Alfred Stieglitz, American 1864 - 1946

Alfred Stieglitz was immensely influential in Pictorialist photography: it could be argued that he was the most influential person of all time in gaining acceptance for photography as an appropriate medium for fine art. He was American, but he was active globally and most of the major Pictorialist organisations had him as an active, exhibiting member, including the influential Vienna Camera Club and Linked Ring Brotherhood.

He was much more than a photographer, he was publisher, gallerist, and impresario; he went on to make unequalled contributions to the introduction of modern art in general into the USA.

Early Years

Stieglitz was born in New York, America to wealthy German Jewish immigrant parents who arranged from 1881 for his education to be in Germany as a mechanical engineer. It was during this time that he discovered photography - "[it] fascinated me, first as a toy, then as a passion, then as an obsession." he wrote later.

Through the 1880s Stieglitz both won prizes for his photography (The Last Joke, Bellagio, 1887 Amateur Photographer) and started to publish ("A Word or Two about Amateur Photography in Germany", also in The Amateur Photographer).

Pictorialist Years

Stieglitz returned to America in 1890 with zeal for fine art photography. He gained acclaim for his writing both on the technical content and on the artistic role of photography. In 1893 he became involved in the editing of The American Amateur Photographer. At the time there were two photographic societies in New York, the Society of Amateur Photographers and the New York Camera Club for which he negotiated a merger in 1896.

Stieglitz also turned the club’s newsletter into an important international publication of quality, Camera Notes, for which he was given full control, which is first in 1897. It goes on to be claimed by some to be the finest photographic magazine in the world at the time.

In 1901, Stieglitz was invited by the National Arts Club to mount an exhibition in which he would have complete control. This he did in 1902 from prints from a close circle of his Pictorialist photography friends. This group formed the Photo-Secession. Out of this group he founded an even more ambitious publication Camera Work, for which he left the editorship of Camera Notes. Both the exhibition and Camera Work were immediate successes.

In 1905 he opened the ‘Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession’ in the old studio of Edward Steichen, now a close personal friend. This gallery was affectionately known as ‘291’ after its address on Fifth Avenue.

HIs influence on Pictorialist photography was probably at its strongest and his voice was heard around the photographic world. He wrote with strength and conviction, as illustrated in this quote: “About ten years ago the movement toward pictorial photography evolved itself out of the confusion in which photography had been born, and took a definite shape in which it could be pursued as such by those who loved art and sought some medium other than brush or pencil through which to give expression to their ideas. Before that time pictorial photography, as the term was then understood, was looked upon as the bastard of science and art, hampered and held back by the one, denied and ridiculed by the other” Alfred Stieglitz (1899), Pictorial Photography. Scribner’s Magazine, 26(5), pp. 528-537

Final Years

Stieglitz came under increasing criticism over the fact that his galleries and exhibitions tended to focus on the same circle of friends. While at the same time he widened the inclusion into his galleries to avant-garde modern art from America and particularly Europe: these included the first showing of Auguste Rodin and Henri Matisse (in 1908), Paul Cézanne (in 1910), and Pablo Picasso (in 1911).

The arrival of the First World War also took its toll, with art in general taking a downturn with the American economy.

Stieglitz was also one of the first to embrace the new ‘straight’ photography epitomised by one of his protégés, Paul Strand. This brought new photographic vision that was unique to itself with its bold lines of everyday forms - something that no other art form could capture. In fact Stieglitz devoted almost all of the final issue of Camera Work to the photographs from Strand in 1917.

Stieglitz remained active as he maintained a series of galleries, including, The Intimate Gallery and An American Place. He did not give his photography but moved into a phase where he almost exclusively photographed the sky. As an overt exploration of the abstract in photographs, arguably the first such images. These he called Equivalents. He is quoted in Dorothy Norman’s biography of him “Shapes, as such, mean nothing to me, unless I happen to be feeling something within, of which an equivalent appears, in outer form… My cloud photographs, my Songs of the Sky, are equivalents of my life experience”. Dorothy Norman ‘Alfred Stieglitz: An Introduction to an American Seer’ (1960) pp 36-37

Stieglitz died in 1946 of a stroke, but his health had been badly affected over the years from his hard work and dedication to art and photography

His Legacy

It is very difficult to capture the full impact of this man. He clearly saw Pictorialist photography through its heyday into the next era of ‘straight’ or ‘modernist, photography.

A master set of all Alfred Stieglitz images are held in a personal collection of his in The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., USA

Perhaps his greatest contribution was Camera Work. A personal labour of love, he claimed to have wrapped over 35,000 editions himself. During the print run his drive for perfection also saw marked improvements in the technology of photogravure: the image were often photogravures hand-pulled by himself. Even today it is still highly sought after in major auction houses at the time of writing Swann Galleries in New York have a major section of one of their auctions devoted to editions of Camera Work.

Personal Notes

I keep a Google Alert running on Alfred Stieglitz and even today his name keeps appearing - often more than once a day. I see his continued influence arising not so much from his own photography, which was good but not exceptional, but from his drive and determination as an impresario. He was the first Pictorialist to have his photography included in a fine art exhibition. He eventually happily handed on the baton of fine art photography to the more assured modernist photographers of the 1920s, having seen the battle for acceptance won, for the most part.

Selected Bibliography

Pictorial Photography (1899) A. Stieglitz, Scribner’s Magazine, 26(5), pp. 528-537. Download a copy here

Camera Work: The Complete Photographs 1903-1917 Alfred Stieglitz 2008

Stieglitz on Photography: His Selected Essays and Notes Alfred Stieglitz (Photographs) 2005

Foursome: Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe, Paul Strand, Rebecca Salsbury by Carolyn Burke 2019

Dorothy Norman ‘Alfred Stieglitz: An Introduction to an American Seer’ (1960)

Christian A. Peterson (1993). Alfred Stieglitz's Camera Notes. NY: Norton

Selected Websites

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (US)

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Wikipedia

Museum of Modern Arts, New York

Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France

The Attic