Thursday, January 4, 2018

Met Museum: Adolf de Meyer Photographs

After having seen the exhibit of masterpiece drawings during my visit to the Met Museum on December 26th, I then viewed an exhibit of photographs by Adolf de Meyer appropriately entitled Quicksilver Brilliance.  The small Gilman Paper gallery in which the show was set was so sparsely attended that it was difficult to believe I was only steps from the crush of holiday visitors who'd come to view the museum's Rodin exhibit in the much larger space directly outside it.

Though largely forgotten now, de Meyer secured his place in photographic history by becoming one of the world's first editorial photographers.  From 1913 to 1921 he was both Vogue's and Vanity Fair's principal photographer at a moment when technical advances in the halftone process allowed magazines for the first time to illustrate their covers and pages with actual photographs rather than with illustrations based upon them.  This in turn created a demand for skilled photographers whose work would now be viewed directly by the public without the assistance of an intermediary.  Largely by accident, de Meyer found himself in the right place at the right time.

De Meyer lived a flamboyant lifestyle in the upper echelons of early twentieth century high society.  Whether or not he was actually a baron, as he chose to style himself, he moved easily in aristocratic circles.  His enrtee to this privileged group was greatly facilitated by his marriage of convenience (de Meyer was gay) in 1899 to Olga Caracciolo, an Italian noblewoman rumored to be the illegitimate daughter of Edward VII.  With Olga at his side, de Meyer gained first hand knowledge of the sophisiticated lifestyles of the social elite as well as the couture in which they attired themselves.  This was to be invaluable to him at Vogue and later, in Paris, at Harper's Bazaar.

No matter how fortuitous the circumstances that led to his success, de Meyer was a highly accomplished photographer who well deserved the positions he held.  He had already become a member of the Royal Photographic Society in 1893 and from 1903 to 1907 had his work published prominently in Alfred Stieglitz's Camera Work.  The association with Stieglitz (whose own Spring Showers was on view at the exhibit) was particularly significant because it reinforced the pictorialist style of de Meyer's work at a time when the movement had reached its zenith during the Photo Secession.  Pictorialism's soft focus techniques proved a perfect match for the fashion work on which the photographer was soon to embark.

If there are not more original prints at the current exhibit, it's because most of de Meyer's work was unfortunately destroyed during World War II.  Enough remains, however, to attest to his skill as a darkroom technician.  That displayed here is drawn entirely from the Met's own collection.

Surprisingly, the two finest works at the exhibit, both of them photographed in 1906 and both of them platinum prints, are neither portraits nor fashion work but floral still lifes.  The Shadows on the Wall (Chrysanthemums) and Water Lilies are exquisite works, the latter also shown reproduced as a photogravure in Camera Work.  There is a sensitivity to beauty in them that makes it clear why de Meyer felt so at home in Japan, the source of a number of photographs displayed here including Ueno Tōshō-gū, View through the Window of a Garden, and Garden Pool with Waterlilies, all of them photographed while on a visit to that country in 1900.  The last is a carbon print, a notoriously difficult medium with which to work, that creates an inherently sharper print than platinum though it lacks the latter's tonal range.  It attests to de Meyer's superlative ability in printing his images.

The fashion and portraiture work itself seems extremely dated today with the exception of the portrait of Josephine Baker (direct carbon print, c. 1925-1926) in which all the performer's vitality is captured even though she is dressed in a full length gown rather than in her infamous danse sauvage banana outfit.

One item I had never before seen and found fascinating was a 1914 book of dance photographs taken of the original Ballets Russes production of L'Après-midi d'un faune.  The the book consists of fourteen collotypes of which six have been temporarily removed and hung, including the portrait of Nijinsky as the faun.  As a photographer, I wondered what film emulsion de Meyer had used that had allowed him to capture motion in low light without any blurring.  (It's also possible the photographer asked the dancers to freeze a given position for the length of the exposure.)  There were also two platinum prints showing dancers in motion on view that were not part of the book but obviously related to it, at least in theme.  The more interesting was a nude study, the only one ever taken by de Meyer, in which the dancer had donned a grotesque mask.

Once the Photo Secession had ended and Stieglitz had moved on with Paul Strand to straight photography, pictorialism became something of a lost cause.  De Meyer was just one of many talented photographers whose work fell into obscurity as tastes changed.  Perhaps one day the pendulum will swing back again and he will receive the recognition he deserves.

The exhibit continues through March 18, 2018.

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