Alfred Stieglitz, an American Seer, by Dorothy Norman, 1990, an Aperture Biography, 240 pages, is the best art book I’ve read in quite some time. I believe Dorothy was Alfred’s lover after Georgia O’Keeffe. As such, she saw how he operated various galleries over his career, talked to visitors, treated art and artists, took pictures. She had access to many of his letters and artists he knew and helped.
This book of text is about the human Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946), with some of his photographs reproduced along with a few by Dorothy, and others. Alfred’s photography won over 150 medals in exhibits around the world. Many of his photos, for example, The Steerage, 1907, and Winter, Fifth Avenue, New York 1893, and Car Horses, 1893, were the first ever of those subjects.
True to himself, Alfred then denounced photographic competitions and prizes as infantile. Interestingly, in his era, the judges of photography were all painters.
In 1884, a professor showed some of Alfred’s photographs to a group of reputable painters. One painter “If they [his photos] had been made by hand, they would be art.” The same artist wished he could paint the way Alfred photographed. Alfred responded, “I never have had any desire to make a photograph look like anything I have seen painted.”
Aside from his original still photographs, Stieglitz also introduced conservative New Yorkers, including directors of art museums such as the Metropolitan in New York City, to new styles of art appearing in Europe by important painters. He gave many artists their first show in New York -- Picasso, Matisse, Rodin, etc. He championed a few American painters such as O’Keeffe and Arthur Dove, and still photographers such as Ansel Adams, Elliot Porter, Paul Strand and Edward Steichen [later Director of Photography for New York City’s Museum of Modern Art.]
Art critics of the time were confused, angry, and naturally against this new art. Writing in the New York Evening Mail, JE Chamberlain “But Matisse’s pictures, while they may contain a new revelation for somebody, are quite likely to go over the head of the ordinary observer-—or under his feet.... And there are some female figures that are of an ugliness that is most appalling and haunting, and that seem to condemn this man’s brain to the limbo of artistic degeneration.”
Bryson Burroughs (1869–1934), a painter and Curator of Painting at the Metropolitan Museum in New York saw nothing in Picasso and vouched that such mad pictures would never mean anything to America.
“The continued deadness of the Metropolitan at the time, in contrast to the freshness of the exhibits at 291 [Alfred’s gallery], haunted Stieglitz to so great an extent that he found walking through the museum ‘ridiculous, trivial, superfluous.’ An atmosphere of a cemetery breathing of the dead rich.”
Alfred operated a few small galleries in his career and published a few journals on photography and painting. Charles Caffin, a noted critic, wrote in one such journal, Camera Work, “For years, Mr Stieglitz has taken the advanced position that photography is entitled to be considered a medium of pictorial art, and has been ridiculed by the critics of painting. Now that the latter are foaming in impotent bewilderment at the vagaries of modern painting he offers as an antidote the sanity of the photographic process.”
In 1910, Elie Nadelman tried to explain his drawings in Camera Work. “Modern artists are ignorant of the forms of art. They copy nature, try to imitate it by any possible means, and their works are photographic reproductions, not works of art. They are works without style and without unity. It is form in itself, not resemblances to nature, which gives us pleasure in a work of art. But what is this true form of art? It is significant and abstract, composed of geometrical elements.”
In the early 1920s, Stieglitz finally made a donation of his photographs to the very conservative Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which claimed to have no money to buy them. [This same feeble excuse remains in use today by unimaginative directors of art museums and galleries.] These were the first still photographs collected by the Boston Museum. In 1928, the Metropolitan Museum in New York finally accepted still photographs by Stieglitz into their sacred art sanctuary, another first.
Stieglitz “My cloud photographs are Equivalents of my most profound life experience, my basic philosophy of life.” In 1934, Alfred once again stated his photographic position. “I like my photography straight, unmanipulated, devoid of all tricks; a print not looking like anything but a photograph, living through its own inherent qualities and revealing its own spirit."
Francis H Taylor, who became Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Stieglitz was the champion of the new and the difficult to understand, a law unto himself with courage that is vouchsafed to few of us in the arts.”
My comments on this wonderful book by Dorothy Norman will be brief. I find the style of Pictorialism, practiced by Stieglitz and many others in America and Europe in the early 1900s, one of the most artistic periods in the brief history of still photography. Its replacement, championed by Ansel Adams, etc, the f 64 style, is still with us today. It is a documentary style, too rich in details and lacking artistic value. The top photographers collected by museums, Jeff Wall, Struth, Gursky, etc, all follow the same rich, at times embellished, style. Only the subject matter has changed, or has it?
When I entered my lens-based, pure abstract photographs in an online contest by LensCulture, which has only photographers, professors, critics or editors of still photography, as judges, my images are rejected. The judges have all read the same books and think alike. They write about my art in terms of still photography, which is what they know. They don’t get what I am doing, why and how. They continue to look out the same window at the same repetitive scenery. The judges’ new artistic discoveries don’t have anything new to add to the medium that I can see. I suggested they add an abstract painter to their panel of judges. Did they? Of course not. They are sleeping; please do not disturb. Curators of still photography in art museums are as conservative and terrified today as curators of painting were in 1920 when Stieglitz introduced them to the New.
Alfred’s creed that a photograph should be unmanipulated, look and feel like a straight, still photograph remains prevalent and imbedded in the culture of photography today. Little has changed in the last 100 years for the medium.
I saw several of Alfred’s Equivalents at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York. They were very small, b&w and quite dark. I did not feel anything special about them. If Stieglitz were alive today, I wonder if he would have a blog, or use software to lighten his dark photographs? Would he approve of those celebrity curators who consider themselves more important than artists included in their exhibitions? TJR
Tom Reaume’s new 93-page photo ebook, Photography Traditions, is free at trart.ca