New York

Ralph Steiner

Witkin Gallery

A certain kind of nostalgia is engendered by Ralph Steiner’s photographs. It is a nostalgia read into the work due to one’s comprehension of the photographic image as an instance of time captured and preserved. And yet Steiner does tend to subvert such a reading with his emphasis on formal concerns and the possibilities of picture-making with the camera image. Thus, while his various photos of billboards from the ’20s and ’30s recollect through “pop” advertisement another era, they also function abstractly as found collages flattening out the tangibility of their surroundings. Similarly in Steiner’s American Baroque (c. 1930) the empty wicker rocking chair and its clearly defined shadow against the back wall of a porch does evoke the transitory stillness of a moment caught in time. However, the sharp focus on the pattern of the shadow and the emphatic shape of the chair stress the pictorial composition of the photograph.

Although Steiner was involved in the political protests of the ’30s, the element of social commentary in his work is minimized. Again it is the formal interests which prevail. His blown-up detail of typewriter keys, while suggesting the repetitiveness of mechanization, functions more in terms of the ordered relationships of light and dark shapes. Because there is no outside referent for scale, the typewriter keys take on a surreal appearance, seeming to be gigantic, although their size is known in terms of one’s prior conceptions of reality. Two photographs of electricity wires further evidence Steiner’s interest in abstract pictorial design. The patterns of the wires silhouetted against the sky offer drawings found in the everyday environment.

Steiner’s more recent photographs explore the abstract shapes and designs created by trees, plants, cloud formations or washing draped on a line. His nature studies with their insistence on form and their use of light to define pattern belong within the sharp focus, close-up tradition of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. In his choice of subject matter, though—in his outlining of tree tops against the sky or his isolation of a single tree within a landscape—Steiner reveals an incipient romanticism that counters the objective “look” of his photographs. This attitude is particularly evident in the cloud prints. Here one is inevitably drawn into a comparison with Alfred Stieglitz’s Equivalents with their implied significance as metaphors for feelings. One recognizes how often the possibilities of symbolism are given in Steiner’s presentation of abstract form and how much his photographs depend on a pictorial hierarchy for their significance.

Susan Heinemann