Saturday, March 17, 2012

Artist Spotlight Feature - Alfred Stieglitz

Towards the end of 2011, I mentioned that I wanted to introduce an artist spotlight feature.  One in which I could profile a photographer; whether it be a great photographer that helped shape the state of photography as we know it or a newer photographer that's trying to create their own identity in the medium.  I wasn't able to launch this feature when I initially wanted to, but I'm happy to report that today is the day that it will finally appear on Imagery As Art.  For this first feature, I'm concentrating on Alfred Stieglitz.  He may not be the most well known photographer, but he was certainly instrumental in making photography an accepted medium of the fine arts.  As I was taking an art history course, his work was an inspiration; additionally, I find him to be one of the most important photographers and artists of the 20th century.

New directions and ways of thinking were seen as possible and plausible in all forms of life in America during the 20th century; it was as if a new "spirit" was taking over the country.  Alfred Stieglitz was born in 1846 and died in 1946; during his life, America saw some of the most rapid and radical changes to occur in society and culture (American Masters:  Alfred Stieglitz, n.d.).  New York became a bustling metropolis; skyscrapers were a symbol of a new age and abstract movements in art were in full effect.  Stieglitz was a major contributor to this art shift, but like the time period he lived in, his art took on different directions and encompassed a different spirit throughout different points of his life.

Stieglitz was born in Hoboken, NJ and was educated as an engineer in Germany (Hostetler, 2004).  He picked up a camera in 1883 and shot for the better part of 50 years.  It was in 1890, when he moved back to New York, that he began to elevate photography to the fine art form that it is now. In 1891, Stieglitz joined the Society of Amateur Photographers of New York (Jeffrey, 2009).  The following year, he began to use a hand camera; this was typically frowned upon by professional photographers but it allowed him to shoot on the street and capture scenes and happenings as they occurred (Jeffrey).  1897 came along and he founded a journal for the Camera Club of New York, which was known as Camera Notes.  Stieglitz was very strict in his editorial policies and the work he published in Camera Notes; he believed in the potential of photography as a medium and he published to those standards (Hostetler).  This angered a number of the members and in 1902, Stieglitz, along with other like-minded individuals, broke away from the group and formed Photo-Secession (Hostetler).  The group was founded on the principles of the craftsmanship of photography; employing intensive print making techniques (Hostetler).  While Stieglitz was a great printer and craftsman, he often favored compositional choices and elements to create the perfect image (Hostetler).

One of the greatest achievements to come from the Photo-Secession was the publication entitled Camera Work.  Stieglitz produced this piece until 1917; a fifteen year run with 50 total issues.  This publication was printed on Japanese tissue from original negatives.  The publication featured such greats as Edward Steichen, Gertrude Kasebier and Frank Eugene.  Steichen, who designed the cover of Camera Work, also donated studio space.  This space became known as the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession and later was simply called "291" (Hostetler, 2004).  Stieglitz organized numerous exhibitions for the photographers of the Photo-Secession and later expanded to other forms of art at the time; including European modernism (Hostetler).

The Terminal, 1892, Alfred Stieglitz
By 1917, the year "291" closed, Stieglitz's thoughts on photography began to change and it was evident in his work.  It was no longer about creating a polished, manipulated print that was of the same aesthetic as a painting, drawing or watercolor (Hostetler, 2004).  It became more about capturing a moment, a feeling; something that was a natural strength of the medium.  During this time, Stieglitz produced hundreds of portraits of Georgia O'Keeffe; who later became his wife.  He also created a stunning series of clouds entitled Equivalents. In the latter part of his life, Stieglitz spent the majority of his time running his gallery; when he did photograph, he usually shot something from the gallery window.  Those photos were striking compositions of New York City skyscrapers and the geometric forms that had taken over the city.  They were simply a reflection of art and the times; the evolution of art during Stieglitz's lifetime; the evolution of photography; the evolution of America and lastly, the evolution of Stieglitz.  

The Steerage, 1907, Alfred Stieglitz

Stieglitz was a visionary; he saw the potential in photography as a true art form and he worked diligently to present the medium in that fashion.  He altered the face of the photography as well as the face of art by championing European modernism in the states.  He exhibited Picasso, Rodin and Matisse; he helped publish a Dadaist magazine; and he photographed Marcel Duchamp's Fountain for a publication.  Fellow photographers and the art world owe a great deal to Mr. Stieglitz.  Photography wouldn't be what it is today without the images and the pioneering of this man.

I've selected a number of Stieglitz's images to display. These images are classic Stieglitz; they clearly demonstrate his aesthetic and his progression as a photographer. The Terminal and The Steerage are two selections from his early work. They are classic examples of Stieglitz's ability to capture a scene or a moment in time. They have a photo journalistic quality to them, yet they convey emotion. Even with street scenes or standard everyday occurrences,the true fiber of the moment was communicated in his final print. This continued and evolved with Stieglitz's later work, especially in his portraiture work. I've selected two images from over hundreds of images he created of his wife Georgia O'Keeffe. He had a unique perspective when it came to portraits. His images are clearly not the "stuffy" portraits that were so common in his time period. He approached portraiture as if it was a dance; he masterfully moved around his subject and focused on characteristics that aren't typical of a studio head shot. Many of his O'Keeffe images focus on her hands. This was brilliant, because to know her hands is essentially to know her. Her hands were one of the most important tools she used in life. They display emotion; they convey the struggles and the triumphs that she has lived through; they show pain; they show joy and they show passion. As I look at her hands, I feel as if I'm looking into her soul. To convey this type of feeling with an image is the real power of photography. His powerful photography continued with his Equivalents series and in the final images that he produced from his window. Even while spending most of his time tending to his gallery, he still contributed his own vision of the world, even if it was simply by looking through a window. Stieglitz opened more than a window for photography and for that, I'm eternally grateful.

Georgia O'Keeffe, 1918, Alfred Stieglitz
Georgia O'Keeffe, 1920, Alfred Stieglitz

Equivalent, 1926, Alfred Stieglitz
Looking Northwest from the Shelton, 1932, Alfred Stieglitz

American Masters:  Alfred Stieglitz (n.d.).  Retrieved from  on March 17, 2012.
Hostetler, L. (2004).  "Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) and American Photography". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. 
Jeffrey, I. (2009).  How to Read a Photograph.  New York:  Abrams.