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Treated by Steichen

Constance McCabe

Alfred Stieglitz, Emil C. Zoler, 1917, palladium print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949.3.413
Key Set number 461

Inscriptions on 157 palladium prints in the Key Set indicate that the prints were treated by the acclaimed photographer Edward Steichen. The wording of the inscriptions varies; some say “treated by Steichen for stain,” while others say “treated by Steichen” or just “treated” (followed by the date). Soon after Alfred Stieglitz’s death in 1946, Georgia O’Keeffe determined that the tone of many of his palladium prints made from the late 1910s to the early 1920s had changed, becoming warmer or more orange in the highlights of the prints. She asked Steichen, who was once a close friend and collaborator of Stieglitz, if he could improve their appearance and longevity. Steichen successfully treated the prints to improve their appearance but did not document what he had used to reverse the “stains”—and over time, the warmer or more orange tones have reappeared.

Conservators and scientists at the National Gallery of Art recently revisited earlier research into Steichen’s treatment, reinvestigated the palladium process, delved into Stieglitz’s writings, and discovered new information that may help to explain why the discoloration formed initially, what Steichen may have done to treat the prints, and why the warmer tones seem to have returned. The results of this new research showed that the lighter regions of an improperly cleared palladium print will develop staining or discoloration due to residual iron left in the paper. This suggests that Stieglitz’s failure to sufficiently clear his palladium prints may be at the root of the problem. The discoloration on poorly cleared laboratory-created test prints visually decreased when treated with a sodium acetate solution, which Steichen might have used to reverse the original discoloration. But the discoloration on the test prints treated with the sodium acetate solution reappeared after artificial aging—just as the discoloration on the prints treated by Steichen have.

Suggested Reading

McCabe, Constance, Christopher A. Maines, Mike Ware, and Matthew L. Clarke. “Alfred Stieglitz’s Palladium Prints: Treated by Steichen.” In Platinum and Palladium Photographs: Technical History, Connoisseurship, and Preservation, edited by Constance McCabe, 356–371. Washington, DC: American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, 2017.