Photography as Art/Art as Photography

From Photo-Secession to 291

There is an old question, what came first, the chicken or the egg? For the history of photography, the question can be re-written: what come first Camera Work, the journalistic organ for the Photo-Secession or Photo-Secession itself? The unexpected answer is that Camera Work came into existence first, as a publication designed to promote American Pictorialism, and the actual organization itself emerged out of the joint ambitions of Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), tireless promotor of the idea that photography was art and artist and photographer, Edward Steichen (1879-1973). Although both photographers had long and very divergent careers as artists, it was Stieglitz who was the entrepreneur and crusader, while Steichen often provided the inspiration and guidance that prodded the American’s sensibility towards the avant-garde. The two men worked together in stages, with Stieglitz, the older man, taking the first step and Steichen, his protégée, urging the next move.


Alfred Stieglitz. Wet Day on the Boulevard (1894)

If Alfred Stieglitz was famous for anything, it was his role as the American who led American art and artists, step by unwilling step, into the twentieth century. As he said, “I was born in Hoboken. I am an American. Photography is my passion. The search for Truth my Obsession.” But, as the son of immigrants, he was educated in Europe and embellished his studies in Berlin with travels to the various art communities on the continent. When he returned to New York, his home town, Stieglitz was uniquely positioned to infiltrate and influence the small elitist world of amateur photographers of his home town and other cities on the East Coast, such as Philadelphia, towards taking more decisive and radical steps as “artists.” For many amateur photographers in New York, mirroring the attitudes of their English counterparts, shifting their work and individual identities from hobbyists sharing knowledge about techniques to dedicated and professional artists was a bridge too far. Stieglitz abandoned his efforts with the Camera Club of New York and its in-house publication he had nourished, Camera Notes, in 1902, for his own independent publication Camera Work. While Camera Notes was a magazine dedicated to reporting on and discussing and illustrating art photography, Camera Work was more focused, featuring high-level art writing about aesthetics and the avant-garde, by authors such as George Bernard Shaw, (Carl) Sadakichi Hartmann, and Gertrude Stein. Dedicated to printing works of photographic art beautifully in a beautiful setting and head of its time, Camera Work predated the kind of publications for photographers still favored today–elegantly printed reproductions of images in a format, the album or book, that allowed the photographer to control the distribution of his or her work. But, on the other hand, the publication also resembled the very poplar photographic albums of the time, issued in limited editions by the artists, often accompanied by short texts for each image.


Subscription for Camera Work

What made Camera Work unique was its exclusive focus on art photography with its hand-tipped positives or photogravures printed on Japan (tissue) paper and secured in place with a mat. Printing a photograph was considered an art form and the journal always acknowledged the work of the printers. It seems that in the early years of the new century, Stieglitz was pausing from his crusade and his attempts to convert large groups of people, perhaps consolidating his gains, and gathering his adherents, such as international prize-winner Gertrude Käsebier (1852–1934), into an informal group, Photo-Secession. Although many of the photographers who “showed” in Camera Work, such as French artist, Robert Demachy, were Pictorialists who manipulated their images, Käsebier was an early “straight” photographer who did not manipulate her work. In addition to promoting the Photo-Secession as a permanent group–one could become a member for a mere five dollars–Stieglitz was eyeing the international activities among art photographers in Germany and England, where he was recognized as a leader in the field. Indeed, he was in Germany again in 1904, feeling adrift and exhausted, but as he examined the field of art photography, Stieglitz began to formulate a vision, not for his next step, but for art photography as well. Photography needed to be rescued from the excesses of Pictorialism. The new direction was suggested by a young photographer, now a favorite of Stieglitz, Edward Steichen.


Edward Steichen. The Pond–Moonlight (1904)

In 1902, when Steichen returned to New York after years of study in Paris, he quickly realized that Camera Work and its reputation for presenting contemporary perspectives on photography could be a platform from which a new organization could be launched and he also recognized that this organization needed a place to exhibit. Steichen had a studio at 291 Fifth Avenue, and in 1905, he offered the small rooms to Stieglitz as a place to show selected images from the Photo-Secession group. As European-educated Americans, the two photographers had learned from previous exhibitions of photography, particularly in London, where James Whistler was revolutionizing the art of art installation, In 2004, the Freer Gallery held an exhibition, Mr. Whistler’s Galleries: Avant-Garde in Victorian London, to celebrate the artist’s exceptional vision of how art should be exhibited. Whistler controlled the exhibiting and display of his own work when he could. In discussing “‘Arrangement in White and Yellow,’ and ‘Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Grey,’ two of Whistler’s most famous and influential installations and examines his role in the forefront of exhibition design,” the museum stated that “Both installations were controversial and radically innovative because they challenged long-standing assumptions about the display of art. Featuring identically framed artworks that were hung widely apart on plain, lightly colored walls in moderately sized but elegantly appointed rooms at a time when exhibitions routinely displayed artwork from floor to ceiling with no space between frames, Whistler’s installations paved the way for the spare exhibitions that have become the norm.” In designing the galleries for the Photo-Secession exhibitions, Stieglitz and Steichen followed the precedents set by Whistler twenty years earlier. In fact photo-historian Weston Naef noted that Frederick Evans had followed a similar approach in his show at the Dudley Gallery where the Linked Ring artists exhibited and described his color scheme to Stieglitz.

The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession opened in 1905 with three rooms, decorated in earth tones of olive and gray with burlap in the walls, setting off the white-framed photographs which, as in Whistler’s exhibitions, were shown as single images hung on the line, at eye level, foregoing the usual salon style of stacked images favored at the Dudley Gallery and following the new approach pioneered by Whistler. But the photographers did not have the subtle sense of color that turned Whistler’s installations into interior symphonies of tones. In the 2013 book, The Aesthetics of Matter: Modernism, the Avant-Garde and Material Exchange, Lori Cole wrote wryly that “the gallery space itself is recalled as a drab series of small rooms, its unimpressive pallor only worked to enhance its mythic status..which was envisioned as the center of a community committee to advocating goer photography and modern art in America.” Photo-Secession exhibitors included Stieglitz and Steichen, Käsebier, Alvin Landon Coburn, Frank Eugene, Clarence White, and other stalwarts of the Pictorialism movement in New York.


In 1906, Steichen designed a beautiful Art Nouveau style poster for the event, which in many ways, was the high water mark for the nineteenth century version of art photography. Stieglitz and Steichen had mastered their craft and their work by this time had reached the heights of personal best, but the art world had changed in Europe. Impressionism, both French and English had been superseded by new movements. Post-Impressionism stressed design and composition over visual perception, Art Nouveau concentrated on line and graphic acuity, and a radical new group of painters in Paris, the Fauves, suggested that painting was a mere formal vehicle for individual expression, an idea that was catching on in Germany. Photography had to change in response to these new ideas and it was Steichen who urged Stieglitz towards twentieth century modernism through the modern art of Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse. The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession came to an end and the headquarters for modern art in New York City moved and changed its perspective.


Parenthetically, it should be noted that, among the sources consulted on the history of Stieglitz’s famous 291 Gallery, there is confusion as to precisely where the gallery was located–in rooms vacated by Steichen or in rooms located across the hall. For the purposes of this website, this post has elected to follow the account of Stieglitz himself in which the Gallery began in the vacated studio and then moved across the hall, under another name. In any event, by 1908, when the “Little Galleries” moved across the hall to a new set of rooms, the shift corresponded with an increased attention toward painting from the world of the European avant-garde. To mark the break with the past, the gallery was renamed, clean and simple and un-confining as to purpose, after the address: 291. Another change, signaled by the photograph that would come to define Stieglitz, The Steerage (1907), marked the end of Pictorialism and the beginning of straight photography. In earlier years, Stieglitz had admired the “straight” work of Käsebier, but a decade later he was a staunch advocate of Paul Strand. The difference between Käsebier and Strand is not just how they developed their pictures but in the content or meaning of their photographs. Käsebier created narratives or symbols with her work, placing her firmly within the tenets of Pictorialism and of Symbolism in painting. Strand, in contrast, seemingly returned photography to the sphere of camera vision, but this photographer was not a documentary photographer in the traditional sense of the word, nor was he recording reality for the purpose of classification or accounting for an environment. Like Stieglitz, Strand had come to the conclusion that a photograph could be “straight” or not manipulated and at the same time, it could be an instrument for design. In other words, the insight of James Craig Annan, whose work was exhibited by Stieglitz, that a photographer’s eye could seek and find a composition that was formally compelling and capture this moment in time, was the new approach to photography. The Steerage exemplified this new way of making a photograph.

As Stieglitz told the story, he and his wife were taking a sea cruise on the ocean liner, the Kaiser Wilhelm II. These modern liners were divided into three levels or three decks, reflecting the classes, first, second and third, or steerage. It was the steerage passengers who provided the profit margins for the companies when they were ferried to New York. There they passed into the New World, through Ellis Island–or not. It is worth noting in passing that the people photographed by Stieglitz were poor people, peasants and proletariat, being returned to their nation of origin. The United States put potential emigrants though a filtering of sorts–no one unhealthy or contagious, no one who was considered a communist or an anarchist was allowed to stay. Knowing the history that awaited this collection of rejects photographed by Stieglitz, the contemporary viewer senses the bleak fate awaiting the deck of desperate people. Stieglitz considered none of the grim facts of the scene beneath him, instead, according to his account, what he saw was “A round straw hat, the funnel leading out, the stairway leaning right, the white drawbridge with its railings made of circular chains,–white suspenders crossing on the back of a man in the steerage below, round shapes of iron machinery, a mat cutting into the sky, making a triangular shape..”


Alfred Stieglitz. The Steerage (1907)

In writing about The Steerage in 2012, Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker explained how the photograph transcended its ostensible content and, “becomes about how one practices photography and the promise of that also first and foremost thematizes the condition of the camera at that particular point in time..” Although Stieglitz considered his photograph to be his first “modernist” work, the technology was an old fashioned camera with a glass plate. In his excellent 2012 article, “The Prismatic Fragment: Looking into Alfred Stieglitz’s ‘The Steerage,'” which also appeared in The Steerage and Alfred Stieglitz, Jason Francisco described the technology, starting with the camera:

“The Graflex: a leather-covered box, turtle-like when closed and crane-like when open. From behind a fitted frontside panel, the lens creeps forward by the turning of a small knob, lightly knurled for thumb and forefinger, a deliberated conveyance along a finely cut rack and pinion. The lens is the prized Goertz Double-Anastigmat (“Dagor”), 6 inches in focal length, exquisitely sharp and with a maximum aperture of f/6.8, which is to say wide enough make use of the Graflex’s other great advance, its fast shutter speeds—including twelve speeds between 1/100th and 1/1000th of a second.”

The camera was state of the art, but Stieglitz was one of those old-fashioned photographers who resisted the allure of George Eastman’s Kodak film and insisted on controlling the development of his own images–hence the glass plate with its sensitive negative. According to his account, he developed the negative in Paris but kept it fixed to the plate until he returned to his familiar surroundings in New York. The design of The Steerage is surely one of the most complex of its and of any day. The corresponding motifs are subtle and the design is multilayered, so much so that the first person who saw the positive thought that Stieglitz combined two different photographs on one plate. In fact, The Steerage is about looking down: the viewer/the photographer looks down upon people looking down upon people. But the vertical plunge is broken by a diagonal causeway, bleached white. The trained eye of Stieglitz caught, consciously or unconsciously, the correspondence of multiple motifs: the tilted white straw hat and the opened spool, the two stripes on the edge of a woman’s shawl and the rope handles on the causeway. The funnel and the stairway open up the cramped verticality by splaying outward, left and right. The formal qualities of The Steerage are evident to us today, however, but contemporary reappraisals can be somewhat off the mark. There are those who wish to re-place the image within the social and political currents of the time, but Stieglitz did not see the human tragedy before his eyes. Perhaps because of the coincidence of The Steerage and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon being executed in the same year, 1907, and because Pablo Picasso admired the photograph, there are those who wish to place the composition within the confines of Cubism, but Cubism and its new visual vocabulary had not yet been invented. That said, like Picasso, Stieglitz was a revolutionary who closed off the doors to the past and open a new passageway into a new future for photography.

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

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Podcast 66: Marketing Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe, Part One

The career of Georgia O’Keeffe was a paradox: on one hand, she was dependent upon the patronage of her husband, photographer and art dealer, Alfred Stieglitz; on the other hand, she always had an independent vision. The podcast, the first of four parts, focuses on her first mature phase: the flowers and how she broke away from gendered art writing.


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

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Alfred Stieglitz and 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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