I returned to Madison Square Park after finding it so photogenic with my recent squirrel encounter. This time I turned my camera to the Flatiron building, constructed at the turn of the century. Its triangular shape tapers to an astonishingly narrow 6 feet, and this combined with its height and a wind tunnel effect made people at the time worry it would blow over with strong winds.
This building is a photographer magnet. Nearly five years ago I was fortunate in seeing an amazing show at the Met featuring a trio of archetypal American photographers, Stieglitz, Steichen and Strand. Stieglitz was a mentor to the other two photographers, and also spent much of his life nurturing photography as art, donating the first photos to the Met in 1928.
Alfred Stieglitz saw the building in 1903 through the trees of Madison Square after a snowstorm, noting it “appeared to be moving toward me like the bow of a monster ocean steamer–a picture of the new America in the making.” He spent days after his epiphany shooting it, resulting in his iconic image through the trees.
This photo inspired his protégé Steichen to focus his lens on the Flatiron building the following year, shooting a dusk shot from the west side of the park. For me that was the highlight of the exhibit, his series of 3 prints of this photo together side by side. The first was made in 1904, with two more following in 1905 and 1909. Using a single negative he dabbed different pigment on the prints expressing subtle variations of the moody scene. They looked like half paintings and half photos, which was his intended effect.
For my photo I decided not to emulate the moody feel of Steichen’s iconic photo series. Though I enjoy it today in its gentrified popularity, years ago in college I was mugged at this park so didn’t want to tempt fate by shooting in the dark. I also decided Stieglitz’s pattern of shooting not only from the park but also standing right on Fifth Avenue might not be ideal, given there is now a lot more traffic than when he was shooting.
Exploring the park, I searched for a spot with an interesting foreground. I shot at 1/180 of a second, to largely freeze the water from the fountain. The tree stump next to it was pruned of its dying branches around 8 years ago, now all that remains of an elm that survived the ravages of Dutch elm disease and died of old age. I have a friend who is nurturing some elms resistant to the disease, and have a few of his saplings growing in my yard. I don’t know if they will ever get to the size of this tree, but I want to do my part to help their future. In a charming continuation of New York’s squirrel obsession, this elm trunk was left standing by the Parks Department specifically as a place for squirrels to build their nests.
I converted this to black and white since I felt after reflecting so much on previous photographers it seemed appropriate to shoot as they had. If I get really ambitious I can always make a print and find my own special pigments as homage to Steichen. Or I can just go back in Lightroom and convert it back to color!