The reissuing of Alfred Stiegtitz: Photographs arid Writings1 by the National Gallery of Art is the beginning of a multiyear, multimedia retrospective of the photographer’s life and art. It is also an occasion for celebration. For many years out of print, this book contains reproductions of some of the photographer’s finest pictures, excerpts from his articles on photography and from his letters that give a full and vivid sense of both his artistic sensibility and his uncompromising personality, and an illuminating essay by the volume’s editor, Sarah Greenough, curator of the 1983 exhibition for which the book was originally published.
At $75, Alfred Stieglitz: Photographs and Writings is within the normal price range of quality art books, but what you get is worth far more than that. For, in addition to reprints of some of the most beautiful and penetrating photographs taken in the 20th century, it offers a clear understanding of the nature and purposes of modern art and of the kind of highly personal struggle involved in its creation.
For Alfred Stieglitz, that struggle initially sprang from a scientific interest in the workings, materials, and products of what was then still a new instrument, the camera. Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, on New Year’s Day, 1864, Stieglitz moved with his family to New York City when he was seven. In 1881, after two years at City College, he moved with his family again, this time to Germany. From 1882 to 1886, he attended the Technische Hochshule in Berlin as a mechanical-engineering student and studied with Hermann Wilhelm Vogel, a major innovator in the development of photographic processes. And he began to take pictures.
Over the next several decades, both in the United States and in Europe, Stieglitz wrote about photography, translated books about photography, exhibited his own pictures, and arranged exhibitions of the pictures of others. From 1897 to 1902, he edited Camera Notes, the journal of the Camera Club of New York. Later, he would carry forth his ideas in his own publication, Camera Work, which he edited from 1903 to 1917. Stieglitz also organized the Photo-Secession, a group dedicated to the proposition that the camera could indeed be a new medium of art; but by 1910 he rejected their approach as a failed effort to imitate certain backward-looking styles of painting rather than a serious attempt to pursue the uniquely expressive possibilities of photography as a genuinely modern art form.
This repudiation was a result of his trips to Europe, where he was exposed to the works of Cézanne, Rodin, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, and other modern artists. The impact of these encounters was decisive. Previously, many of Stieglitz’s pictures—notably, his portraits of European laborers, peasants, and street characters—were the result of a somewhat artificial search for the picturesque. But under the influence of European modernism, he consciously turned his art in a new direction.
Even before the turn of the century, there were indications in his work of what would later become his true aesthetic preoccupations. In such highly evocative photographs as Sun Rays—Paula, Berlin (1889), Early Morn (1894), and Sunlight Effect, Gutach (1894), Stieglitz’s main concern was with exploring the effects of light, much as the Impressionists had done in painting. In these pictures, the “subject”—a woman in a sitting room, workers in the field, a woman at a well—loses its intrinsic importance and becomes an occasion for capturing certain qualities of light or times of day or atmospheric conditions, and for giving expression to the sensations or feelings they arouse in the artist.
In these early pictures, something else is apparent as well: Stieglitz’s gift for composition. A Street in Sterzing, the Tyrol (1890), with its jutting roofs and walls and sharply angled areas of dark and light, contains an incipient abstract pattern. Though not as successfully realized, A Street in Bellagio (1894) likewise hints at modernism, its image of upwardly receding steps bringing to mind one of Klee’s brilliantly patterned abstractions, Highways and Byways (1929). And in Spring Showers—The Street Sweeper (1901), the uniform misty gray of the sky and street and the spareness of the scene (the vertical photograph is dominated by a nearly leafless tree and its reflection on a rain-soaked New York City sidewalk) evoke the flattened imagery of Japanese art, which had a major impact on late-19th-century painters.
Although this last picture captures a particular incident in a particular place and under very particular conditions, it has a certain timeless quality, a quality one also finds in At Biarritz (1890). But the latter—in its calculated horizontal arrangement of people, chairs, and umbrellas along a beach—foreshadows an even more ambitious aesthetic goal: the production of photographs whose image-structure is fully analogous to that of modernist painting.
The critical element here, which would soon become the driving force of Stieglitz’s art, is the budding priority given to the creation of a visual design. As Greenough writes, with reference to his pictures of skyscrapers, airplanes, and ocean liners,
It is not only their subject matter which is strikingly modern . . . but also their style. A dominant concern for atmosphere—the most prized element of pictorial photography [up until then]—was eliminated. Instead . . . Stieglitz expressed a strong interest in formal concerns. As in his photograph of The Steerage, . . . these works are constructed around relationships of shapes.
Nowhere is this more evident than in such works as The City Across the River (1910) and Untitled—The Ferry Boat (1910?), in which irregular clusters of repeated forms—in the former, a group of short thick pilings bunched together; in the latter, a dense crowd of men wearing straw hats—create a source of concentrated movement that grabs the viewer’s eye even as it seeks to follow the repetition and contrast of larger forms that complete the composition. One finds the same sort of compositional genius at work in Dancing Trees (1922), in which a section of closely packed trunks and branches pushes out in all directions, their frozen undulations animated by an infinitely repeated pattern of white flecks on the dark bark.
In such pictures, the power and energy of urban life or the remarkable beauty and order found in nature are not illustrated, or even represented, but rather are conveyed through a carefully composed abstraction of the essence of an experience. Put another way, many of Stieglitz’s post-1910 images, though representational, should not be considered pictures of things but aesthetic objects whose logic and impact derive above all from their formal structure.
This can be clearly seen in photographs where Stieglitz uses only a fragment of the human form, such as Georgia O’Keeffe (1921), which shows a woman’s hands, fingers spread apart, holding a bunch of grapes against a large leaf whose folds echo the forms created by the separated fingers. It can be seen, to delightful effect, in such works as Little House (1934?), whose juxtaposed elements—a tiny moon in the sky, a weathervane, a tall post—and contrasting lines—of the horizon, the roof, the shadow of an awning—suggest the abstractions of Miró. And it can be seen as well in the numerous photographs Stieglitz made of New York City buildings—such as From an American Place, Southwest (1932)—which make powerful use of the innovations of Cubism.
The process of creating such photographs required not only a painstakingly sensitive adjustment of tones but a cropping of the image that demanded sustained efforts of analysis and imagination. Just how difficult the activity was is worth pondering, particularly in light of the relative ease with which almost anyone, even 100 years ago, could pick up a camera and take a decent picture. As Stieglitz himself wrote in an 1897 article entitled, “The Hand Camera—Its Present Importance”:
It was, undoubtedly, due to the hand camera that photography became so generally popular a few years ago. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry could, without trouble, learn how to get something or other on a sensitive plate, and this is what the public wanted—no work and lots of fun. Thanks to the efforts of these persons, hand camera and bad work became synonymous. The climax was reached when an enterprising firm flooded the market with a very ingenious hand camera and the announcement, “You press the button, and we do the rest.”
When it came to photographs, his own or others’, Stieglitz’s standards were high and clear, and he was utterly frank about them. As he wrote in 1917 to a photographic artist who had submitted her prints for his consideration:
Your new work is finer than your old. There is development. . . . [But the] Little Gallery . . . is devoted to ideas. To the development of such. And I feel that your work, good as it is, is primarily picture-making. This is not adding to the idea of photography, nor to the idea of expression.
Such seriousness was the hallmark of Stieglitz’s life and work. It is also the single most important quality missing from the current art scene, where self-indulgence of one sort or another often seems to be both the main source of inspiration and the surest path to fame and fortune. This has been the case with many celebrated artists, including one whose stylized photographs of herself in various costumes and poses amount to little more than camp versions of a little girl playing dress-up, and another who has produced a series of color photographs of himself engaged in sex acts with his wife, a former Italian porn star.
In a cultural climate where products like these are deemed art, it will hardly come as a shock to hear that the pivotal work of a man like Alfred Stieglitz is no longer valued as highly as it once was, even by those whose proper job it is, or should be, to exercise careful critical judgment and to correct popular taste. Thus, in reviewing Alfred Stieglitz: Photographs and Writings for the New York Review of Books, John Updike wrote that today,
The German-educated native of Hoboken, once such a vital rabble-rouser in the retarded American artistic scene, is remembered through the mist of battles long won or, what comes in the heartless long view to the same thing, battles hardly worth fighting.
This frank dismissal of the importance of Stieglitz’s struggle to advance the cause of modern art—Matisse, Picasso, and others were first shown in America at his “291” gallery in New York—is accompanied by an equally frank dismissal of his highly abstract and quite remarkable Cloud series, of which Updike writes, “These prints made a stir in their time and satisfied Stieglitz’s passion for an idea, but they don’t, I confess, do much for me.” Updike concludes his denigration of Stieglitz’s achievements by crediting the photographer’s mistress and later wife, Georgia O’Keeffe, not only with turning “him back into an artist for a time” but with sustaining “with indelible, determinedly personal images the spirit of Stieglitz’s galleries.”
Such assertions cannot withstand serious scrutiny—the Cloud series, for example, suggests that Stieglitz’s evolution as a photographer had something in common with that of Monet’s as a painter—but they are actually not Updike’s real point. For what seems to have impressed him the most about what he calls O’Keeffe’s “pictorial ideas” is that “they have achieved a popular currency to a degree matched by few of her generation male or female.” The only response one can make to this level of criticism is to point out that in the case at hand, expressing a preference for O’Keeffe over Stieglitz is a little like saying that you prefer a greeting card to the Gettysburg Address.
Whatever else it represents, such determined middlebrowism is a clear manifestation of our current cultural malaise. The fact is that more than a few critics these days seem, as Updike does, bored with, or exhausted by, the demands of any serious effort to renew appreciation of artists of Stieglitz’s caliber. But this failure says more about them, and about us, than it does about the value or the importance of the great figures of 20th-century art.
1 Bulfinch Press, 248 pp., $75.00.