The soft focus, emotive lighting, and ephemeral and elegant treatment of the female form in this photograph exemplifies Steichen’s early Pictorial nudes. Steichen was a noted member of the Photo-Secession group, which espoused the tenets of Pictorialism, a movement emphasizing the photographer’s artistic choices and seeking to establish photography firmly as a fine art. One influence on Pictorialism was the contemporary Symbolist movement, characterized by work saturated with mood and coded with mythological and dream imagery, bearing universal as well as obscure and intensely personal meanings.
Some art historians speculate that the woman in this photograph is Steichen’s tragic lover, Rosa, a wealthy music student from Wisconsin who followed Steichen on his first trip to Paris in 1900 (during which Steichen may have taken these negatives) and who committed suicide in 1901 after Steichen refused to marry her. Whether or not Rosa is indeed the woman in these photographs, their symbolist sensibility would lend much the same interpretations. Rosa’s suicide indelibly distressed Steichen and arguably affected his twenty-year marriage with Clara Smith. For both Steichen and the informed viewer, this image of a faceless woman shrouded in dusky gray undoubtedly carry Rosa’s ghost.
figures; interiors; nudes; women; darkness; darkrooms
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