This old photo colors the world of 1908

Published May 27, 2007

Art history invites assumptions. Oh, sure, we "revisit, " "rethink, " "reinterpret" all the time. But always there are the immutable facts that form a bedrock basis we don't mess with. - Sometimes, though, a discovery invites a small shift. An example happened only days ago. - Two previously unrecorded images by Edward Steichen (1879-1973), who many believe to be the greatest photographer of all time, were welcomed into the world recently after a long sleep inside the closet of their 96-year-old owner. The technique, called autochrome, was an early form of color photography practically unknown today. One is shown here.

Most admirers know Steichen from his elegant, aloof celebrity portraits in black and white from the 1920s and 1930s that first appeared in magazines such as Life and Vanity Fair, or by "The Family of Man, " a monumental photography exhibition, also black and white, he organized for the Museum of Modern Art in the 1950s.

The two Steichen autochromes go much further back, to the early 20th century when he was working hard with his great colleague Alfred Stieglitz to legitimize photography as a first-tier art form.

In this autochrome, we see his strategy: Make a photograph look like a painting. After all, Steichen was a painter before he chose the newer medium and he brought to his early photographs a filtered gauziness - so painterly - that won over many critics.

Color photography was explored beginning in the mid 1800s but a way to avoid rapid fading wasn't discovered for 50 years, coinciding with Steichen's professional ambitions. He studied the autochrome, invented in France, that fixed colors permanently. It's a complex chemical process, not easily done well. The most interesting part of it involves tiny grains of dyed potato starch embedded in a glass plate with an emulsion. When the plate is fitted into a camera, a transparent, one-of-a-kind image similar to a slide results.

Steichen's autochromes, thought to be of his friend and fellow photographer Charlotte Spaulding, are gorgeous, a riot of textures and soft colors. The beautiful woman, draped in pearls, lace and lavender silk, stands regally, head held high, looking slightly downward into the camera lens. The work has the softness of a Renoir with a bit of Sargent's psychological charge and Klimt's eroticism. The starch's colors were based on Seurat's color theory so there's also some pointillist effect more by fiat than design.

But Steichen was already moving away from promoting photography as a new form of painting. He believed it had its own unique integrity and would spend the rest of his life proving it. He destroyed most of his paintings and probably gave the autochromes, one of which is signed, to Spaulding after he made them. No known record exists of a public exhibition. Her daughter Charlotte Albright, 96, offered them to the George Eastman House, a distinguished photography archive in Rochester, N.Y.

Its leaders were reportedly stunned by the gifts and their fine condition, owing to their long storage in a dark place for almost 100 years. Luminous and haunting, they represent a road, however lovely and seductive, not taken.