Photography Masters - Alfred Stieglitz
Sunday Magazine

Photography Masters - Alfred Stieglitz

Siddharth S. Kumar

Siddharth S. Kumar

Alfred Stieglitz, born in 1864 in New Jersey, USA, who played a seminal role in the development of art photography and the dissemination of modern art, was an advocate for the Modernist movement in the arts; and arguably, the most important photographer of his time. Stieglitz's promotion of fine-art photography was vital to the international acceptance of the medium's aesthetic value.

When he was 18, he joined an engineering course in Berlin’s Technische Hochschule, but his primary interest was photography. So much so that at the age of 23, he won both first and second prizes in the ‘Holiday Work’ competition of the leading English journal, Amateur Photographer earning him a reputation within the elite European photography circles. At 26, he moved back to America to rejoin his family after the death of his sister. There, Stieglitz led the ‘Pictorialist Movement’, which advocated the artistic legitimacy of photography.

At New York, Stieglitz continued to win photography awards for exhibitions held by the Photographic Society of Philadelphia, the Society of Amateur Photographers of New York and Boston Camera Club. Some of his memorable pictures were Winter, Fifth Avenue and The Terminal which he took with his first hand-held camera.

Soon Stieglitz emerged as a leader of America’s photography’s fine-art movement in the United States; and by the age of 28 had become editor of Camera Notes, the publication of the Camera Club of New York, a position that he held for 10 years, and which allowed him to promote his favourite photographers and policies.

From ‘Room 3003’ - The Shelton, New York, Looking Northeast, 1927. This photo documents the constant state of change and development of the city. The composition causes the buildings to appear in a zig-zag pattern leading to the horizon which has smoke blowing towards the direction of the bridge.
From ‘Room 3003’ - The Shelton, New York, Looking Northeast, 1927. This photo documents the constant state of change and development of the city. The composition causes the buildings to appear in a zig-zag pattern leading to the horizon which has smoke blowing towards the direction of the bridge.

When he was 38 he formed the group, ‘Photo-Secession,’ a name adapted from the secessionist artist groups formed in Germany and in Austria in the 1890s; which like its European counterparts, was designed to break away from orthodox ideas. Thus Photo-Secession was dedicated to promoting photography as an art form. In fact, all the Photo-Secessionist photographers were mostly committed to what was called the Pictorialist movement, which advocated the artistic legitimacy of photography in the United States by setting a firm aesthetic example. Prior to his efforts, photographs were seen purely as historical records. He single-handedly popularized the medium and introduced America to European modernism.

Between the ages 39 and 53, Stieglitz edited the prestigious publication Camera Work with aid of his protégé, Edward Steichen—who donated studio space that became the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, and later was famously known as ‘291’ short for its address: 291 Fifth Avenue. During the gallery’s first four years, it mostly functioned as an exhibition space for the Photo-Secession photographers. Subsequently, ‘291,’ till it closed down, when he was 53, became the exhibition space for the artistic avant-garde, exhibiting Stieglitz's work, beside works by Europe's artistic icons like Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne and Henri Matisse.

The Steerage, 1907. This photograph has people on the lower deck with a stairway leading to the upper deck. On the upper deck we see people looking down at the lower deck. The man with the circular hat is highlighted by the light. In addition to taking the viewers’ gaze through the two decks the elements of the ship like the bridge, the mast, and the ladder create strong shapes.
The Steerage, 1907. This photograph has people on the lower deck with a stairway leading to the upper deck. On the upper deck we see people looking down at the lower deck. The man with the circular hat is highlighted by the light. In addition to taking the viewers’ gaze through the two decks the elements of the ship like the bridge, the mast, and the ladder create strong shapes.

Between ages 58 to 71, Stieglitz also worked on his Equivalent series, depicting the changing skyline with cloud formations. The cloud pictures were unalloyed portraits of the sky that functioned as analogues of Stieglitz’s emotional experience at the moment he snapped the shutter.

On the lines of the closed ‘291’ gallery, Stieglitz opened the ‘Intimate Gallery’ and ‘An American Place.’ When he was 73, an exhibition of Stieglitz's own work was hosted by the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Stieglitz took keen interest in the work of painter, Georgia O'Keeffe, even promoting her without her knowledge. Later, an already married Stieglitz, got into a personal relationship with O'Keeffe, eventually marrying her even though she was 24 years younger to him. In 1925 he featured her in the landmark Seven Americans exhibition alongside his own photography and pieces by Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and Paul Strand. Stieglitz marketed O'Keeffe as the ultimate female artist of the era, banking on his position as husband, gallery owner, and proponent of modernism—and published the landmark book Georgia O'Keeffe - A Portrait series. He made more than three hundred photographs of the painter O'Keeffe between 1917 and 1937, focusing on various parts of her body--head, breasts, hands, and torso. These intimate pictures express something of O'Keeffe's spirit while reflecting Stieglitz's love for his art and his muse.

Georgia O'Keeffe, 1918. By using a tight composition Stieglitz includes only three quarters of her head and her fingers. The emphasis on her fingers is likely since she is a painter who uses her fingers to create art. Her eyes are turned away from the viewer creating a sense of mystery or her being lost in thought.
Georgia O'Keeffe, 1918. By using a tight composition Stieglitz includes only three quarters of her head and her fingers. The emphasis on her fingers is likely since she is a painter who uses her fingers to create art. Her eyes are turned away from the viewer creating a sense of mystery or her being lost in thought.

In the final decades of his life, he spent most of his time running his galleries, as his health deteriorated. Whatever little he photographed was out of the window of his gallery. These final photographs, as seen from an upper floor of a modern skyscraper, From My Window at the Shelton, North, were virtuoso compositions that emphasised the geometric forms of the city, but exquisitely constructed and printed and serial in nature, hinting at the fragmented nature of contemporary life.

Over the fifty years of promoting photography as modern art, Stieglitz earned the reputation of being the ‘godfather of modern photography’, and a Renaissance man. In 1946, at the age of 82, Stieglitz suffered a stroke and died in New York.

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Siddharth Kumar is the Co-Founder & Lead Photographer SIDART Photography, a professional photography venture focusing on weddings, portraiture and commercial photography. After an 8-year stint in an MNC, he decided to pursue his passion for photography and music. In 2019, he was awarded Certificate of Honorable Mention by International Photography Awards (IPA), Los Angeles. In 2014, he won the First Prize at the International Photography Competition organized by Mindshare Worldwide. He holds a Grade 8 Certificate in Piano Performance from Trinity College London.

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