To Hold A Moment: Alfred Stieglitz
“There are many schools of painting. Why should there not be many schools of photographic art? There is hardly a right and a wrong in these matters, but there is truth, and that should form the basis of all works of art.” – Alfred Stieglitz
When photography was first invented, it was not considered an art form. A camera was not just a new type of paintbrush, but rather a scientific instrument, a machine, merely to be used to show exact replications of what the human eye sees. It was not supposed to be used to create anything new or different, and certainly not to express oneself. It was just another step in the advancement of technology. This school of thought changed, and changed rapidly, largely in part to photographer, Alfred Stieglitz, who, at the time, almost singlehandedly led the charge to challenge the limits of photography. He knew it could be something amazing; something that could, both literally and figuratively, change the way people see. He knew photography could be as legitimate a form of art as painting or sculpture and he spent his life fighting for it.
Alfred Stieglitz was born in 1864 to very wealthy parents in Hoboken, New Jersey. He was the oldest of six children and was the favorite, and therefore somewhat spoiled. When he was seventeen, his parents sold everything and took the family to Germany, hoping to get a better education for their oldest son, something that would be more challenging the the public school, which was boring him. Germany is where Alfred first picked up a camera, saying, “The camera was waiting for me by predestination and I took to it as a musician takes to the piano or a painter to the canvas. I went to photography really a free soul – and loved it at first sight with a great passion.”
Stieglitz considered himself a rebel, always challenging himself and the limits of the camera. From the very beginning he knew the possibilities photography had and he was determined to show that to the rest of the world. When his parents returned to the US in 1884, Stieglitz remained (the generous allowance provided by his father gave him tremendous freedom) to explore this new world he had discovered, talking to both artists and scientists, and shooting all across Europe. He wouldn’t return to America for another six years, and then only because his father threatened to cut him off financially. By this time, he considered himself an artist. Not only was he making a name for himself as a photographer, but also as a writer in several artistic journals.
His parents decided it was time for him to settle down, get married and have a respectable life. Stieglitz disagreed with the notion, but he did compromise and got married to the sister of an old friend, Emmeline Obermeyer. Emmeline was quite a bit more conservative than her new husband and he later wrote that he never loved her, it was merely a marriage of financial advantage for him. He was able to use her money, however, to continue the lifestyle he was accustomed to, which centered around spending his time with his camera, not her.
In his fight for making photography an art form, his early photography took on the look of the popular paintings of the day, not only using street scenes as his main subject, but also imitating the soft-focus and dreaminess found in the works of the Impressionists. This photographic Impressionism was becoming a very popular trend among photographers, the fight against the common thought that photography was just a mere record of a moment. It was a method of creating an image. But, unlike the other photographers in this Pictorialist movement, Stieglitz used the atmosphere around him to create these effects, rather than darkroom tricks. Things like fog, steam from a train, rain and snow falling, all helped him to get the image he wanted.
In 1902, Stieglitz found himself tired of the politics of the elite in the art world dictating what could be exhibited and what could not and formed his own elite group, calling it “Photo-Secession”, explaining, “The idea of secession is hateful to Americans – they’ll be thinking of the Civil War. Im not. Photo-Secession actually means a seceding from the accepted idea of what constitutes a photograph.” He, along with photographers such as Edward Steichen, Gertrude Kasebier, and F. Holland Day, put together their own exhibit consisting of images that they wanted, with no restrictions. The show was a huge success and encouraged Stieglitz to begin publishing his own, independent magazine called Camera Work.
Camera Work was just one of Stieglitz’s contributions to the creative world. The focus of the magazine was on the art world, not just photography. Yes, it contained beautiful images, but those images were accompanied by excellent writings about photography, art, and art reviews. Produced quarterly, Stieglitz had his hand in every issue, from the design of the content to the ads, from each photograph to each article. He wanted it to be the best publication of its day. He spent so much time on this, his work with the Photo-Secession promoting other photographers, and putting on exhibits at Gallery 291 (a small gallery he and Edward Steichen were running) that he had nearly stopped taking photographs himself.
It wasn’t until he went on a trip to Europe with his family in 1907 that he began to be inspired again. Taking a walk on the deck of the ship, he noticed a beautiful composition of the lines of the ship and the people on the upper and lower decks. A man with a straw hat drew his eye and he knew he needed a photograph. He ran back to his stateroom to quickly grab his camera hoping the man would not leave. This photograph, The Steerage, has become one of the most important images, not only in Stieglitz’s career, but also in the history of photography. It became a turning point, from Pictorialism to straight photography. It was a shift in thinking that photography had to be used in a certain way in order to prove itself. It had now done that and could move on.
Spending time in Europe, Stieglitz was introduced, once again, to artists he had never seen before; people like Cezanne, Rodin, and Matisse. He did not understand this work, but never let this stop him from trying to appreciate it. Rodin let him take some of his drawings to use in a new exhibit at Gallery 291. This was the first of many exhibits of his which mixed photography with other works of art. He had found that after just a short period of time he had gotten an appreciation and respect for these artists, the Post-Impressionists, the Cubists, the Fauvists. He saw no difference between what they were doing and what he was trying to do with his camera.
He had a tremendous respect for the art world and surrounded himself with not only photographers, but also artists, critics, writers, and musicians; the most creative and intelligent people of that time. He loved the community aspect of that world; the exchange of ideas and the collaboration. This was his inspiration to continue to challenge himself and his own thinking. He saw the world of painting and writing constantly changing and he had the same vision for photography. He even mentored young artists, sponsoring them and exhibiting their work.
Another watershed moment for Stieglitz was his introduction to the work of Georgia O’Keefe. From his first look in 1916, he knew it was important, saying, “She has done more than paint, she has invented a language.” They began a correspondence which led to an intense affair, Stieglitz leaving his wife, and the two of them eventually marrying; spending a tumultuous thirty years living both together and apart. O’Keefe was the “twin” he had been searching for. She became his muse. He started shooting portraits again, portraits of people who sat for him as well as people unaware of his camera. These portraits were straight and honest. He was able to capture expressions that were real, lacking any sort of posed pretense. He also began to assemble his largest body of work during his time with O’Keefe. His goal was to create a “composite portrait”, a record of one person, with all of their moods and expressions, taken over their lifetime. He took took over 300 portraits of her between 1917 and 1937. He took close-ups of her face, her hair, her nude torso, and many images of her hands. These images were unlike anything that had been seen before. No one had thought it was possible to take an expressive portrait that did not include the subject’s face, and yet, here was a whole collection, and they were all beautiful.
During the 1920’s, Stieglitz moved into even more abstraction. His mother became ill and died which caused him to start looking for something different. He saw the things around him dying. He wanted to identify with something more distant and less concrete, so he looked to the sky. Influenced by Kandinsky, he created a whole series of these images trying to show that abstract forms can be used to represent what we feel inside. “What is of greatest importance is to hold a moment,” Stieglitz said, “to record something so completely that those who see it will relive an equivalent of what has been expressed.”
Though he suffered several heart attacks, Stieglitz continued to shoot until 1937, when he was just too weak to continue. He continued to support artists, however, until the day he died in 1946. Over the course of his career he produced over 2,500 finished photographs. Although he and O’Keefe had been separated for quite some time, she was with him when he passed away, and personally assembled his best work, donating a lot of it to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Stieglitz was a missionary, some even called him a prophet, constantly evangelizing the cause of the modern movement. He was never satisfied in the status quo, but was always looking for the next thing, knowing that something more important was about to happen. Even when he had his successes, he didn’t seem to stop and enjoy them, because in his mind there was always more. “Photography is not an art. Neither is painting, nor sculpture, literature or music. They are only different media for the individual to express his aesthetic feelings… You do not have to be a painter or a sculptor to be an artist. You may be a shoemaker. You may be creative as such. And, if so, you are a greater artist than the majority of the painters whose work is shown in the art galleries of today.”