around: Charles Steinmetz on Monocyclic Rock in Thompson’s
Lake, East Berne.
Scientist at Play
Works: The Steinmetz Photograph Collection 1892-1910
Schenectady Museum, through
Artists Member Exhibition
Museum, through Aug. 25
Here’s a little-known fact: The third-largest collection of
photographic prints and negatives in the United States is
held by the Schenectady Museum. Exceeded in size only by collections
at the Chicago Historical Society and the Los Angeles Public
Library, the 1.5 million-object collection in Schenectady
is buoyed by tremendous holdings of material from more than
a century of General Electric research projects.
Within that trove are contained the 1,700 glass-plate negatives
collected by GE wizard Charles Steinmetz in his lifetime of
amateur photography. The exhibition Fragile Works: The
Steinmetz Photograph Collection 1892-1910 is drawn from
the first of two phases of restoration and archiving of the
Steinmetz collection; the second phase will deal primarily
with the later years up to Steinmetz’s death in 1923.
An extraordinarily gifted scientist generally credited with
making electricity practical, Steinmetz was also a fun-loving
guy who documented a lifetime of hijinks and explorations
with bulky 4-by-5-inch and 5-by-7-inch view cameras in the
manner of many amateur photographers of his time. The results
of that habit are historically interesting, entertaining,
and occasionally insightful visual documents. While they are
above average in terms of competency, this show hardly unveils
a great undiscovered photographic talent. Still, the fact
that their creator was a genius in his own right certainly
adds to their interest.
And Steinmetz clearly led such an interesting life that there
is plenty to delight in here. Organized in loose groups under
the headings Life In Schenectady, Excursions, Fool the
Eye, Outdoor Life and Family Man, the exhibition
consists of modern 11-by-14-inch black-and-white prints made
from the restored glass plates (an outfit called Museum Photographics
in Rochester is handling the work) along with a handful of
original 4-by-5-inch prints by Steinmetz and a few enlarged
copies of original prints that had no negative available.
Some of the images, such as street scenes, are valuable simply
as a record of how things looked at a particular time and
place. Others evoke the times around the last turn of the
century in special ways: Efforts at the creation of glider
planes, group water sports in public settings, the first images
of skiing in New York state (thanks to close Steinmetz colleagues
Ernst and Eskil Berg of Sweden) and impressive picnic trips
to the Helderberg escarpment (now Thacher Park) are all shown
in loving detail.
Other subjects that recall the Victorian era include parlor
parties, early bicycles (one of the best compositions on view,
titled Canadian Girls, shows a family group Steinmetz
encountered during a bicycle ride) and a skating party on
the Erie Canal. The Fool the Eye section includes Steinmetz’s
own efforts at popular photographic tricks of the day, such
as double and triple exposures, multiple prints and stop-action
Not surprisingly, many of these images resemble work by better-known
practitioners of that era, including Alfred Stieglitz and
the great French photographer of the leisure class at play,
Jacques Henri Lartigue.
Stieglitz and his contemporaries Edward Steichen and Julia
Margaret Cameron are also evoked in the body of work titled
Family Man, in which Steinmetz pours his affection
into portraits of a young family he legally adopted in 1906
(badly deformed from birth, Steinmetz never married). The
portraits of Joseph Hayden and his wife and children, who
lived with Steinmetz for 20 years, are perhaps the best work
in this show—they are certainly the most affecting.
Also among the best pictures on view are some of those in
the Outdoor Life section. Whether understood as landscapes
or just as snapshots, they range from the silly to the sublime—Steinmetz
posing improbably reclined on a small rock in the middle of
a big lake; Hayden family members loading rocks into a canoe
for shoring up a swimming-hole dam; floodwaters rushing into
Based on the excellent quality of these and other images in
the show, it wouldn’t be a stretch to speculate that, had
Steinmetz taken photography half as seriously as he took science,
he might also have become one of the best artists in his generation.
There is a long and honored tradition of art clubs in the
United States and Europe and, though it seems almost as much
a thing of the past as Victorian photography, there is one
such club still thriving in our region. Founded in 1956, the
Oakroom Artists maintain a small membership by invitation
only and sponsor regular in-depth exhibitions at the First
Unitarian Society of Schenectady, as well as an annual group
show at one area museum or other.
This year’s collection of one piece each by 26 artists is
at the Schenectady Museum, and it may seem a welcome addition
to anyone frustrated by the very small selection of artists
in this year’s Mohawk-Hudson Regional (at the University Art
Museum). As it happens, one artist (Carolou Kristofik) is
in both, but I imagine that many other Oakroom artists also
submitted to the unusually tightly edited Regional.
And there are some real gems here. While it is difficult to
draw any conclusions about an artist’s work from just one
piece, some of the work in this selection is by artists we’ve
seen elsewhere and often. On the whole, this group favors
traditional media and subject matter over avant-garde experimentation—while
a few of the pieces push the envelope, the strengths tend
to be in the more tried-and-true methods of painting.
Among the best: Gail Kort’s oil on canvas Snow and yellow
willow, a lushly rendered celebration of a snowy landscape
and the dazzling sky above it; George Dirolf’s circular screen
print Nest, in which unusual detail is lavished on
a palette of browns and grays depicting a ball of dried vines;
a watercolor by Maureen Saul, titled Mountain Stream,
in which this highly skilled practitioner denotes the individual
textures of trees, rocks and water using the full range from
dense paint to pure white paper; and Time on the Verge
of Collapse—Revisited by Margaret A. Foley, a mixed-media
fabric piece with rich layerings and a challenging hybridization
of stitchery and monoprinting.
Other standouts are oil paintings by Constance Dodge (an aerial
view of a landscape in vibrant colors overlaid by snapshot-derived
images), David Arsenault (a spooky moonlit sighting of the
Malta Drive-In, sign glowing like a sentinel from the space-age)
and Gary Shankman (a gentle, atmospheric neo-impressionist
delight). The lone sculpture in the show, by Tom Schottman,
is also worthy of attention, as his work always is.
A gallery tour of Fragile Works:The Steinmetz Photograph
Collection 1892-1910 will be given by Schenectady Museum
archivist Chris Hunter today (Thursday, July 31) at noon.