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Alfred Stieglitz (1864 - 1942)

Alfred Stieglitz was an early photographer whose name appears again and again in connection with contemporaries, and later photographers, because of the broad reach of his influence. He was exploring photography at a time when the medium's status amongst other arts was fairly lowly; something he did a great deal to change.

Born in New Jersey, USA, in 1864, Stieglitz moved with his family to Germany at age 17. It was there that he purchased his first camera and became fascinated with photography. He was very soon persuaded of the camera's capacity to produce beautiful representations of things and, as 20 year old, set out on a journey around Europe to put it to use.

1 image from these early travels (taken in Italy) was particularly noteworthy, earning him first prize in a competition run by the British publication Amateur Photographer.

In 1890 he returned to New York, determined to forge a career in photography. He was soon contributing to American Amateur Photographer, and within a few years became its editor. This lead to work on Camera Notes, the highly respected journal of the Camera Club of New York. In turn, Stieglitz was encouraged to create and edit his own journal of avant-garde photography, which he called Camera Work.

Stieglitz had always been convinced of the artistic merits of photography, and this was reflected in his attitude towards printing images in Camera Work. A tremendous amount of care and attention was taken to create prints that could be viably considered works of art. He printed the works in heliogravure on Japan paper, and felt them to be genuine original pieces of art.

Much of Alfred Stielglitz's early photographic output is characterized by a dedication to the Pictorialist style. This was an atmospheric, often intentionally blurry, painterly style of photography. In short, it was an attempt at direct comparison with painting.

There seem to have been several motivations behind this approach: a simple admiration of the visual results it produced; an attempt at defining and understanding the true artistic boundaries of photography; an attempt at gaining the attention of the mainstream arts world, particulalry people who concerned themselves with paintings.

Many of Stiegltiz's most interesting Pictorial images take New York City as their broad subject. Snow covered streets are a particularly common theme, and the images are indeed packed full of atmosphere and mood. They capture the busy, modern metropolis of New York: crowded, on the move, ambitious, exciting, dirty and cold!

     

Stieglitz kept a close eye on the state of the art world in general and, in 1905, opened a small gallery in which to exhibit photography from around the world, as well as modern paintings. This was called the Little Galleries of Photo Secession and later, famously, 291.

Although Pictorialism was eventually seen as something that would hold photography back, Alfred Stiegltiz himself was open to all the possibilites of photographic art. His work was by no means limited to the Pictorialist style. Indeed, his most famous image, The Steerage (1907) is a fabulous and strikingly early example of the Modernist movement.

The Steerage

The scene of The Steerage depicts a steamer ship travelling from New York to Germany, packed with a variety of passengers. It is an image of geometric shapes and patterns, clearly segmented into component parts held together by an overarching triangular structure. The characters within it are subsumed under this visual scheme, but also defined by it insofar as it speaks to the rigid divisions and strata of society.

The 291 gallery continued to flourish throughout the early part of the 20th century, chipping away at the isolation of photography from other arts. In 1924 Stieglitz married Georgia O'Keefe, who became his most photographed subject through to 1936.

The images produced of O'Keefe were pretty varied. Stieglitz was clearly motivated by an exploration of portrait photography, as well as a desire to capture the personality and beauty of his wife. There are some close-up portrait shots, environmental portraits and some sensual nude images. The pictures are rigorously composed, and Stieglitz was often interested by incorporating the hands quite prominently. These images of Georgia O'Keefe were exhibited at the 291 gallery in the 1920's, the nude shots prompting considerable controversy.

 Georgia O'Keeffe 1920
Georgia O'Keeffe
Alfred Stieglitz

Another famous collection that Stiegltz produced was titled Equivalents, and is essentially a realistic study of cloud formations. These images were produced at Lake George, and no surrounding landscape is included in the shots. As he had done throughout his career, Stieglitz drew attention to the artistic intention of the photographs through the title, the first series being named Music - A Sequence of Ten Cloud Photographs.

The ongoing success of the 291 gallery lead to Stieglitz's running of both the Intimate Gallery and An American Place Gallery. The latter he oversaw right up until his death in 1946, at the of 82.

Stieglitz made an immense contribution to the history of photography. He pioneered the use of Pictorialist techniques, particularly in his images of New York, but was also amongst the earliest and most notable American Modernist artists. In addition to his own output, the role he played as a gallery owner advanced the status of photography as an art form considerably. Indeed, he was also responsible for introducing several major European contemporary painters to an American audience for the first time.

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