Spread of Robert Steinberg's portfolio for "The Albumen Alternative," published in the March 1983 edition of Camera Arts magazine. The four-color reproductions were good, but could not do justice to the originals.
Written by Jim Hughes
Who among us can truly fathom the undeniable allure of a work of art? In its first incarnation, Camera Arts published a portfolio of hand-crafted albumen prints by the photographer Rob Steinberg (March, 1983) that exhibited a certain subtle, and fragile, beauty. Each print was one of a kind, an amalgam of the seemingly long-neglected arts of paper making, pictorialism and, some might even say, alchemy.
Although most of our stories at the time were written by freelancers, these images so enthralled my editorial assistant at the time that she asked to write it herself. Her first feature. In her open cubicle of an office, she surrounded herself with the oversize still-life prints, essentially living with them each working day, literally breathing their rare air. In the end, her carefully wrought words caught the essence of one artist's passions. To forestall any possible damage, we made large copy transparencies and reproduced from these for the magazine rather than sending the irreplaceable originals to the printer.
The portfolio was well received by our readers, and the photographer called to express his satisfaction. But a few months later, I received another call from the photographer. "Now that everything is finished, when can I expect to receive my prints back?" he wanted to know. I think he may have had a gallery exhibit planned.
I thought the portfolio had already been returned, shortly after publication. I asked my assistant why it hadn't been. "I haven't been able to find it," she admitted. Her eyes welled up. "It was here; then it wasn't. I’ve been looking everywhere for it, but I didn't want to tell you the prints were lost because I thought they must just have been misplaced somewhere."
She remembered putting everything back in the photographer's large portfolio box, then sliding that back into its original packaging, which we always tried to save. The sturdy package was finally placed back on a shelf. Our records showed a log-in date, but nothing to indicate a return or a pickup.
We—meaning the whole staff, top to bottom—proceeded to turn the office complex, which we shared with Popular Photography, upside down and inside out. Nothing. Had the work been stolen, right under our noses, by a visiting photographer? Or was it an inside job? Perhaps one of our own staff members had developed an uncontrollable lust for the images. Or had our nightly cleaning service accidentally tossed the package? Everything and everyone was suspect. After a week of fruitless searching, we finally had to admit that the portfolio had simply disappeared. It was not only a mystery—it was a photography magazine's worst nightmare.
I called Rob to tell him the bad news. In a neat bit of rationalization, I think I used the word "misplaced." In any event, I said, it was clearly the magazine's responsibility. We intended to keep searching, but if all else failed, we ultimately would pay for remaking the prints—knowing full well that in his case, no amount of money could make up for the time, energy, skill, and passion involved. For his part, the photographer displayed more understanding than I might have had I been in his place.
Months passed. One day I received another call from the photographer. I thought he might finally be requesting recompense. No. Seems he'd been contacted by a woman—she sounded quite elderly, he said—who told him she'd found something she thought might belong to him. Asked to describe it, she said it was package of "lovely photographs, I think they are, that look like paintings."
She found them in a pile of trash in her Greenwich Village neighborhood, waiting at the curbside to be picked up by a New York City Sanitation truck. "I don't know why," she explained, "but my little dog pulled me right to them and started sniffing. Your address and phone number were inside the box, and I thought you might want the contents back."
Before long, Rob and his portfolio were reunited. Nothing was damaged and no prints were missing, he reported. But the mystery remained. How did a large portfolio belonging to a Boston-area artist make its way from an office building on the East Side of Manhattan down some 30 blocks to end up in a trash heap in the far West Village? What sort of thief goes to the trouble of making off with something so large and specific, of such obvious aesthetic and probably significant monetary value—even managing somehow to evade the watchful eyes of knowledgeable professionals—only to later totally abandon the endeavor?
Perhaps the episode represented something far more complicated, even more sinister, than I had imagined. As for the theft, if that's what it was, I had my suspicions, but never came up with anything resembling proof. So we would simply never know.
The case of the purloined prints remains unsolved.
For many years, Jim Hughes was the editor of Camera 35. Later, he was the founding editor of Mike J.'s all-time favorite photo magazine, the original Camera Arts. His books include the superb biography W. Eugene Smith: Shadow and Substance—The Life and Work of an American Photographer, and the monograph Ernst Haas in Black and White. Retired now, he writes occasionally for TOP (see his other articles by finding his name in the "Categories" list in the right-hand sidebar). He lives in Maine.
©2014 by Jim Hughes, all rights reserved
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Featured Comments from:
hugh crawford: "There used to be a well established 'thieves market' on Second Avenue in front of the Kiev restaurant, where I ate on a pretty regular basis. Every time I saw something that looked like a portfolio I'd check the name and phone number, call the artist or photographer, and get a window seat and keep an eye on things while eating my pirogi.
"Did I mention that these were the most stupid of all thieves? The police couldn't do much besides tell them to move, NYC being the sort of place where almost anything can show up on the curb (I've picked up a Kilfitt bellows setup, a Crown Graphic, and a process camera from the curb, and I know someone who retrieved a bunch of Irving Penn prints from a couple dumpsters), but the NYC Hell's Angels lived a couple blocks away, and the Hell's Angels' sense of due process is somewhat more casual than the NYPD's."
Luis Nadeau: "Hi Jim, Long time no see. Rob Steinberg was, in my opinion, the top printer in the world who could handle both albumen and platinum/palladium. Albumen was especially difficult. He tried to commercialize a palladium paper (with a trace of platinum in it) under the name of Palladio, starting in 1988. There is a (very poor) reproduction of one of his palladiotypes in my Encyclopedia of Printing, Photographic and Photomechanical Processes, p. 354. Unfortunately, his source of raw paper experienced a disastrous fire and even though they rebuilt their facilities, the quality of their products changed significantly. He had to abandon both albumen and palladium printing.
"By the way, thanks for that wonderful David Vestal obit. Regards from Canada."
[Luis Nadeau is a pioneering researcher and expert in the fields of photographic conservation and restoration, with a special interest in permanent and archival alternative processes, including the elusive Fresson process. He is the author of a number of influential books and is revered by many alt-process fans the world over. —Ed.]
Jim Hughes responds: "Luis, You may not realize it, but you are in no small measure responsible for my being able to write my biography of Gene Smith. I mean physically write it. Back in the early '80s, when our paths crossed in Maine, we had a discussion, actually more than one, about my plans to produce what I knew would be a massive book. But I had never used a computer, just a manual typewriter, to that point, and realized that what was then called 'word processing' might make a difficult job easier. But I needed something that could be transported back and forth to Maine, along with my burgeoning pile of research.
"You recommended a then-new Kaypro 'portable,' actually a 25-pound steel suitcase with a 7-inch screen and a full keyboard. You even sent me a color brochure after you returned to Canada. Based on your advice, I bought a Kaypro in, I think, 1983. This, of course, was before graphical interfaces, mice, wysiwyg, Windows and IBM machines. The Kaypro used the CP/M operating system, had a built-in memory of something like 64k and no hard drive, only 400k floppies (back then you could actually bend them!) yet still came bundled with a difficult but eminently customizable writing program called Perfect Writer (in all the years since, I've yet to find anything as good).
"My first draft of Shadow & Substance was more than 2,000 pages, plus 400 pages of perfectly matched endnotes. After seven years of research while running magazines came two full-time (jobless) years of writing and three years of revising and editing. Thereafter, I wrote the texts for two more books before finally succumbing to the allures of the Mac system, which I continue to use.
"So for this—and for your well-known encyclopedic knowledge of everything photographic—I thank you. Again and again...."