The Search for Steichen’s $2.9M Pond
American Photo's editors comb upstate New York in search of the subject of Edward Steichen's famous photograph.
At the time of this writing, Edward Steichen’s “The Pond — Moonlight,” was the most expensive single photographic image ever sold. The photo was taken by Steichen in Mamaroneck, New York, near Long Island Sound, in 1904, when the photographer was in his mid-20s. A print of the image was sold during a special auction at Sotheby’s in New York on February 14, as the Metropolitan Museum of Art “deacquisitioned” material from the Gilman photography collection, which it bought in 2005. There are only two other prints of the image, one still at the Met and the other at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Just a few months prior to the sale, a Richard Prince image had sold for more than a million dollars at a contemporary art auction, the first time that barrier was broken by a single photograph.
Barely had our story on that sale been printed than it was out of date. Now the world has a new record-holder, and the art community is beside itself with glee. But what about the pond itself? Is it still a viable photographic subject?
Is This Steichen’s Pond?
Sometime in the last summer of early fall of 1904, Edward Steichen wandered away from a home in Mamaroneck, in Westchester County, about 45 minutes north of New York City, and walked downhill toward the marshy wetlands at edge of Long Island Sound. There he made a photograph that would one day upend the art world and usher in a new era in photography.
A print of the photograph, which Steichen called “The Pond — Moonlight,” sold for $2.9 million at a special auction at Sotheby’s in February, making it the most expensive single photograph ever. One of three existing gum bichromate prints that Steichen made from the same negative, it had been part of the Gilman Paper Company collection of 8,500 images acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year. Since the Met already owned one of the other prints of the image (the third is at the Museum of Modern Art in New York), the museum “deacquisitioned” it along with other material at the Sotheby’s auction.
All told, the sale brought in an astonishing $14,982,900. Many art insiders believe that result reflects a steep, upward trend in prices for photography in general. (It was only last November that a Richard Prince image became the first single photograph to break the $1 million barrier.)
In the aftermath of the sale, “The Pond — Moonlight” became the focus of much conversation and historic speculation, but perhaps none more intriguing than that raised in a New York Times article regarding the exact location of the pond. Today, Mamaroneck is a woody suburb, but in 1904 it was sparsely populated. Steichen had gone there with his first wife, Clara, and their newborn daughter that summer, staying in the home of art critic Charles H. Caffin. Could it be that his pond still exists?
To find out, American Photo launched an expedition. Our team was aided by Gloria P. Pritts, the village historian of Mamaroneck, who in the weeks after the auction began researching possible locations in which the pond might have been. After poring over the evidence and Steichen’s own records, she concluded that the pond had been in a low-lying area that is now part of a golf course, the Hampshire Country Club. “The golf course would have been within walking distance of the Caffin house,” says Pritts, “and there are a lot of old oaks and other trees there in the direction in which the moon would have been setting.”
Our team surveyed the golf course and found several ponds, including the one you see here. If this is Steichen’s pond, it is now surrounded by sand traps and single-family homes. But if the rustic landscape of Steichen day is gone, the artistic allure of what he captured remains.