Edward Steichen’s, ‘Moonlight: The Pond’

Edward Steichen’s 1904 photograph/painting, Moonlight: The Pond.

If I take a photograph, is that an objective capture of reality? Or is it the perspective of reality as seen both through the lens of the camera, how I direct the lens, and how you, the viewer, view the image through the lens? What’s the difference between using a machine to capture whatever you want to call that and painting it? What if you add and subtract objects? What if, to bring it into a modern context, you airbrush it or add filters? Crop it?

Those questions around photography have seemed salient most of lifetime with the advent of Photoshop, which I was more on the money with that intuition than I thought, as Photoshop was first introduced in February 1990, about seven months before my birth. Granted, it wouldn’t reach the mass market for another few years. But, being that I’m not a photography expert or student by any stretch, I never thought to consider, “Uh, they’ve [photographers] been manipulating photographs virtually since the beginning of photography.” In other words, artists have been manipulating art to their ends for as long as the art has existed. If an artist isn’t filtering their vision through the medium, then are they even doing art? That’s what makes it art, after all. Not the technology of the camera or the paint brush or the pencil or the typewriter. It’s the human being manipulating it because the human being has the most renewable resource in the world backing them up: imagination and ingenuity; the ability to manipulate at all.

I thought about all of this after looking at one of the “photographs” from TIME’s 100 Most Influential Photos list, Edward Steichen’s 1904 photograph-painting hybrid (hence the earlier square quotes), Moonlight: The Pond. I’ve also seen it entitled The Pond—Moonlight and The Pond—Moonrise, so take your pick on that one.

According to TIME, Steichen photographed the wooded scene in Mamaroneck, New York, hand-colored the black-and-white prints with blue tones and may have even added the glowing moon.

“The blurring of two mediums was the aim of Pictorialism, which was embraced by professional photographers at the turn of the 20th century as a way to differentiate their work from amateur snapshots taken with newly available handheld cameras,” TIME said.

Sounds familiar, huh? As I’ve written before, everyone thinks they are a photographer now because they have a handheld camera in their pocket (the phone, of course), and they take thousands of photos every year. But there’s far more to photography than pointing and clicking. If only it was that simple, then everyone would get paid high dollar to do it, right?!

Steichen even gets at what I was philosophizing about earlier, by arguing there’s no difference in altering photos versus choosing “when and where to click.” In this way, authenticity is in the eye of the beholder, both the artist and those receiving the art.

Whatever you want to call this, a photograph, a painting, a hypbrid of the two, manipulated art or authenticity in its own artist’s desired way, I sure do like looking at it. The broody, darkness of it is what caught my attention scrolling through the photos. And if Steichen did add in that moon, that’s some talent! It’s almost imperceptible to the eye upon first viewing, tucked away on the horizon between the trees. But of course, it’s presence is ominous over the entire scene, most prominently in its reflection on the pond. This would make a great scene in a horror flick.

What do you make of it? And the larger philosophical debate?

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