Monday, April 24, 2017
Alfred Stieglitz: American Photographer and Publisher
In photography there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality. - Alfred Stieglitz
A vital force in the development of modern art in America, Alfred Stieglitz's significance lies as much in his work as an art dealer, exhibition organizer, publisher, and editor as it does in his career as a photographer. He is credited with spearheading the rise of modern photography in America in the early years of the twentieth century, publishing the periodical Camera Work (1903-17) and forming the exhibition society, the Photo-Secession. He also ran a series of influential galleries, starting with 291, which he used not only to exhibit photography, but also to introduce European modernist painters and sculptors to America and to foster America's own modernist figures - including his later wife, Georgia O'Keeffe. Insistent that photography warranted a place among the fine arts, Stieglitz's own work showed great technical mastery of tone and texture and reveled in exploring atmospherics. In later years, influenced in part by Cubism and other trends, he became interested in straight photography, favoring more clarity and less lush effects.
Emerging first in the milieu of pictorial photography, Stieglitz sought to gain recognition for his medium by producing effects that paralleled those found in other fine arts such as painting. Many of his peers resorted to elaborate re-touching to create an impression of the handmade, but Stieglitz relied more on compositional effects and mastery of tone, often concentrating on natural effects such as snow and steam to create qualities similar to those of the Impressionists.
Stieglitz's early work often balances depictions of soft, ephemeral, natural processes with motifs drawn from American industry. Romantic in spirit, he was troubled yet fascinated by the rise of American power and sought to soften its apparent brutality by cloaking it in nature. His later work reflects the decline of pictorial photography and the rise of a new approach that claimed a value for photography as a revealer of truths about the modern world. Turning to more geometric motifs, effects of sharp focus, and high contrast, it celebrates a more mechanized phase of modern life in America.
Alfred Stieglitz was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, just before the end of the American Civil War. Born to German-Jewish immigrants, Edward Stieglitz and Hedwig Ann Werner, Alfred was the eldest of six children. In 1881, the Stieglitz family fled the East Coast and moved back to Germany, hopeful that the German school system would challenge young Alfred in the way America's had not. The following year, while enrolled at the Technische Hochschule in Berlin, Stieglitz was exposed to photography for the first time.
Although Stieglitz studied to be a mechanical engineer, he purchased his first camera in 1882 and shot vistas of the German countryside. Indulging his newfound appetite for photography, the self-taught artist practiced, researched, and theorized about this instant medium. Throughout the rest of the decade, Stieglitz published articles and photos in the British magazine Amateur Photographer. This earned him a reputation among the elite European photography circles. In 1890, he moved back to America to rejoin his family after the death of his sister Flora. There, he led the Pictorialist movement, which advocated the artistic legitimacy of photography.
After arriving in New York City, Stieglitz became the owner of the fledgling Photochrome Engraving Company. Soon he was made co-editor of The American Amateur Photographer, which solidified his position in the still-niche photography world.
The self-proclaimed champion of American photography, Stieglitz was in search of the best forum to present it to the public. Stieglitz concentrated all of his efforts into launching Camera Work magazine - the voice of the Photo-Secessionist movement. The Secessionists concentrated on the technical skill and creative possibilities of the photographer, rather than just the image itself. Upon the urging of friend and fellow photographer Edward Steichen, he opened an exhibition space called the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession. It was the first of its kind to place paintings and photographs on the same aesthetic plane.
Alfred Stieglitz led the Pictorialist movement, which advocated the artistic legitimacy of photography in the United States. Without his influence, photographers like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston would never have been able to become household names. His own works defined the greater Pictorialist project and set a firm aesthetic example for his contemporaries, many of whom were exhibited in Camera Work magazine. Prior to his efforts, photographs were seen purely as historical records. He single-handedly popularized the medium and introduced America to European modernism with Gallery 291. Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin, Henri Matisse, and Paul Cézanne all received their American debuts at the gallery. He launched the career of his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe, and lauded her as the greatest female artist of the twentieth century. He laid the foundation for the current proliferation of digital cameras. While nearly everyone is an amateur photographer today, few were at the fin de siecle, and Stieglitz was the leader of those few.
Photos by Alfred Stieglitz