Edward Steichen, The Flatiron—Evening from Camera Work XIV, 1904, published 1906

Edward Steichen (1879 – 1973), The Flatiron—Evening from Camera Work XIV, 1904, published 1906, tritone photogravure on paper. Middlebury College Museum of Art. Purchase with funds provided by the Walter Cerf Art Fund, 2008.026.

In 1904, Edward Steichen made this evocative photograph of the streets of New York at twilight. Printed using colored inks, the photograph captures the interplay between the natural tree branches, the rainy streets, and the newly built Flatiron Building, one of the tallest buildings in New York at the time. Designed by Daniel Burnham, the Flatiron Building symbolized the latest advances in modern design and steel-frame construction. The building was a symbol of American technological progress; as Steichen’s colleague Alfred Steiglitz declared, “The Flat Iron is to the United States what the Parthenon was to Greece.”1

Andō Hiroshige, Fujikawa in the Snow, 1855, woodblock print. Middlebury College Museum of Art. Purchase with funds provided by the Merchants National Bank, Burlington VT, 1974.002.

By allowing the tree to play a prominent role in the foreground, however, Steichen juxtaposed natural and human-built elements. Steichen may have been drawing on his knowledge of Japanese prints, in which similar natural and built features exist harmoniously. Such an aesthetically relevant source would certainly be in keeping with Steichen’s interest, shared with Stieglitz, in underscoring the potential of photography as a fine art medium. Like Japanese woodblock prints, this photogravure was printed with multiple inks (tritone signifies three inks) to produce a color image in the days before practical color photographic processes were available.

The melding of the built and the natural in Steichen’s photograph predicts the role that many cities are playing today as forerunners in environmental awareness and sustainability.