Alfred Stieglitz was one of photography?s great pioneers and a tireless advocate of the medium as an art form. David Clark looks at his long and productive career
Portrait of Alfred Stieglitz,c1908 © Getty Images
Through his own groundbreaking photographs and his promotion of other photographers? work, Alfred Stieglitz was undoubtedly one of the key pioneers of photography. He variously worked as a photographer, magazine editor, publisher and gallery owner, and was one of the most famous figures in photography during the first half of the 20th century.
Stieglitz was born into a wealthy German-Jewish family in 1864. He was educated in the USA and Germany, and studied mechanical engineering in Berlin. His interest in photography developed after enrolling on a course taught by Professor Hermann Wilhelm Vogel, who had an international reputation for his work in photochemistry.
This course gave Stieglitz both the academic challenge and means of artistic expression he had wanted. He bought his first 10×8 plate camera in 1883 and began an intense period of photographic experimentation.At around the same time Stieglitz also began writing about photography and had his first article published in Amateur Photographer in 1887.
Later that year his first pictures were also published in AP when he won the magazine?s annual photography competition. The following year he won first and second prizes in the same competition, and his articles on the techniques and aesthetics of photography continued to be published in both Britain and Germany.
After returning to New York in 1890, he bought his first handheld 5×4 camera and produced two of his most famous early images, entitled ?The Terminal? and ?Winter ? Fifth Avenue?, both of which captured atmospheric scenes in the streets of New York.
During this period, photography was widely regarded as simply a means of recording the world, but Stieglitz passionately believed in its artistic potential. As he rose to prominence on the New York photography scene in the 1890s, helping form the Camera Club of New York and becoming editor of its publication, Camera Notes, he argued that photography was a means of expression as important as painting or sculpture.
In 1902, Stieglitz and other like-minded photographers formed a group called the Photo-Secession. The group?s primary aims were to ?advance photography as applied to pictorial expression? and ?to draw together those Americans practising or otherwise interested in the art.?
The group believed that, in the same way that painters used a range of techniques in their work to express themselves, photographers should manipulate their images in the darkroom to produce their own distinctive vision. These manipulations included the use of ?painterly? soft-focus effects, creative printing processes and even etching the surface of prints with fine needles.
Stieglitz, however, was wary of complacency in his work and in 1907, while travelling by ship to Europe, he made one of his most famous pictures and one which marked a new phase in his work. ?The Steerage?, which showed groups of lower-class passengers, was primarily a social documentary photograph. Unlike Pictorialist images, it engaged directly with the modern world and depicted the scene in a clear, realistic and purely ?photographic? style. Its use of geometric shapes in the composition made it one of the first great modernist photographs.
In 1916, he met the young abstract artist Georgia O?Keeffe, who was to have a profound effect on his work and personal life. She became his muse, his lover and later his wife. He photographed her frequently for more than two decades, although with particular intensity between 1918 and 1925. Many of these pictures were portraits or nude studies, and there were also numerous studies that concentrated solely on O?Keeffe?s hands.
Five years after first meeting her, Stieglitz mounted a major one-man exhibition in New York displaying 146 prints, 129 of which had not been seen before and 46 were portraits of O?Keeffe. The exhibition affirmed his embrace of what would later be known as ?pure? or ?straight? photography.
In 1922 he began one of his most famous series of images: unmanipulated photographs of cloud formations, which he said mirrored his state of mind. He produced hundreds of these images, which he called ?Equivalents?, over the following 12 years. Stieglitz later commented: ?I wanted to photograph clouds to find out what I had learned in 40 years of photography? to put down my philosophy of life.?
Stieglitz?s later years were divided between periods of creativity and mounting exhibitions of his own and other photographers? and artists? work, particularly at An American Place, the gallery he opened in 1929. They included one of the first exhibitions of Ansel Adams? work to be seen in New York.
In 1938, Stieglitz, aged 74, had a serious heart attack and his health declined until he died from a stroke in 1946. O?Keeffe was by his side when he died.
Although Stieglitz wrote copiously about photography, his approach to the medium was perhaps best summed up in the statement that appeared in the catalogue to accompany his 1921 retrospective exhibition: ?I was born in Hoboken. I am an American. Photography is my passion. The search for Truth my obsession.?
Alfred Stieglitz, by Graham Clarke and published by Phaidon (part of the Phaidon 55s series) offers a good introduction to Stieglitz?s work. A more complete set of images can be found in Alfred Stieglitz, The Key Set: The Alfred Stieglitz Collection at the National Gallery of Art, Washington (published by Abrams).
A good general account of Alfred Stieglitz?s life, together with many useful links, can be found on www.wikipedia.com. A selection of his images, plus articles and further links, can be found on www.masters-of-photography.com.
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