Stieglitz, O’Keeffe & American Modernism Connecticut, April 16-July 11, 1999.
Finely produced art books, like fine prints of photographic negatives, are not easily reproduced. In 1983 the National Gallery in Washington mounted its first exhibition devoted to photography, a show of seventy-three prints by Alfred Stieglitz, curated by Sarah Greenough and Juan Hamilton. Hamilton was an assistant to Stieglitz’s widow, Georgia O’Keeffe, who in 1949 and 1980 had donated to the Gallery approximately 1,600 Stieglitz photographs; the photographer had died in 1946, at the age of eighty-two. O’Keeffe, who died in 1986 at the age of ninety-nine, took a loving hand in the 1983 show, providing not only its materials and her advice and expertise, but funding for the elegant catalog, designed by Eleanor Caponigro, with its tritone reproductions. With the financial support of the Eastman Kodak Company, whose changing standards of manufactured film and stock more than once infuriated the fastidious Stieglitz, the catalog, its original edition long out of print, has been reproduced in a second edition by “the skilled craftsmen at Stamperia Valdonega, Verona.” Some pages of acknowledgment thank the many who have enabled the moving spirits “to realize this dream and share this beautiful publication with a new generation,” and over forty pages at the end give, in thoughtfully arranged excerpts from letters and essays, Stieglitz’s thoughts on photography.
So sumptuous an artifact, measuring 11”å´14”, printed on creamy “specially manufactured archival paper,” would surely, for all its self-congratulatory clatter of a mobilized establishment, have pleased Stieglitz as homage to photography as an art, and as tribute to his own contribution to the art. In his evangelism for “the advancement of photography along the lines of art,” he sometimes neglected to practice what he so passionately preached. In 1915 he wrote to H.C. Reiner, “Strange as it may sound, my photograph experimenting had to be side-tracked for years, for the bigger work I was doing in fighting for an idea, fighting practically single handed.” The word “idea,” sometimes italicized, recurs like a war cry. In a letter of 1917 to Williamina Parrish, rejecting some of her photographs for his gallery of the time, he tells her bluntly:
The Little Gallery is not devoted entirely to the ultra modern in painting and sculpture. It is devoted to ideas. To the development of such. And I feel that your work, good as it is, is primarily picture making. That is not adding to the idea of photography, nor to the idea of expression. And for that reason it would be out of place in the Little Gallery.
Sometimes in his letters, he regrets that he cannot express himself better, in German; as if English were German he coins the curious compound expression “idea photography”:
[I am] trying to establish, once and for all, the meaning of the idea photography. I have proceeded in doing this in an absolutely scientific way…. And possibly the greatest work that I have done during my life is teaching the value of seeing. And teaching the …