“The extremely delicate nuances of lighting effects” – Heinrich Kühn’s photography

“Photography is a pictorial depiction expressed in seamlessly merging tonal values and brought about or conveyed by the effects of light.”

“Photography is a pictorial depiction expressed in seamlessly merging tonal values and brought about or conveyed by the effects of light.”¹ These are the words with which Kühn himself summarised his photographic aims in his textbook ‘Technik der Lichtbildnerei’ (Technique of Photographic Art), published in 1921. As a protagonist and pioneer of international pictorialism, his aim was to elevate the medium of photography to the ranks of a fine art. Both formally and thematically he took his cue from the aesthetics of contemporary painting and drawing, and so his most foremost concern was that photography should work with its own resources, i.e. an image must be developed from that specific interaction between light and photochemical substances. In this way he distanced himself from the practice of massively manipulating an existing photographic image with a brush and paint – a method that was very widespread among amateurs in pictorialism at the time and which he rejected as “bromoil orgies”. Throughout his entire career, which lasted for about half a century, Kühn dedicated himself with remarkable precision and amazing perfectionism to the improvement and development of photographic processes and printing techniques. 

The prints, auctioned here and shown in this catalogue, all come from a private collection in southern Germany. What gives this compilation its special character and outstanding quality is above all that it illustrates Kühn’s endeavours with such clarity. The collection is an almost perfect reflection of Kühn’s photographic oeuvre because it shows nearly all the printing techniques he used over the years. He started at the turn of the century with large-format, planar gum dichromate prints that seem relatively heavy, followed by the two processes of platinum gum printing and gum gravure, which he had developed himself and which were used by no one else, then photogravure and oil printing, and eventually oil transfer processes which he particularly favoured in later years and which were marked by an extraordinary lightness and subtlety of depiction.² The compilation presented here excels, in particular, by featuring a large number of Heinrich Kühn’s most important subjects which appeared numerous times in contemporary publications as well as in more recent monographs. Moreover, the collection covers the full spectrum of his oeuvre in terms of content, i.e. still lives, portraits, nudes and landscapes. 

Early gum prints

His two earliest works in the collection – Dutch Woman with Hood [Lot 200] of 1897 and Old Dutch Woman [Lot 201], created around the same time – go back to the years when Heinrich Kühn took a substantial interest in gum dichromate printing. This method particularly suited Kühn’s artistic understanding of photography, because, for purely technical reasons, gum dichromate printing dissolves all sharp contours and therefore avoids the sharpness of detail that pervaded conventional photography and which pictorialists perceived as “lacking in art”. In ‘Technik der Lichtbildnerei’ (Technique of Photographic Art) Kühn says: “A sharp photographic depiction usually presents too many details as being equivalent, thus making it difficult to do what is necessary in an image, i.e. to subordinate the irrelevant to the things which are important and significant.”³ Whereas the silver salts of a gelatin silver print turn black under the impact of light and deliver a precisely contoured image of the depicted subject, the colour pigments embedded in the light-sensitive layer of a gum dichromate print produce a certain fuzziness. In both portraits a naturalistic depiction is replaced by a large-scale approach that seems almost graphic, dispensing with any focus on details such as clothing and, instead, concentrating entirely on the “pictorial” effect of carefully balanced areas of light and darkness which add structure to the image. The strong visual impact of a gum dichromate print, achieved through reduction and contrast, is reinforced by its characteristically large format, which Kühn saw as a further benefit of this method: “The introduction of gum dichromate printing meant the redemption of photography. Being generously presented, endowed with decorative power and finally […] a challenging format […], photography conquered the wall, and artistic photography was subsequently once and for all recognised as qualified to speak from the walls.”⁴

Both stylistically and in content, the two depictions initially remind us of Dutch old masters of the 17th century – an impression reinforced by the final coat of varnish which Kühn applied to both gum dichromate prints – yet the more immediate models which he emulated were probably Max Liebermann’s paintings of the same subject, created while the painter was in the Netherlands in the 1870s and 1880s (see Fig. 1). For both Liebermann and Kühn the attraction of this subject – Dutch women in national costumes – was the dominant contrast between the bright whiteness of their hoods and the darkness of their clothes. Kühn himself never denied his closeness to Liebermann’s works and those of others in and around the Munich Secession, an affinity which has also been noted frequently in literature.⁵ Together with his fellow campaigners and photographers Hans Watzek and Hugo Henneberg, Kühn undertook extended study trips to places that were also frequented by the painters of his time. Destinations included the Dutch coastal resort of Katwijk, where he went for the first time in 1897 and which was also greatly valued by Liebermann. Other places were Worpswede, Dachau and Venice [Lot 202].

However, the painterly impression of Kühn’s photography, resulting largely from his use of blurring throughout his oeuvre, must not be reduced to a mere imitation of Impressionist painting practices and effects. Rather, it has a scientific basis.⁶ Having trained as a physician, Kühn had always been interested in the theories of perception that were developed in the latter half of the 19th century and which also had a major impact on painting. They included, above all, the findings of the physiologist and physician Hermann von Helmholtz on the physiognomy of the human eye. In his theory Helmholtz wrote about the difference between the visual perception of a human being and a camera lens: whereas our eyes are more active and selective, concentrating on a small number of details, a photographic lens captures all the items that are placed before it, giving each object the same level of detail. This idea was explicitly picked up by Kühn when he wrote in one of his many articles that “in the act of viewing or beholding, the human eye hardly perceives the large number of the details that occur in nature, details which a well corrected lens depicts with persistent sharpness at the specified level.”⁷ So when Kühn used soft focus lenses, printing paper with rough surfaces and printing processes with a blurring effect, his concern was to present a correct ‘translation’ of a human being’s subjective, momentary perception into a photographic image.

The art of tonal values

In the same context Kühn focused increasingly not only on the excessive sharpness created by the camera lens, but also on a further drawback of the photographic material: the inadequate rendering of ‘tonality’, as he saw it. Right until the end of his life his endeavours now concentrated above all on resolving this issue through the refinement of photographic processes. Both technically and stylistically, it led to a clear change in his work, illustrated, for example, in his photograph Dutch Women in the Dune [Lot 204], created during another stay in Katwijk, only a few years after his two aforementioned works of 1904. The planar character of his early gum dichromate prints had clearly made way for more subtle nuances in tonality. Although the emphasis in this photograph was on the contrast between the women’s head covers, lit up brightly by the sun, and their dark red skirts, the captivating feature of the subject is above all a remarkably smooth transition between the intervening shades of grey, culminating in the depiction of the tender blades of beach grass. Although Dutch Women in the Dune is also available as an oil transfer print, created much later, a comparison of this print with early platinum-printed versions shows that the subtle gradation of light/dark values was at the centre of the photographer’s attention in both instances. 

Captured outdoors and moving around, the women in the dunes are depicted as being far more lively, and – although Kühn had premeditated the composition and its effect in advance and with great precision – they seem more easy-going than the Dutch women portrayed in earlier years. According to Monika Faber, Kühn owed this change in outlook to the influence of US colleagues, particularly Gertrude Käsebier, whose works Kühn greatly admired for their spontaneity and light-heartedness.⁸ Both in Germany and the US there was a good level of information about the creative work of colleagues on the other side of the Atlantic, thanks to a lively scene of publications and exhibitions that characterised fine art photography as a movement. In 1904, the year when Kühn photographed life on the beach, he had met Alfred Stieglitz, the most important representative and mentor of American pictorialism. If the portrait of his colleague [Lot 205], created during this meeting, is far smaller in format than his earlier gum dichromate prints, then this shows that here, too, Kühn let himself be guided by American practice, giving preference to small-format platinum prints. Instead of focusing mainly on the ‘decorative’ elements of a large-format composition, he became interested in more subtle nuances and in expanding the scale of tonal values. 

Yet aesthetically, Kühn was not totally satisfied with platinum printing. Despite all subtlety, it did not meet his idea of correctly rendered tonality, and in the years after he met Stieglitz, he therefore began to experiment extensively with combinations of different printing techniques. One outstanding example is his platinum gum print Miss Mary [Lot 216]. The photograph forms part of a large series which shows Mary Warner, Kühn’s partner and “most patient model”⁹ , standing in a room and assuming a variety of slightly different postures. Wearing a white dress in the Biedermeier style, she was captured by Kühn in a gently gyrating movement. The blur and the tight framing of the subject, make her appear slightly cut off at the top and bottom, creating an impression of a fleeting, volatile moment and, again, reminding us of paintings such as Impressionist studies of human figures by French artists. However, like Kühn’s Dutch Women in the Dune, this photograph, too, excels above all with its remarkably subtle gradation of tonal values, and the title of this series – Tonality Study – indicates that this aspect was indeed at the centre of the photographer’s artistic interest. The soft sheen of the subject’s skin, the transparency of her long multi-layered dress, the iridescence of the fine organza, the bright reflexes of the light on the furniture behind the woman and the subtle rendering of the background, even in dark areas – all this testifies to the extraordinary craftsmanship and finesse with which Kühn successfully realised his ideas through photography. The reason why, in this instance, he combined dichromate and platinum printing was that, ultimately, he felt that the latter would have been too “insipid” on its own.¹⁰ “[…] just as a painter cannot go further than the brightest white pigment, our brightness is limited by the whiteness of the paper. The only way to make the white of the paper appear particularly bright is by placing contrasts and areas of deep darkness within the image.”¹¹ Here he owed the desired contrast to the dark pigment of gum dichromate printing which Kühn applied to the first version, previously executed in platinum. This enabled him to be independent of the light and dark values inherent in the negative and to reinforce them the way he wanted, setting accents and thus achieving the “desired image mood”. 

While, in addition to the question of blurring, the “mastery of major tonal contrasts […]” was the “most important practical issue”¹² of his photographic work, here, too, his ideas were backed up by scientific research.¹³ In his ‘Technik der Lichtbildnerei’ (Technique of Photographic Art) he refers to the findings of the Berlin photochemist Hermann Wilhelm Vogel: although, optically and technically, photography renders light and darkness with “objective” accuracy, the result fails to match our human perception. After all, unlike a camera lens, a person’s eye keeps adjusting spontaneously to the surrounding lighting conditions. Kühn concludes at this point that “photography is unable to render light and dark shades equally and simultaneously at the values which we perceive them”¹⁴, and so his refined techniques in creating a positive photographic image were aimed at correcting this “fault” which was inherent in the negative. His aim was to provide an accurate translation of the nuances perceived by the human eye. Working untiringly and indeed with meticulous diligence, he continually expanded the tonal scale of photography. He wanted to ensure that the “pictorial” accentuation of “skin tones with relevance to the mood” and the “suppression of mood-spoiling tones” should play just as much of a role as “delicate tonality” and “subtle transitions” which he saw as “special values of photographic depiction”.¹⁵ 

In the mid-1920s Heinrich Kühn started to use older negatives, i.e. previously photographed subjects, with a view to working further on their refined rendering as positive prints.¹⁶ The Tonal Value Study III [Lot 215], a variation of Miss Mary, and several other prints auctioned here, were created by Kühn himself and date back to 1942 and 1943, showing that he continued this practice until the end of his life. Driven by his ambition to produce prints at the highest level of perfection and tonal accuracy, Kühn realised these objectives entirely by applying an oil transfer process. Quite early, therefore, from around 1915, this method was one of his preferred photographic techniques, because he saw it as offering the “greatest freedom in image creation”¹⁷. In particular, his Nude Seen from Behind [Lot 247], photographed in 1920 and realised in 1942, shows that those later prints are in no way inferior in quality or refinement to prints that were created soon after their negatives. The extremely delicate interplay between light and shade on the subject’s back with its almost unsurpassably subtle gradation, the gentle reflections of individual strands of braided hair and the carefully placed contrasts between the woman’s bright garment and the dark background testify to Kühn’s craftsmanship which he had honed over a period of many years. Kühn particularly valued the medium of photography for its ability to “render the most delicate subtleties of lighting effects with almost unsurpassable elegance and convincing truthfulness”¹⁸, and this quality is illustrated particularly well in his Nude Seen from Behind

Trailblazer of the "Neuen Sehens" (New Seeing)

Especially more recent publications on Heinrich Kühn have repeatedly and emphatically focused on the modernist potential of some of his works.¹⁹ One reason why this aspect was insufficiently appreciated in the reception of his oeuvre was probably also because there was considerably more emphasis on Kühn’s adherence to traditional subjects, especially on his use of soft focus techniques, similar to painting. In works such as the still life Wine bottle, water glass and apple, dated 1911 [Lot 223] – composed under classical principles of painting and capitalising on the “wonderful reflections”²⁰ of the water glass and the resulting impact – Kühn does indeed follow “entirely in the tradition of still life paintings practised by the old masters with the aim of achieving virtuosity.”²¹ Yet in another still life Wine bottle and water glass [Lot 224], produced in the same year, the depicted object is dissolved almost completely in precisely those reflections, and the composition – mainly in the right-hand part of the photograph – solidifies into a carefully balanced juxtaposition of light and dark areas that verges on abstraction. 

Monika Faber points out that, from around 1912, Heinrich Kühn acquired a photographic style which effectively anticipated the New Vision movement of the 1920s.²² However, we can discern a foretaste of the preferred artistic methods of avant-garde photographers already in Kühn’s Artist’s Umbrella [Lot 213] and Artist’s Umbrella II [Lot 214]. Although the subject of naked children playing on the beach is a traditional one which “was firmly anchored as Arcadia within the contemporary canon of images”,²³ there are also elements suggesting a modern vision, detached from the subject: a powerful view from the top, a cut-out character, strong light/dark contrasts and – caused by the perspective – a photographic “translation” of a sunshade into a shape that permits an abstract reading. All of these elements eventually came to prevail in the works of the “New Photographers” one and a half decades later. In Kühn’s photograph Walkers in the Meadow [Lot 228], dated around 1912, the high level of abstraction is already a determining element: running diagonally through the image, the dark border of the shadow divides the photograph into two almost monochrome areas where the walkers’ hats can be read as oval shapes hovering above them. 

But there is also a difference: the photographic avantgarde of the Weimar Republic adopted an approach that was marked by fragmented views and extreme perspectives – a vision which had been caused by transformed living conditions in an increasingly urbanised and technologydominated environment. Such aspects, by contrast, undoubtedly lacked relevance for Kühn who lived in the remote world of the Tyrolean Alps. 

Instead, being a passionate mountaineer, his experiments with new perspectives were inspired by the spectacular views of the mountain landscape.²⁴ He was unimpressed by modern urban life – a subject which features very rarely in his oeuvre. Monika Faber suggests that Kühn either never printed out the few negatives of cityscapes which formed part of his estate or he destroyed those prints later in life.²⁵ We can therefore ascribe a considerable rarity value to Kühn’s view of Innsbruck in winter [Lot 203], auctioned here, a photograph which he probably created just after the turn of the last century. It may well have been modelled on Alfred Stieglitz’s views of New York in the snow, published by the latter in ‘Camera Work’ in 1903 and 1905.²⁶ 

The later years

By concentrating on a small number of classical themes, Heinrich Kühn used the repertoire of subjects that had prevailed in painting and which generally prevailed far less within pictorialism. The choice of subjects always played a minor role for him, even in the 1910s. Instead, he devoted his entire photographic attention to a harmonious, ‘pictorial’ composition and above all to the complete mastery and richness of nuances in tonality. As mentioned above, from around 1925, he started to use older negatives, to which, in the 1920s and 1930s, he added above all numerous still lives including simple arrangements of flowers from his own garden [Lots 250,251] as well as photographs of rural scenes and portrait studies [Lots 248/249, 255-258]. During those later years of his oeuvre Heinrich Kühn often also used his two Alsatians, Poidl and Liddy, as camera-worthy subjects. Such photographs – particularly the dog snoozing on an armchair [Lot 252] – show that, ultimately, he saw the actual subject as a mere pretext for concentrating on his main point of interest, the photographic mastery of strong contrasts between light and dark. The essence of such works must be seen in purely photographic terms. 

Heinrich Kühn’s great merit as a photographer was precisely this focus on the inherent potential of the medium, which he fathomed perfectly, in all its depth, and also his persistent efforts to produce accurate tonality in his monochrome photographs. Furthermore, although he acknowledged that photography permitted some manual influence through the process of exposure, he insisted that it should limit itself completely to its own media-specific resources. In doing so, he made a major contribution to its recognition as an artistic form of expression, so that photographs were no longer viewed as mechanical images of a purely external reality. 

We would like to express our special thanks to Andreas Gruber who, as a restorer, has studied Kühn’s photographic oeuvre extensively for many years and who gave us plenty of valuable advice on the dating of prints and on determining the relevant techniques, which were difficult to identify at times. 

Expert: Maren Klinge

¹ Heinrich Kühn, Technik der Lichtbildnerei, Halle an der Saale 1921, p. 12. 

² The collection auctioned here does not include Kühn’s colour photographs, i.e. his polychrome gum dichromate prints, of which he only produced a relatively small number. Neither does it include his equally polychrome autochromes, of which he only produced large numbers within a relatively short period, between around 1907 and 1913. 

³ Heinrich Kühn, op.cit., p. 118. 

⁴ Ibid., p. 89. 

⁵ See Enno Kaufhold, Heinrich Kühn und die Kunstfotografie um 1900, Berlin 1988, pages 22ff., Monika Faber, “Die Kunst der Tonwerte oder: Die vollkommene Kontrolle über das fotografische Material”, in: Monika Faber and Astrid Mahler (eds.), Heinrich Kühn – Die vollkommene Fotografie, exhibition catalogue, Albertina, Vienna et al., Ostfildern 2010, pp. 53. 

⁶ See Ute Eskildsen (ed.), Heinrich Kühn. 1866-1944. 110 Bilder aus der Fotografischen Sammlung, exhib.cat. Museum Folkwang Essen, Essen 1978, pp. 10; Monika Faber, op.cit., pp. 40. 

⁷ Heinrich Kühn, “Gundsätzliches über den Weichzeichner”, in: Photographische Korrespondenz, 1928, p. 282, quoted here by Ute Eskildsen, op.cit., p. 11. 

⁸ See Monika Faber, op.cit., p. 137.

⁹ Heinrich Kühn, quoted by Monika Faber, op.cit., p. 22. 

¹⁰ Interview with Andreas Gruber on 6 October 2017. 

¹¹ Heinrich Kühn, op.cit., p. 387. 

¹² Ibid., p. 384. 

¹³ See Monika Faber, op.cit., pp. 22. 

¹⁴ Heinrich Kühn, op.cit., p. 390. 

¹⁵ Ibid., pp. 388. 

¹⁶ See Astrid Mahler, “Heinrich Kühn – Leben und Werk”, in: Monika Faber and Astrid Mahler Heinrich Kühn , op.cit., p. 245. 

¹⁷ Heinrich Kühn, op.cit., p. 325. 

¹⁸ Ibid., p. 17. 

¹⁹ See Monika Faber, op.cit., pp. 7 and 31 and Astrid Mahler, op.cit., p. 245. 

²⁰ Heinrich Kühn, op.cit., p. 403. 

²¹ Monika Faber, op.cit., p. 204. 

²² Ibid., p. 7. 

²³ Ibid., p. 76. 

²⁴ Ibid., pp. 67. 

²⁵ See Monika Faber, Parallels and Divergences – Heinrich Kuehn, “International Art Photography, and Alfred Stieglitz”, in: Monika Faber (ed.), Heinrich Kuehn and His American Circle. Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, Munich et al. 2012, p. 56. 

²⁶ E.g. the photograph The Street – Design for a Poster, 1903, published in Camera Work, issue 3, 1903, and his best-known photograph of the subject, Winter – Fifth Avenue, 1892, published in issue 12 of Camera Work, 1905.