A Glimpse at Hand-Printed Photography in the Digital Age

Gallery 270’s second annual “The 21st Century Handmade Print” exhibition, now on view in Englewood, New Jersey, features five artists and examines ways to sustain the craft of photographic printing in the digital era. The modern and contemporary photographers included employ both photographic techniques and print methods to emphasize and complicate their images, resulting in dramatic photographs of studied light, movement, landscape, and personality.

Several of the works are by artists from the early 20th century, including Edward Steichen, a master and innovator of the medium, known for his cityscapes and portraits of the most famous personalities of his era. Featured here are selenium-toned, silver gelatin prints of J.P. Morgan (from 1903), Frank Lloyd Wright (1932), and Charlie Chaplin (1928), each with the warm hues associated with the process, and the photographer’s characteristic use of shadow. Trained as a painter, Steichen deployed enchanting chiaroscuro-like effects in both in his fine art and commercial work.

By contrast, Imogen Cunningham’s black-and-white photographs—including the exceptional tonal range—are achieved through her use of a platinum/palladium printing process. In Magnolia Blossom (1925), she has captured a broad spectrum of whites and off-whites, bringing out intricate details of the delicate flower. The Unmade Bed (1957) reveals light spilling over complex folds of unmade bedsheets and two small piles of hairpins. The crisp, compelling image reflects the ease of the picture’s making; Cunningham once said of The Unmade Bed, “one morning I got up and that was the way my bed looked, and I threw my hairpins in it.”

One of three contemporary photographers in the show, Michael Massaia uses darkness to suggest a bit of fantasy or even danger. Massaia’s silver gelatin prints employ deep blacks and grays with stark contrasts, as in Somers Place (2010), which features a rundown  home that appears to glow in a nighttime townscape. In a series from 2014, called “Deep in a Dream: Sheep Meadow,” Massaia captures people in repose in Central Park—their bodies and blankets look like crisp, silvery matter in black pools of grass. 

Finally, Stu Levy and DaeSoo Kim present landscape photography, of rushing water and bamboo forests, respectively. Both artists print using the silver gelatin process, with its rich, metallic finish. Levy captures water in many different places, as in Elowah Falls, Oregon (1986), where it tumbles into a pool in a blur set against the sharply focused background of rocks. In another photo, Golden Gate Bridge #176 (Sailboat & Shadow) (1994), he depicts the human relationship to water, with a small sailboat on the vast expanse of San Francisco Bay and in the shadow of the towering Golden Gate Bridge. In his large-scale photographs, Kim captures the draftsman-like beauty and variation of bamboo. In Winter Light, the trunks of the plant act like charcoal lines cut into a snowy forest. In With Moonlight, the darkened stalks are only barely illuminated, as if their trunks and leaves were powdered with light. 

These artists show the range of possibilities possible from careful mastery of their craft. Traditional techniques have long provided them and others the ability to capture the world in ways we wouldn’t otherwise know are possible.

—Stephen Dillon


The 21st Century Handmade Print” is on view at Gallery 270, Englewood, NJ, May 21 – July 25, 2015.


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