L I N C O L N R U S S E L L : M O R E T H A N M E E T S T H E E Y E
PORTRAITS OF SEIJI OZAWA AND OTHER PHOTOGRAPHS, 1978-1998
essay by John Stevenson, Director, John Stevenson Gallery, NYC
Not at all intending to be oblique, I would like to make a few observations about the images of Lincoln Russell by referring to an exhibition of the prints from Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work concurrently on view at The Berkshire Museum. The coincidence of these two bodies of work is both fortunate and revealing.
There was indeed a time— in that first golden age of photography, circa 1903 to 1917— when craftsmanship, versatility, experimentation, passion and fine presentation were virtually taken for granted. Then standing upon it all, photographers were expected to make art. It was an astonishing period, and some of the best results graced the pages of Stieglitz’s journal. In these lovely and evocative works of the Photo-Secession, selected by Stieglitz personally from what he considered to be the most provocative and original fine art photography of the day, we see the awakening of photography as a conscious fine art. We marvel at these images— their energy, discovery and joy— and the birth of entire traditions, of ways to see, that stimulated the lives of photographers for the century to come.
And the artisanship was extraordinary. Never before or since that period was there a greater emphasis in photography upon the hand, as well as the eye. The gum-biochromate print was esteemed for its painterly qualities and for the singularity of each image: one of one. Stieglitz meanwhile referred to the platinum print as “the prince of all media.” He saw the vast tonal scale of the platinum print as a unique means of revealing the true world.
But for his initial 700 subscribers, Stieglitz could not produce thousands of platinum and gum-bichromate prints. So he reinvented the photogravure, one of the finest means of producing a photographic image. Photogravure closely replicated the expansive tones of a platinum print, and the image could even be delicately colored like a gum-bichromate print. It also allowed for the choice of lovely papers. And, once the plates were successfully created, the process provided reasonable economies of scale.
But then suddenly, two cruel world wars snatched away the choices of fine media and materials. Platinum photographs were first unpatriotic, and then illegal to make; the rare metal was needed for the war effort, and Russia held the world’s supply. Fine papers vanished too. After the wars, with no sources of fine materials, everyone had to make do with commodity printing papers, cheaply and easily mass-produced for newspaper photographs and drugstores. It was a bleak time—a time, to be sure, of many marvelous images, but ones largely printed on material that permitted almost no expression or finesse. Photography lost its connoisseur-ship. “Who made this, of what, and why?” had no meaning, because there was simply nothing to say in response.
But now, shot forward in time, we look at the exhibition of Lincoln Russell. What a visit to a strange lush dream we have here. What a display of skill of the eye of the artist, as well as the hand of the artisans- his own and those whom he employs.
There are many interesting connections in these photographs, among them some of the reasons why he caught my attention in the endless sea of contemporary photographers: the versatile exploration of media, some of them unusual and esoteric; the follow-through of not only the image, but the print— the fine print— expressively selected and well made.
To make the point, let me (in the presence of Russell’s wonderful images of Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra!) borrow a metaphor or two from music.
Wouldn’t it be strange if tomorrow we awoke to find that all music could only be played on the trumpet? That would be fine for trumpet players—and a lot of jazz perhaps. But it would be strange. Well, something just like that happened to photography on the eve of World War I.
In this analogy, the silver-gelatin photograph is the trumpet. Silver-Gelatin paper is the ubiquitous black-and-white medium that comes out of a box, and is used for 99.99 percent of the four billion photographs printed every day in the United states alone. The silver print is typically bright and graphic, usually shiny, and very much identified with the modern age. A trumpet.
But if silver is a trumpet, then the platinum print is a viola. It is gentle, luminous, subtle, almost as expressive as the human voice. And just as a trumpet and viola are not easily interchangeable in music, photography is not always best played on a trumpet.
We expect that a musician will compose music for "the best" choice of instrument or ensemble. But perhaps there is also a best expression for a photographic idea— one chosen from an array of media, and for their elegant combinations.
We see that in Lincoln Russell’s repertoire. It is by no means commonplace, even in this privileged age of photography-as-art-again and accessible sources of supply. One cannot assume that successful exhibition photographers even print their own images. And it is a very unusual photographer who, today, can select among media in a truly virtuosic, easy way.
So we can certainly appreciate the images of Lincoln Russell in this exhibition. We can admire how even on assignment as a journalist documenting events, he cannot help but make an “art” image. We can see his versatility of subject and inquisitive energy.
But we should not fail to appreciate something much more that is truly special and rare: the ability to go beyond the taking of the image, probing deeply into the choices of making the expressions of the image. The creativity that does not stop at the ground glass or viewfinder but continues far beyond was among the accomplishments most appreciated by Stieglitz, the master.
Probably the only near-mystical sentiment that Stieglitz, a hard-headed, flinty dogmatist, ever shared was his sense of the energy that emanates from the handcrafted, finely printed photograph.
It is the energy that emanates now from the walls of both exhibitions.