Alfred Stieglitz and American Modernism

AMERICAN MODERNISM

The Significance of Alfred Stieglitz

American Modernism dates approximately from the first half of the Twentieth Century. For the sake of convenience and to take note of a key figure, it is possible to roughly date this period in relation to the career of Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946). The photographer returned from Germany in 1890 with a knowledge of avant-garde art in Europe and with experience in “art photography.” In America, photography was largely the province of professionals who worked commercially, but in Europe, there were groups of well-to-do “amateurs” who had the time to experiment and the income to produce fine art. In addition, New York City had no notable or current avant-garde art scene, a situation the young photographer would attempt to rectify. Stieglitz would preside over Modernism in America until his death in 1946.

The self-given mission of Stieglitz, a New York City native, was to make the American public accept photography as a fine art. He began with joining the Society of Amateur Photographers in 1891, and became the editor of The American Amateur Photographer. Resigning from this post in 1895, Stieglitz merged the Society with the Camera Club of New York and in 1896-7 published Camera Notes to put forward his own ideas. He insisted on the idea of a “picture” as opposed to a mere photograph, a term denoting an artistic, rather than a mechanical, endeavor. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Stieglitz would formulate his concepts of the nature of photography itself, based in a combination of what a camera could do—clarity of vision—and what an artist contributed—composition and design.

Photographs of America’s first photographic salon, the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts and the Photographic Society of Pennsylvania, show a rather haphazard salon style of hanging art. Stieglitz exhibited ten of his “pictures” in the exhibition, but, when he opened his own gallery, the installation style would be quite different. The New York group he had put together was a bit too tame for ambitions nurtured in Berlin. When Stieglitz met the young photographer, Edward Steichen, at the Camera Club, the two of them made a bold move. He and his enthusiastic follower started the Photo-Secession, an avant-garde movement of New York photographers who wanted to be both professional artists and progressive photographers. In the time-honored fashion of European movements, in 1901 these photographers “seceded” from the more conservative club. The “Little Galleries” of the Photo-Secession opened in Steichen’s vacated studios at 293 Fifth Avenue and soon became a beacon for the art cognoscenti of New York City.

In 1908 the gallery broke through the wall to next room at 291, a number that would become a site of a circle of American modernist artists. Until 1907, the prime intention of the gallery was to promote photography as art in terms of Pictorialism. The photographers of 291 began as fashionable Pictorialist photographers. This approach to photography attempted to align photography with “art” by emulating artistic styles and looks, such as graphic effects and painterly effects. Pictorialism was often soft in focus and the photographers built on this soft focus by drawing on the image during the developing process. The result was a photograph that looked like a watercolor or a charcoal sketch, often of picturesque subject matter or staged sentimental or narrative scenes.

But in 1907, Pictorialism was challenged by a new way of photographing called Straight Photography, that is, photography that was sharp and clear, based upon only what the camera could do, un-manipulated in the darkroom. In 1907, a year as important for photography as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was for painting, Stieglitz moved definitively away from Pictorialism with The Steerage. This seminal image was an unmediated shot of third class passengers on an ocean liner, devoid of narrative or mood. The viewer must learn to observe, not the emigrants, but the interplay of diagonals and verticals. Suddenly, “straight photography” ended the reign of Pictorialism.

Advanced photographers favored “Camera Vision,” based upon the way in which the camera sees, a mechanical statement for a technological age. Pictorialism suddenly seemed a relic of the last century, and Pictorialists, like Clarence White and Gerturde Kasebier, went their separate ways, separating from Stieglitz. In his turn the middle-aged Stieglitz took up with other younger straight photographers, Paul Strand and Charles Scheeler. Under the influences of the well-traveled Steichen, Stieglitz soon learned to appreciate avant-garde movements in Europe and expanded the repertoire of the gallery to non-photographic art. In a city where the realist Ash Can artists caused consternation, Stieglitz was the first to give artists like Picasso, Matisse and Brancusi shows in America.

During the early years of the twentieth century, Stieglitz played many roles in New York. In a city where there was little interest in progressive art, he continued his career as a photographer, ran the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, published Camera Work and promoted art photography and avant-garde art from Europe. The cover of Camera Work was designed by Edward Steichen in the popular Art nouveau style, connoting an art perspective on photography. Camera Work published seminal art writing by writers such as Sadakichi Hartmann. It was in these pages that Gerturde Stein was given her first publications, on Matisse and Picasso. The gallery 291 was a tiny room lined with storage cabinets and shelves below the wainscoting. A curtain hid the shelves and above the chair railing, the walls were reserved for the exhibition of works of art, displayed on the line, in one row. In the center of the room was a table which held a large copper bowl with the flowers of the season.

The viewer reached the gallery via a small elevator that held there people, including the operator. Once in the gallery, s/he might meet the small talkative man who lectured tirelessly, often for hours, on avant-garde art. Stieglitz was also interested in promoting American artists and American art and his efforts and “his artists” provided an important way station between American provincialism and American hegemony of the post-War period. In these early years in New York City, Stieglitz was the only source of advanced art until the Armory Show in 1913. In the last issue of Camera Work, Stieglitz featured his protogée, Paul Strand, and in the last exhibition of 291, he featured an obscure artist living in Texas, Georgia O’Keeffe.

When the 291 Gallery closed in 1917, Stieglitz opened The Intimate Gallery and later An American Place, as showcase galleries for his work and the work of his circle, a group of young men, the painters, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Charles Scheeler, Charles Demuth, John Marin, the photographer, Paul Strand, and the only woman, his lover, Georgia O’Keeffe. These artists would be the American Modernists, part of a larger group that included Abraham Walkowitz, Gerald Murphy and Edward Hopper. With their New York approach to the challenge of European modernism, this group would represent “America,” the most industrialized nation in the early twentieth century.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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