It is almost difficult to imagine the days when photography’s use as an artform was questioned. The Fifth Avenue Neue Galerie: Museum for German and Austrian Art inspects how photography came to be art in Heinrich Kuehn and his American Circle. Heinrich Kuehn took the first “art photograph” in 1894. Across the Atlantic, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen used Kuehn’s images to bolster the case for art photography in America. By 1906, the three were working together, experimenting with the science of photography and the art of its use. Kuehn and his compatriots’ efforts to translate the conventional subjects of visual art into photography are astonishing.
The photographers were adventurous both artistically and technically, developing their own means of creating color photographs. An in-depth video explains Kuehn’s use of gum bichromate to transcend technological limitations. Many of the photographs have an impressionist tinge in their grainy, atmospheric character. Some are even water-colored. Others take on more conventional subject matter, echoing Dutch still lifes, Victorian portraits, and pastoral paintings. The photographs are also noteworthy for historical reasons; a host of photos of New York, Germany, and Austria before the wars provide rare glimpses of landscapes soon to be altered by industry and war.
Unlike its neighbors on the Museum Mile, the Neue is rather small. While the Met and MoMA take weeks to fully explore, the Neue can be digested in a day. The museum also houses a renowned permanent collection, including the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, the world’s most expensive painting for a few months in 2006. Works are displayed on wood-panelled walls surrounded by turn-of-the-century design. It is a relaxed, unhurried place to view art. The ground floor’s Viennese Café (featured here) offers coffee, pastries and newspapers to end a day of culture in the Fifth Avenue mansion and museum.