And Other Studies.

 

blog-pic-met-portfolio-1picturesque-bits-on-view-xqyThe Stieglitz gallery featured one of his most famous New York images: Winter, Fifth Avenue-the first plate presented with the portfolio.

      What intrigued me the most was that it was opened to the first plate in the portfolio showing Stieglitz’s iconic image known as Winter, Fifth Avenue. What really got me excited was the fact it was printed on chine collé and additionally signed and titled by Stieglitz. Speaking of merchandising, over a century earlier he had teamed up with New York City publisher Robert Howard Russell to produce this portfolio. As an added bonus to the book-buying public, forty “Edition-De-Luxe” copies of the portfolio in a special binding, done from the first impressions with the plates signed by him, were offered at $25.00 each-a king’s ransom for the time. The Met’s copy is one of these special copies.

     With just a bit of cursory research from my own library as well as online resources, I discovered that the first issue with this portfolio most likely had to do with Stieglitz promising more than he could pull off. An early promotional advertising poster for R.H. Russell’s involvement with the portfolio spelled out an apparently early incarnation of the title for the work: Picturesque New York. It prominently features the Winter, Fifth Avenue photograph printed as a photogravure. 1.

 

blog-pic-2-lunn-pic-xk2b7765-s83The original R.H. Russell letterpress for the poster is done in red ink.

      “In the late 1890’s Stieglitz began a series of photographs of New York that would explore the city’s “myriad moods, lights, and phases”…2.

     Had Stieglitz hoped he could assemble enough new material for this portfolio to show his true American roots before finally going to press? The quote highlighted above is believed to refer to work Stieglitz undertook after publication of Picturesque Bits but it is not inconceivable he wasn’t thinking about the New York project much earlier. After all, besides the four images appearing in this portfolio, his early New York work including The Terminal (1893), The Asphalt Paver (1892-3) as well as his general interest in photographing New York’s citizenry including the less fortunate (see Five Points, New York-1893) may have given him impetus enough to pull it off.

     The concession finally made by Stieglitz to include some of his “greatest hits” taken from abroad still eliminated (for one copy writer of the time at least) the word “Bits” in the portfolio title.  In a “Special Editions For Book Lovers” advertisement issued by R.H. Russell appearing in at least one source: (The Bibelot, 1897), the working title of the portfolio was Picturesque New York And Other Studies. 3.

     Finally, a definitive source appeared including the elusive Bits: a booksellers catalogue issued by none other than R.H. Russell towards the end of 1897. In it, the following copy appeared opposite a full-page photograph of A Bit of Venice from the portfolio: 4.

     “A few years ago the possibilities of the photographic camera were unrecognized, but we are gradually awakening to the fact that in the hands of an artist this instrument may be made to give something more than mere pictorial records of scenes and events. The leader in this country is undoubtedly Mr. Alfred Stieglitz, and some examples of his work are here for the first time made accessible to the public. The portfolio contains twelve superb reproductions of his best work. They are printed by the photogravure process on plate paper, 14x17 inches. The first question that will be asked on viewing these pictures will be “Are they really photographs?” and such a question would be only natural, inasmuch as they in no way resemble what we have been accustomed to regard as photographs. “Winter on Fifth Avenue” is one of the best in the

 

blog-rh-russell-picturesque bits of new york and other studiesSelling the Bits: R.H. Russell catalogue advertising the newly released portfolio: courtesy Photogravure.com

 

collection. Here we see one of the stage coaches coming down Fifth Avenue in the midst of a blinding snowstorm. The effect is thoroughly realistic, and one cannot but admire the courage of the man who makes pictures at the height of a storm, at a time when other photographers have stowed their cameras away waiting for a fine day. “The Glow of Night” is a photograph taken at midnight, and gives a perfect reproduction of New York at that hour. The electric lights and the reflection on the wet pavements are all rendered with startling fidelity. The scenes are by no means confined to New York. We have a charming bit of Venetian landscape, a scene on a Parisian Boulevard on a wet day, and some Dutch and Italian scenery. The twelve subjects, together with an introduction by W.E. Woodbury, are issued in an artistic portfolio.”

 

 

Notes:

1. Lot # 265: In: Photo-Secession | Catalogue 6 : Lunn Gallery-Graphics International Ltd: Washington DC : 1977: p. 124

2. See: 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. 938

3. R.H. Russell advertisement: In: The Bibelot: A Reprint of Poetry and Prose for Book Lovers, chosen in part from scarce editions and sources not generally known: 1897: Volume III: Edited by Thomas B. Mosher: Portland, ME: p. 401

4. Books & Artistic Publications-Illustrated & Descriptive List of the Publications Of: R.H. Russell: 33 Rose Street, New York: 1897