What's on the walls--600 lab / flatiron

6/29/2003

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 Edward Steichen, The Flatiron

flatiron

You won't see this picture in the lab, although I have had a print of it hanging in my office for a long time.
It is one of the most famous early American photographs.  It shows the "Flatiron," formally the Fuller Building,
at the corner of Broadway and Fifth Avenue in New York City.  This picture dates from shortly after the building
was built.  At the time it was considered a very modern building and a lot of people vigourously disliked it.  However,
several prominent photographers loved it and featured it prominently in their work.  Steichen was a leader in the
Pictorialist movement, which asserted that photography was an art form in which the creativity of the artist
was most evident in the way that a picture was printed, not so much in composition. (Prior to that time,
photography was usually seen as fundamentally mechanical and not artistic, valued principally as a way to
make a documentary record of the way a person or thing looked.)  His photographs were taken in black
and white, but Steichen used multiple techniques, including blueprinting, to add color.
In this picture, the Flatiron looks very much like the prow of a great ship crossing Manhattan.  (An office building that
doubles as a ship gets a very different treatment in the movie Monty Python and the Meaning of Life.)  The building is still
standing, but in its current setting surrounded by much newer and bigger skyscrapers, it looks quaint instead of cutting edge.
When I was walking in Paris on a drizzly night in January 2002, I saw the Eiffel Tower framed by a tree branch and was
immediately reminded of this picture.  According to the photographer Brassai, his most successful night pictures
were taken on nights where there was some light fog or drizzle, which serves to diffuse the light from the
most illuminated objects, and more evenly illuminate the scene and the sky.  I was really happy with the result I got.
I have a few more things to say about this building on my page Cripple Creek and the Flatiron.