The Painted Photo

Moonlight: The Pond 
Credit: Edward Steichen  
Hamid Amirani - 4.18.19

Is it a photo or a painting? That's the question you may understandably ask when you see Edward Steichen's Moonlight: The Pond. The 1904 image is a captivating example of pictorialism, the artistic movement "embraced by professional photographers at the turn of the 20th century as a way to differentiate their work from amateur snapshots taken with newly available handheld cameras.

"And no single image was more formative than Moonlight," says TIME, who selected Moonlight as one of the 100 most influential photographs ever taken.

Pictorialist photographers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the period in which the movement peaked, would manipulate their images "as a means of 'creating' an image rather than simply recording it," the forerunners of today’s Lightroom and Photoshop practitioners.

Edward Steichen in 1901
Credit: Fred Holland Day/The Louise Imogen Guiney Collection, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

The Luxembourg-born photographer advocated the artful potential of photographic manipulation in an essay he penned a year before he created Moonlight. He wrote that altering photos was no different to "choosing when and where to click the shutter."

For his part, Steichen created three prints of Moonlight to which he manually applied layers of light-sensitive gums that give the impression of color images, therefore making each print unique.  The results were "prints of such painterly seductiveness they have never been equaled."

Photo manipulation is commonplace for today’s photographers. Is Steichen's pictorialism substantively different to the tech wizardry performed by contemporary Photoshop experts? It could be argued it proves that the photographer has always had ethical license to bend photography to create art.

Of the three prints, two are held in collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The third was auctioned by The Met in 2006 at Sotheby's in New York and sold for $2.9 million, setting a world record at that time for the highest price paid for a photograph at auction.

Moonlight is of particular poignancy for Cecilia, as it was taken in Mamaroneck, New York, where Cecilia is located. Steichen took the picture near the Westchester home of a friend, the art critic Charles Caffin, but the precise location has been shrouded in mystery for over a century.

However, in 2006, a lady by the name of Gloria Poccia Pritts, who had been the Mamaroneck village historian since 1989, said she was almost certain that Steichen had taken Moonlight on or near where the Hampshire Country Club golf course now stands, along Long Island Sound. She said, "It is not anything that you can positively and absolutely know, but when I drove around here and through the golf course, I found a spot where there are many big, old and tall trees facing the direction in which the moon sets in the west. It just feels right."

Wherever it was taken, Moonlight remains a seminal picture in photographic history, a beautiful "tone poem of twilight, indistinction, and suggestiveness."

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