3.27.2012

Edward Steichen and the Flatiron Building

March 27 is the birthday of photographer Edward Steichen (March 27, 1879 - March 25, 1973), so let's use the fact as an excuse to revel in his photograph of the Flatiron Building.

Edward Steichen, The Flatiron, 1904.

The Flatiron, or Fuller Building as it was known originally, at 175 Fifth Avenue sits on a triangular block formed by Fifth Avenue, Broadway and East 22nd Street. The Renaissance-style building, completed in 1902, tapers at 23rd Street, often creating a wind tunnel that lifts skirts and such. Hence, the phrase - "23 skidoo," as policemen were said to announce to those watching the skirt lifting. Daniel Burnham designed the building using a novel method of skeleton steel construction.

Alfred Stieglitz.
Flatiron Building, 1903
About the Steichen photograph:

• Steichen, trained as a painter, was influential in establishing photography as a fine art.
• Steichen photographed the Flatiron Building when it was considered novel.
• He photographed the building at dusk in winter. To take the photograph, he positioned himself on the west side of Madison Square Park.
• He made three prints, applying pigment suspended in gum bichromate over a platinum print. One was blue, one was tan, and the other was a sort of orange color. The dates of the printings are 1904, 1905, and 1909. He only showed one at a time. An exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2010 titled Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand showed them side by side.
• The original Flatiron prints are 8 13/16 x 15 1/8 in.
• Steichen's mentor, Alfred Stieglitz, took a photograph of the building the year before, and Steichen's image is considered a response. Stieglitz's picture of the building in a snowy landscape, accompanied by a Y-branched tree, was influenced by his interest in Japanese woodcuts.
• Steichen helped Stieglitz start the 291 Gallery, located at 291 Fifth Avenue, in 1905. Steichen lived in a studio on the top floor. The building has since been demolished. In 1933 Stieglitz gave all three Steichen Flatiron photographs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In addition to the photograph's pictorial beauty and hands-on color aesthetic, there's a lot going on here.  The composition is extremely lively, with focal points moving from the tree branch down to the wet street. Yet, it's a moody still picture, enhanced by the time of day. Figures on the street and the carriage drivers are slowed down by the elements. While we might see the romance of yesteryear in the building now, in 1904 they may have only seen "the impudence of novelty," to use a phrase by novelist Henry James to describe the changing metropolis. The light in the photograph, critical to the nature of the medium, is extraordinary, from both street lights and the natural light at the end of the day.

In January of 2011 I snapped the photograph below on my iPhone using the ProHDR app. At the time I didn't have Steichen's photograph with me, but I tried to approximate his location. While I didn't even try to replicate his art, I was surprised how timeless the scene looked.

Flatiron Building in January 2011 

Visiting the Flatiron Building: The building is still easily viewed from Madison Square Park, 23rd Street, and especially Fifth Avenue while traveling south. Visit the rooftop beer garden at Eataly, (220 5th Avenue) for an unusual view of the building from up high.

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