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 meaning of seeing.
It is hard to remember that he came from Hoboken, so Old World Germanic is the humorless absolutism of his pronouncements. He was born in 1864, the son of cultured German-Jewish immigrants who had prospered in dry-goods merchandising. In 1871 the family moved to Manhattan, and ten years later Alfred’s father sold the business and moved them to Europe, for the cultural benefits. Alfred was sent to study engineering at the Hochschule and University in Berlin, but at nineteen he fell in love with photography, under the influence of Professor Hermann Wilhelm Vogel, a pioneer in the field of photochemistry. Stieglitz was ever a technical experimenter, pressing the rapidly evolving process for its new possibilities. Returning to New York in 1890, after eight years of a European education, he became the first photographer extensively to use the hand-held camera, the first to photograph in snow and in rain and at night. For him photography was an art not just of exposure but of development and print-making; an 1899 article for Scribner’s magazine, “Pictorial Photography,” waxes poetic on the process:
The photographer has his developing solutions, his restrainers, his forcing baths, and the like, and in order to turn out a plate whose tonal values will be relatively true he must resort to local development. This, of course, requires a knowledge of and feeling for the comprehensive and beautiful tonality of nature…. The photographer, like the painter, has to depend upon his observation of and feeling for nature in the production of a picture. Therefore he develops one part of his negative, restrains another, forces a third, and so on…. The turning out of prints likewise is a plastic and not a mechanical process.
This essay, written a hundred years ago, when equipment was relatively cumbersome and tricky, recognized the problem with photography as an art: it is too easy.
Pictures, even extremely poor ones, have invariably some measure of attraction…. Owing, therefore, to the universal interest in pictures and the almost universal desire to produce them, the placing in the hands of the general public a means of making pictures with but little labor and requiring less knowledge has of necessity been followed by the production of millions of photographs.
Out of the morass, then, produced by the medium’s “fatal facility,” how to extract an art, an idea? The difficulty gives his theoretical pronouncements, as the years go on, an increasingly fanatical, ascetic, even martyred ring. In the “antiphotography” of the post-Impressionist Europeans and the moderns like Picasso and Matisse, he sees a salvation from cheap representationalism, whether practiced by the masses or by the adepts of “art-photography (I hate that word!)” with their soft-focus and (horrors!) retouched imitations of painting. His gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue, which continued to be called “291” even after it moved next door to 293, took to displaying artists like Picasso, Brancusi, and Elie Nadelman, as well as such experimental American painters as John Marin, Marsden Hartley, and Arthur Dove. The organizing, the polemicizing, the magazine editing (American Amateur Photographer [1892-1896], Camera Notes [1897-1902], Camera Work [1903-1917]), the late-night discussions (“to give you an idea of the strenuousness of it all I might tell you,” he wrote Ward Muir in 1913, “that during the four days last week I got only sixteen hours sleep and the other eighty hours were taken up in intellectual discussions”) took a toll on his own work. He assured a correspondent in late 1911, “Daily I realize more and more, that in sacrificing my own photography I have gained something I could have never possessed, and that is certainly a bigger thing”—the idea of modernism, presumably, which led, a letter of 1912 states, to “the true medium (abstraction).”
More and more he located the meaning of a photograph in a feeling its record of surfaces somehow captured, “a feeling generated by, born of, intense experience.” By 1922, he wrote Paul Strand, “all of me is in the centre of that thing digging into that centre’s centre”; in 1925 he told J. Dudley Johnston, “My photographs are ever born of an inner need—an Experience of Spirit.” In 1938 he complained to Edward Weston,
There seems to be millions on millions of photographers & billions of photographs made annually but how rare a really fine photograph seems to be…. Its a pathetic situation.—So little vision. So little true seeing.—So little inness in any print.
By 1938 he gave up the practice of the art, grown too weak to manipulate his heavy, old-fashioned apparatus. An exalted self-pity rings out as early as 1923: “I have all but killed myself for Photography.” To Ansel Adams in 1933 he wrote a kind of epitaph: “I chose my road years ago—& my road has become a jealous guardian of me. That’s all there is to it.”
When one turns, after all this rhetoric of agonized purism, to Stieglitz’s photographs, a certain sense of anticlimax is perhaps inevitable. Upon much of his work has fallen the fate he spelled out for “Steichen, Demachy, Eugene, the Viennese,” who “did honest work for the development of photographic pictorial expression” but the bulk of whose prints “from the living art value point of view…have a greater histor-ic value than art value.” Among the seventy-three prints so lovingly reproduced in Alfred Stieglitz, the first, At Biarritz, dating from 1890, is charming, but perhaps any shot of beachgoers of that era, with their umbrellas and tall hats and drawing-room clothes, would charm. Of the photographs taken in Europe in the 1890s, our attention divides between the technical effects painstakingly achieved (mottled sunlight, sunlight shimmering on bent-over grain stalks, the slats of sunlight in a room with Venetian blinds) and the venerable European idyll of wooden pumps, hand-harvesting, peasant girls in high-button shoes, Venetian urchins in ornate rags.
Sarah Greenough’s introduction suggests that “when he consciously set about to make, as he said, ‘pictures,’ not photographs, his images were usually quite derivative…. It was as if conquering the technical problems of photography freed him from the repetition of time-worn picturesque themes of painting.” A Street in Sterzing, The Tyrol (1890) and A Street in Bellagio (1894) both swallow their picturesqueness in the technical feat of incorporating sunstruck plaster walls and heavily shadowed walls in the same print without loss of detail. Stieglitz was always interested, right up to his late photographs of New York City skyscrapers, in capturing the full range of tones presented by architecture in daylight. When Eastman Kodak let him down with an inferior grade of stock, the drop in quality, he wrote, “had changed the image completely—a gray superseding a rich black—a dirty white replacing a sparkling white.—It is enough to kill a sensitive human.”
In the 1890s, he switched from European to Manhattan scenes, and the atmosphere sootily darkened. Spring Showers—The Street Sweeper (1901) is a study in grays, dainty as a Japanese print, and cropped into an elongate Whistleresque shape. (Stieglitz usually cropped, not regarding this type of “hand-work” as violating the integrity of the photograph.) From the decades of the century’s turn come the smoky heroic masterpieces, seized at the outer limit of the camera’s ability to capture half-light, by which Stieglitz is represented in photography anthologies: Winter—Fifth Avenue (1893), The Steerage (1907), The Hand of Man (1902), showing Long Island railroad yards, and The Flatiron (1902), his most famous image but absent from the National Gallery selection. There are also some smaller, sunny gems—The City Across the River and an untitled ferry boat, both from around 1910 and both playing on the bright ovals that sunshine makes of pilings and straw hats, respectively. He advised photographers to make their hand cameras weatherproof and to
choose your subject, regardless of figures, and carefully study the lines and lighting. After having determined upon these watch the passing figures and await the moment in which everything is in balance; that is, satisfies your eye. This often means hours of patient waiting. My picture, “Fifth Avenue, Winter,” is the result of a three hours’ stand during a fierce snowstorm on February 22d, 1893, awaiting the proper moment. My patience was duly rewarded.
Indeed so: the sensation of a city in a snowstorm, down to the texture of the slushy rutted snow and the American flag distantly whipping in the gray sky, has been brought eternally fresh from the era of horse-drawn carriages. Snow figures too in some of the night cityscapes Stieglitz took from the window of 291; the dim but distinct line of drying wash in one, captured on the same plate as the incandescent windows, is a virtuoso stroke. To the Teens and Twenties of the century belong a muted series of portraits of artists and associates—Dove, Hartley, John Marin, Marie Rapp, Francis Picabia, Sherwood Anderson, Hodge Kirnon. Except for an arrestingly boyish profile of Marcel Duchamp (1923), they are frontal, somber, backlit or dimly lit, fuzzy, and matte.
Georgia O’Keeffe figures among them, beginning in 1917, and it is to her presence in Stieglitz’s life, and to the closing down of 291 in 1917, that we must credit the reawakening his own photographic work underwent from 1917 to 1929. The letters to her quoted in the book have a new, innocent tone—the theoretical burden of “idea photography” has been put aside, and he simply sees and feels:
There are no stars out to-night.—Before I left “291”—when all was in darkness, as I stood a while at the old back window—It is more marvellous than ever—the new buildings are full of tenants—& all the windows were aglow.—It would be wonderful to spend a night there—on a simple cot—right at the window—watch the lights gradually go out one by one—until the buildings stood up as vast silhouettes—& then the dawn—the sun rises behind those giants.
Her loved person—her beautifully lean body (shown to better advantage in a print on display in Hartford than in the angular pose in Alfred Stieglitz; see illustration on page 19) and her plain, calm, determined face—gave him a subject, which he pursued with all his technical zeal, frequently focusing on her hands in conjunction with other textures. Stieglitz did not follow her into the Southwest desert, but while she was a presence in his life he turned to nature: the trees around the Stieglitz summer place on Lake George (e.g., the brilliant close-up Dancing Trees of 1922) and clouds, at first recognizably related to a horizon line, as in the eloquent Music—A Sequence of Ten Cloud Photographs (1922), and then severed from the earth and diagonally tipped, in the extensive Equivalent series of 1927-1931, to effect virtually abstract photography. These prints made a stir in their time and satisfied Stieglitz’s passion for an idea, but they don’t, I confess, do much for me, especially at the snapshot size at which they are reproduced. Mostly stratocumulus, the clouds might as well be mud puddles or dents left in the sand by retreating waves or waves themselves, conveying a sense of chaotic, sinisterly indifferent cosmic churning; one’s eyes are grateful to locate, in some, a tiny white orb that is the sun.
Stieglitz never quite found, within his general conviction that photography should be an art, an artistic project as sweeping and consuming as Edward Weston’s distillations of organic form or Ansel Adams’s embrace of the West’s vast spaces. Nor was he one of those, like Eugène Atget and Henri Cartier-Bresson, for whom the camera was a natural and agile outgrowth of the mind, a new sense organ. Stieglitz’s search for a photographic “inness” that would evoke “an Experience of Spirit” took the odd final form of deadpan window views of New York’s buildings as they basked in the light and played host, even in the Depression, to new construction. These pellucid views, immaculate in their rendering of light and shadow, extend, according to Greenough’s introduction, the cloud pictures’ “abstract equivalent of emotional tension and spiritual conflict.” According to her,
they do not abandon the idea that photography could embody subjective expression. By contrasting the beauty of the skyscrapers with their unremitting growth, Stieglitz made the buildings symbolic not only of the continuous change of New York, but of change itself as a principle of all being.
This is a stretch, I think. To be sure, anyone not utterly inured to New York is, if not subject to the raptures Stieglitz described in his “giants” letter to O’Keeffe, moved by the beauty and poignance of so much high-piled human housing. We cannot expect, however, the camera to suck in, with light and shade, the photographer’s emotion. He must work at re-creating it; some such effort shows in the selection and arrangement of the Equivalent clouds. But the late city views, taken from convenient windows, are as impassive as surveyors’ maps; they are rectilinear Rorschach blots in which we see what we can. They are inhumanly abstract—Pollocks without the dynamic dribble-work, color-fields without the color, photography for photography’s sake. Photography is what it is, seems to be Stieglitz’s statement with these stark but brimming images, after a life spent vigorously contesting that it is an art.
Stieglitz’s reputation feels in danger of dissolving. One hears his name (rhymes with “free glitz”) mispronounced in even cultured circles. There is a nominal confusion between him and Edward Steichen, who in fact, after an early discipleship, offended his mentor by going commercial, at Condé Nast, and entrepreneurial, becoming, as a director at the Museum of Modern Art, the postwar world’s photography power broker. Stieglitz’s mistress and (as of 1924) wife, who came to him when she was a thirty-year-old Texas schoolteacher and he a handsome and famous master of fifty-three, eventually eclipsed him in fame and fortune; moving each summer to New Mexico, she left him behind in New York. The German-educated native of Hoboken, once such a vital rabble-rouser in the retarded American artistic scene, is remembered through the mist of battles long won or, what comes in the heartless long view to the same thing, battles hardly worth fighting.
To refresh our collective memory, then, the National Gallery has issued its seventy-five-dollar memento ($101 in Canada) and the Wadsworth Atheneum has mounted its small but various show, containing a number of Stieglitz prints considerably sharper than their book versions (The Steerage, and the portraits of Hartley and Marin), as well as prints of contemporary photographers like Clarence H. White and Gertrude Käsebier, taking us back well into the nineteenth century, and examples of the modern artists, European and American, whose then-revolutionary works were displayed on the walls of 291 and its successors, Stieglitz’s Intimate Gallery (1925-1929) and An American Place (1929-1946). Georgia O’Keeffe is present seven times as a photographic subject and once as an artist, with a not very typical The Lawrence Tree (1929).
A number of critics, the redoubtable Robert Hughes and Hilton Kramer, for two, have taken occasion lately to state that O’Keeffe’s reputation is inflated—“a provincial talent,” Kramer recently decreed in The New York Observer, whose magnified flowers and clam shells are “all tricked out with smarmy suggestions of a kind of freeze-dried eroticism.” The Hartford show does not offer enough evidence to debate the issue, but its three examples of Arthur Dove’s work remind us of how much O’Keeffe owes to Dove, who like her could not stop looking to the natural world for inspiration even when painting abstractions. Kramer feels there is something half-baked and non-European in clinging to nature, even by a fingernail, yet for that generation of Americans it was where inness and Experience of Spirit lay; criticism must have more to do than complain of O’Keeffe that she is not Helen Frankenthaler, or of Dove that he is not Robert Motherwell.
The work by which O’Keeffe has become posterized and popular does have a dry, bleached quality of brushwork far from the impasto fury that is still taken as a sign of artistic authenticity. On the other hand, the catalog for last year’s show at the Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, O’Keeffe and Texas, shows how wet and wild and bright her work, especially in watercolors, could be, in the period when she and Stieglitz met and she was teaching at West Texas State Normal College, in the panhandle. She had a number of strings to her bow, and if one string became a kind of Santa Fe kitsch, others sustain with indelible, determinedly personal images the spirit of Stieglitz’s galleries, devoted, as he wrote in 1917, not to “the ultra modern in painting and sculpture” but to “ideas.” However well her pictorial ideas hold up—and they have certainly achieved popular currency to a degree matched by few of her generation male or female—her appearance in Stieglitz’s life turned him back into an artist for a time, recalling him to reality, fleshing out ideas with vision.
August 12, 1999