Welcome to the Essential Light Photography Blog By Jim Sabiston

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On Learning, Stiegletz and Photography as Art

I am frequently asked about my training as a photographer. Where did I go to school? Under whom did I study? Most are surprised to learn that I am completely self-taught. I have never taken a photography course, or for that matter, even an art course – not counting that required one we all took in 8th Grade.

The fact is, there are many resources available to the individual who has an intense desire to learn and I take full advantage of them. I started with books, then moved on to video tutorials on the web and the many quality blogs maintained by some very good photographers who are willing to share their hard earned knowledge. I pay this generosity forward by freely sharing what I’ve learned with anyone who has a sincere interest. I am reminded of a very polite young man I met recently at the C2 Gallery reception of the Annual Long Island Artist Invitational who had several questions about my compositional methods and processing techniques. After a brief discussion, he flattered me with the compliment that he learned more from me in ten minutes than anyone else he had ever discussed photography with. But, as the saying goes, I stand on the shoulders of giants.

No artist can proceed completely from a blank page. We are at some point inspired by another’s work that moves us deeply enough to want to try our hand at it. As I’ve mentioned in prior posts, was initially moved by the works of Maxfield Parrish and Andrew Wyeth. I still keep Wyeth’s book on my desk for frequent reference. For photographic inspiration, I peruse the various and numerous publications for ideas and techniques, but I’ve taken a different route in searching for the real core of the photographic medium. I’ve gone back to the beginning, studying the works of those who put photography on the map as an art form.

In America, it is impossible to do this without running full into the body of work assembled by Arthur Stiegletz. More than any other individual, Arthur Stiegletz moved photography away from its representational roots towards the more ethereal world as an artistic medium. I did not immediately grasp how he did this. My initial studies of his work did not give me an overt sense of why they should be considered art, although the images were often stunning. As my education has progressed, this has become abundantly clear, however. Part of the matter is that my initial considerations of Stiegetz’ photography made some erroneous assumptions:

What I initially thought were limitations of the early technology turned out to be the results of intentional choices on the part of Mr. Stiegletz to achieve an artistic end. This was driven home with unwavering certainty when I had the rare pleasure of seeing 39 of Stiegletz’ actual prints at a recent showing in New York City. Along with the prints, the curators also provided various commentaries on Stiegletz’ methods. The real center, however, was the inclusion of several of his original un-enlarged prints, run right from the original plates. What became immediately apparent is that the impressionistic ‘softness’ of the final prints was not at all a limitation of the medium, but a desired effect. The images on the original plates were razor sharp! This observation was timely, as I am currently reading the ‘The Key Set’, the massive publication of all Stiegletz’ 1,682 favored prints, as assembled after his death by his wife, Georgia O’Keefe. Here we learn of the use by Stiegletz, not so much of photographic detail, but rather broader considerations of light and form within the frame. Stiegletz was sharply aware of the current movements within the arts and how they might be applied to photography. Much of this approach is reflected in his New York city images.

So where does this lead me, the student? The primary effect was to cause me to reconsider how I examine and consider the photographic potential of my subjects. Photography, by its very nature, tends towards literal representation – but we must find a way past this if we are to produce photographic art. What I have learned is to see beyond the superficial detailed representation to the broader forms and relationship of light and dark within those forms. The direct result is a recent series of photographs taken in midtown Manhattan which have opened an entirely new visual world for me. The realization of the power within this approach hit upon me quite suddenly and unexpectedly while doing a series of shots of one of my favorite skyscrapers – the original GE Building on the corner of 51st and Lexington.

I had long wanted to get a properly atmospheric image of this amazing architectural masterpiece and this particular day had just the right conditions: mostly clear with thin passing clouds, and a low, midwinter afternoon sun combining for dramatic shadows and strong contrast. Playing to the stark difference between the deep, broad shadows and contrasting sunlight, I wanted to bring out the uniquely modern gothic character of the structure. The resulting mood is carried by the massive, shadowed presence in the frames, but the definition is carried by the highly contrasting lighted details.

(Click on image to enlarge)
Pleased with the result, I wondered if the effect could be carried even farther with modern, glass-sided buildings with their virtual elimination of ornamentation. I walked through midtown looking for potential subjects. The first was this study of the Citicorp building, viewed from across the street from the Seagrams Building on Park Avenue. The result is quite dramatic! The resulting photograph takes on a poster-like graphic directness.

(Click on image to enlarge)
I continued the exercise as I walked through mid-town and finally took the concept another step farther by searching out more interesting shapes, particularly ones with a strong geometric presence. The result was this shot:

(Click on image to enlarge)
Almost cubist in its impact, the pure geometrical shapes highlighted by the extreme light and dark details drive this image to an unexpected place – visually more graphic than representational in effect,. This is especially ironic in that both of the latter two images have very minimal processing – just fine-tuned contrast and sharpness. As photographs, they ARE representational, but the careful composition and use of light changes that aspect utterly for the viewer.

I like the results of this experiment enough that I may start a new dedicated series.


  1. Outstanding photos. I used to live in NYC and aspired to compiling a similar collection. Alas, it ended at aspiration....

    You may have answered this at the end of your post -- you didn't do much post-processing? And if not, I assume you set your aperture around f8 and let the speed set accordingly?

  2. Alfred Stieglitz in his earlier career was a practitioner and proponent of Pictorialism. His earlier prints would have been "soft" and "manipulated" on purpose just as you discovered. Later he publicly refuted many of own earlier views and became one of the first photographers to practice "straight photography" which he named and espoused as the way for photography to become an art in its own right, rather than a form that attempted to resemble paintings. Today, we have had 70 years of straight photography and the medium is going back the other direction, merging and melding with other art forms, which is probably inevitable, besides, it keeps life interesting and art worth doing. Your cityscape photographs of the skyscrapers are wonderful and superb art. Generally I am a proponent of all forms of art and photography, as long as the photography does not profess to be straight photography while manipulating the images. If an artist is up front about their process, I say anything goes.

  3. MLR - Thank you.

    You are correct - post processing in the latter shots was very minimal (a bit more on the lead image as I played with the blue color channel a bit to get that sky effect).

    When doing exploratory shots like these, I use Av as you seem to have guessed, but set the exposure compensation at -1/3 to offfset the occasional tendency of the high end to blow out. Aperture was comparatively large, 4.5 to 5.6. DoF is not an issue at these distances and shutter speed is (handheld standing on the sidewalk). The resulting very fast shutter speeds helps a lot in keeping details and edges nice and sharp. Shutter speeds ran from about 1/1600 to 1/2500 sec.

  4. David,

    Always a pleasure to see your comments. The museum show also had a series of Stieglitz's silver gelatin prints from the thirties and, as you noted, these were much sharper and more typical of what we tend to think of as 'photography'.

    I am fascinated with both approaches and am trying to become proficient in both. I have been often told that my photographs look like paintings, but I think this is more an aspect of lighting and composition, as I tend to eschew the 'special effects' approach.

    I agree. As long as the photographer is open about their process and methods, then the sky is the limit!