Alfred Stieglitz Life and Art Periods

"In photography there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality."

SYNOPSIS

A vital force in the development of modern art in America, Alfred Stieglitz's significance lies as much in his work as an art dealer, exhibition organizer, publisher, and editor as it does in his career as a photographer. He is credited with spearheading the rise of modern photography in America in the early years of the twentieth century, publishing the periodical Camera Work (1903-17) and forming the exhibition society, the Photo-Secession. He also ran a series of influential galleries, starting with 291, which he used not only to exhibit photography, but also to introduce European modernist painters and sculptors to America and to foster America's own modernist figures - including his later wife, Georgia O'Keeffe. Insistent that photography warranted a place among the fine arts, Stieglitz's own work showed great technical mastery of tone and texture and reveled in exploring atmospherics. In later years, influenced in part by Cubism and other trends, he became interested in straight photography, favoring more clarity and less lush effects.

KEY IDEAS

Emerging first in the milieu of Pictorial photography, Stieglitz sought to gain recognition for his medium by producing effects that paralleled those found in other fine arts such as painting. Many of his peers resorted to elaborate re-touching to create an impression of the handmade, but Stieglitz relied more on compositional effects and mastery of tone, often concentrating on natural effects such as snow and steam to create qualities similar to those of the Impressionists.
Stieglitz's early work often balances depictions of soft, ephemeral, natural processes with motifs drawn from American industry. Romantic in spirit, he was troubled yet fascinated by the rise of American power and sought to soften its apparent brutality by cloaking it in nature.
His later work reflects the decline of Pictorial photography and the rise of a new approach that claimed a value for photography as a revealer of truths about the modern world. Turning to more geometric motifs, effects of sharp focus, and high contrast, it celebrates a more mechanized phase of modern life in America.
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ALFRED STIEGLITZ BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

Alfred Stieglitz was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, just before the end of the American Civil War. Born to German-Jewish immigrants, Edward Stieglitz and Hedwig Ann Werner, Alfred was the eldest of six children. In 1881, the Stieglitz family fled the East Coast and moved back to Germany, hopeful that the German school system would challenge young Alfred in the way America's had not. The following year, while enrolled at the Technische Hochschule in Berlin, Stieglitz was exposed to photography for the first time.

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Early Training

Alfred Stieglitz Biography

Although Stieglitz studied to be a mechanical engineer, he purchased his first camera in 1882 and shot vistas of the German countryside. Indulging his newfound appetite for photography, the self-taught artist practiced, researched, and theorized about this instant medium. Throughout the rest of the decade, Stieglitz published articles and photos in the British magazine Amateur Photographer. This earned him a reputation among the elite European photography circles. In 1890, he moved back to America to rejoin his family after the death of his sister Flora. There, he led the Pictorialist movement, which advocated the artistic legitimacy of photography.

Mature Period

After arriving in New York City, Stieglitz became the owner of the fledgling Photochrome Engraving Company. Soon he was made co-editor of The American Amateur Photographer, which solidified his position in the still-niche photography world.

The self-proclaimed champion of American photography, Stieglitz was in search of the best forum to present it to the public. Stieglitz concentrated all of his efforts into launching Camera Work magazine - the voice of the Photo-Secessionist movement. The Secessionists concentrated on the technical skill and creative possibilities of the photographer, rather than just the image itself. Upon the urging of friend and fellow photographer Edward Steichen, he opened an exhibition space called the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession. It was the first of its kind to place paintings and photographs on the same aesthetic plane.

Late Period

Alfred Stieglitz Photo

291, as the gallery became known, was the exhibition space for the artistic avant-garde. It exhibited Stieglitz's work and the art of other American and European modernists. Friends' work would hang beside pieces by Europe's biggest artistic titans like Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, and Henri Matisse. A show at the gallery exposed artists and their works to influential people who wrote and spoke about contemporary art. Pieces there were seen by writers like William Carlos Williams, collectors like Leo Stein, and members of the social elite like Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowinshield.

Between 1922 and 1935, Stieglitz worked on his Equivalent series. Directing his camera to the sky, Stieglitz took photos of clouds, hoping the abstracted images would reflect his artistic intent. Cropped close, the images are experiments in shape and composition. Later Stieglitz opened the Intimate Gallery (1925-30) and An American Place (1930-46), both following in the footsteps of 291. An exhibition of Stieglitz's own work was hosted by the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1937.

STIEGLITZ AND O'KEEFFE

Stieglitz first saw Georgia O'Keeffe's artwork in 1916. Without permission or knowledge of the artist, he displayed her drawings on the walls of his gallery. When she objected, he merely stated, "You don't know what you've done in these pictures." This would be the starting point of their relationship.

The couple married in 1924, but their personal relationship began shortly after their first meeting. Stieglitz used his position as husband, gallery owner, and proponent of modernism to market O'Keeffe as the quintessential female artist of the era. In 1917, Stieglitz began work on the Georgia O'Keeffe - A Portrait series. Forty-five of the total 329 photographs depict O'Keeffe in the nude. In many of the photographs, Stieglitz crops her body, leaving just a naked torso or fetishized body parts. This series was O'Keeffe's unveiling to the public. She became famous for three reasons: her art, her husband's photographs of her, and his insistence that she was the painter of womanhood.

Stieglitz suffered a fatal stroke in the summer of 1946, while O'Keeffe was away on one of her long sojourns to the Southwest.

LEGACY

Alfred Stieglitz Portrait

Alfred Stieglitz led the Pictorialist movement, which advocated the artistic legitimacy of photography in the United States. Without his influence, photographers like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston would never have been able to become household names. His own works defined the greater Pictorialist project and set a firm aesthetic example for his contemporaries, many of whom were exhibited in Camera Work magazine. Prior to his efforts, photographs were seen purely as historical records. He single-handedly popularized the medium and introduced America to European modernism with Gallery 291. Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin, Henri Matisse, and Paul Cézanne all received their American debuts at the gallery. He launched the career of his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe, and lauded her - however unfairly - as the greatest female artist of the twentieth century. He laid the foundation for the current proliferation of digital cameras. While nearly everyone is an amateur photographer today, few were at the fin de siecle, and Stieglitz was the leader of those few.

Original content written by The Art Story Contributors
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ALFRED STIEGLITZ QUOTES

"In the past few women may have attempted to express themselves in painting... But somehow all the attempts I had seen, until O'Keeffe, were weak because the elemental force and vision back of them were never overpowering enough to throw off the Male Shackles."

"The goal of art was the vital expression of self."

"There are many schools of painting. Why should there not be many schools of photographic art? There is hardly a right and a wrong in these matters, but there is truth, and that should form the basis of all works of art."

"In photography there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality."

Alfred Stieglitz

Alfred Stieglitz Influences

Interactive chart with Alfred Stieglitz's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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Adolf von Menzel
Adolf von Menzel
Adolph von Menzel was an artist born in Breslau, Germany, in 1815. He is known for his drawings, etchings and paintings. He sits along Caspar David Friedrich was one of the more prominent German artists of the nineteenth century. His painting garnered him popularity in his homeland because of their propagandistic nature, and for that reason have stayed in Germany. His graphic works and drawings have been more widely disseminated.

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Wilhelm Hasemann
Wilhelm Hasemann
Wilhelm Hasemann was a German painter born in 1850. He studied at the Academy in Berlin, the Grand Duchy of Saxony-Art School in Weimar and the Grand Duchy of Baden Art Karlsruhe. Later he joined the Weimar Art School and founded the Verifiers Artist Colony with Curt Liebich. His work is characterized by rural, pastoral scenes done in a variety of techniques.

Modern Art Information Wilhelm Hasemann
Robert Demachy
Robert Demachy
Robert Demachy was a painter born in 1859 on the outskirts of Paris. A prominent French Pictorial photographer, his photos were proliferated throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He is best known for his intensely manipulated prints that display a distinct painterly quality.

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Edward Steichen
Edward Steichen
Edward Steichen, an American 'straight photographer' and fashion photographer, was an early member of the Photo-Secession movement. He helped Alfred Stieglitz found The Little Galleries of the Photo Secession in New York.

Modern Art Information Edward Steichen
Eadweard Muybridge
Eadweard Muybridge
Born on April 9, 1930, Eadweard Muybridge was an English photographer who spent most of his life in the United States. He is famous for his pioneering work on animal locomotion, particularly horses. He performed these studies by using multiple cameras and his zoopraxiscope, a device for projecting motion pictures that predated the flexible perforated film strip that is used today.

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George Davison
George Davison
George Davison, born in 1854 in Lowestoft, England, was one of the co-founders of Linked Ring and was managing director of Kodak UK. Linked Ring was an association of late nineteenth and early twentieth century British photographers who pledged to promote Pictorialism in particular and photography as a fine art in general.

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Alfred Horsley Hinton
Alfred Horsley Hinton
Born in 1863, Alfred Horsley Hinton was editor of the Amateur Photographer and a leading member in the formation of the Linked Ring.

Modern Art Information Alfred Horsley Hinton
Hermann Wilhelm Vogel
Hermann Wilhelm Vogel
Hermann Wilhelm Vogel, born in 1834, was a German photochemist and photographer who made significant contributions to practical color photography. From 1860 he was a professor at Berlin's Technische Hochschule, where he introduced photography as a field of study.

Modern Art Information Hermann Wilhelm Vogel
Barbizon School
Barbizon School
The Barbizon School (1830-1870) was a group of painters who worked towards realism in art. Named after the village of Barbizon, France where the artists gathered, the group included Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Theodore Rousseau, and Jean-Francois Millet.

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Photo-Secession
Photo-Secession
Photo-Secession was an early twentieth century movement that promoted photography as a fine art and photographic pictorialism in particular. A group of photographers, led by Alfred Stieglitz and F. Holland Day in the early 1900s, heralded the importance of photographic manipulation.

Modern Art Information Photo-Secession
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
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Ansel Adams
Ansel Adams
Ansel Adams was an American photographer best known for his mid-twentieth-century black-and-white portraits of the Western frontier. His signature style was characterized by a sharp, high-resolution focus and stark contrasts of light and shadow. Adams co-founded Group f/64, a collective of Western-American photographers.

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Eliot Porter
Eliot Porter
Eliot Porter was an American-born photographer. He is best known for his color photographs of nature and the American West. Around 1930, he was introduced to Ansel Adams by a friend of his family, and to Alfred Stieglitz by his brother Fairfield Porter.

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Edward Weston
Edward Weston
Edward Weston was an American photographer and a co-founder of Group f/64, a collection of San Francisco photographers who celebrated the American West. Weston was a pioneer of straight photography, a modern style that defied the soft-edged, painterly style of Pictorialism.

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Imogen Cunningham
Imogen Cunningham
Born in Portland, Oregon in 1883, Imogen Cunningham was an American photographer best known for her photographs of botanicals, nudes and industry. In 1932, Cunningham became one of the co-founders of the Group f/64 with Ansel Adams.

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Georgia O'Keeffe
Georgia O'Keeffe
Georgia O'Keeffe was an American painter best known for her depictions of flowers, animal skulls, landscapes, and still lifes. Married to photographer Alfred Stieglitz, she was an important member of the "Stieglitz circle" and early American modernism.
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Max Weber
Max Weber
Max Weber was an early twentieth century Polish-American painter. Taught in the tradition of the French modernists, such as Matisse, Rousseau and Picasso, Weber became a fairly well-known Cubist painter in pre-WWII America, arguably introducing the painterly style to the U.S. Weber's works were among the first acquisitions made by MoMA in 1929, and he was the subject of the museum's very first solo exhibition by an American artist.

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Arthur Dove
Arthur Dove
Arthur Dove was an early American modernist painter and one of the first legitimate abstract painters of the twentieth century. With influences ranging from Fauvism and Expressionism to Asian art and mixed media, Dove was an essential precursor to Abstract Expressionism.
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Group f/64
Group f/64
Group f/64 was a group of seven twentieth century San Francisco photographers who shared a common photographic style characterized by sharp-focused and carefully framed images seen through a particularly Western (U.S.) viewpoint.

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Abstract Photography
Abstract Photography
Abstract photography was a direct offshoot of Abstract Expressionism, popularized by Aaron Siskind in the 1950s. Not relying on the usual facets of photography - focus, composition, and theme - abstract photography uses color, shade and form as its subject matter, much the way abstract painters do. The result is often evocative and indecipherable.

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Impressionism
Impressionism
A movement in painting that first surfaced in France in the 1860s, it sought new ways to describe effects of light and movement, often using rich colors. The Impressionists were drawn to modern life and often painted the city, but they also captured landscapes and scenes of middle-class leisure-taking in the suburbs.
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Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive, and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque, he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
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Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne
Paul Cézanne was an influential French Post-Impressionist painter whose depictions of the natural world, based on internal geometric planes, paved the way for Cubism and later modern art movements.
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Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse was a French painter and sculptor who helped forge modern art. From his early Fauvist works to his late cutouts, he emphasized expansive fields of color, the expressive potential of gesture, and the sensuality inherent in art-making.
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Leo Stein
Leo Stein
Leo Stein was an American art collector, critic, and brother of Gertrude Stein. Together with his sister, Stein was instrumental in championing the works of early-century European artists like Picasso, Matisse and Braque.

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Auguste Rodin
Auguste Rodin
The French artist Auguste Rodin is often considered the father of modern sculpture. His diverse ouevre includes traditonal styles, strongly allegorical work, and the fragments and textured physicality that are hallmarks of modernism.
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Winter, Fifth Avenue
Winter, Fifth Avenue

Title: Winter, Fifth Avenue (1892)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Winter, Fifth Avenue shows the busy New York street in the midst of a snowstorm. Stieglitz stalked Fifth Avenue for three frigid hours waiting for the perfect moment. He had to wait for the ideal composition - unlike a painter, who could manufacture it. Trails in the snow lead the eye up this vertical composition to its focal point - a dark horse and carriage that is swallowed by the snowy atmosphere. The snow blurs the details of the urban surroundings, lending the photo an Impressionistic appearance. This depiction of man - crudely mechanized - and pitted against the violence of the natural world, shows Stieglitz's inheritance from nineteenth century Romanticism.


Photogravure - The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

The Terminal
The Terminal

Title: The Terminal (1893)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Taken with a handheld Folmer and Schwing 4x5 plate film camera, this photo captures hot stream rising from horses in the dead of winter. A smaller camera meant greater mobility; it also ensured that he could more easily capture short-lived moments in time. The steam makes the photo appear more like a painting than a point-and-shoot image. Atmospheric effects such as this were important to Stieglitz in both providing a means to bind the image together and to show the kind of technical mastery and lush effects that audiences approved of in painting.


Photogravure - Museum of Modern Art, New York

The Steerage
The Steerage

Title: The Steerage (1907)

Artwork Description & Analysis: The Steerage depicts travelers boarding a crowded steamer going from New York to Bremen, Germany. They have attempted to immigrate to America, and have been forced to return home. While several of Stieglitz's early pictures suggest an interest in working class motifs - or, at least, scenes of labor and industrial work - he looked at these people with the somewhat distant sympathy of the patrician. For Stieglitz, the picture was far more important as a study in line and form. He regarded it as his first "modernist" picture, the image that marked his move away from the rich tonality of his earlier Pictorial phase, and it has since come to be seen as a benchmark for the beginnings of modernist photography. In part, this was due to Stieglitz's own promotion of it. He included it in a special issue of his journal Camera Work, in 1911, that was devoted to his new work. The images were accompanied by a Cubist drawing by Picasso, and Stieglitz loved to recount how Picasso had praised The Steerage for the way it transformed its conventional subject into a striking, collage-like depiction of different spaces.


Photogravure - Museum of Modern Art, New York

From the Back Window at 291
From the Back Window at 291

Title: From the Back Window at 291 (1915)

Artwork Description & Analysis: This nighttime scene was taken from the window of Stieglitz's famous avant-garde gallery. The photo is dominated by the geometric lines of New York's cityscape, using the rich range of tone the camera affords to depict the drama of the city by night. The overall darkness is leavened by intermittent beacons of artificial light. Although the picture was taken many years after Stieglitz had turned his back on the rich tonality of Pictorial photography, it could be interpreted almost as a transitional piece - the dramatic light effects recall his early work, but the geometric forms of the roofs in the foreground recall the concerns of his more recent, straight photography.


Platinum print - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Georgia O'Keeffe - Torso
Georgia O'Keeffe - Torso

Title: Georgia O'Keeffe - Torso (1918-19)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Stieglitz cropped O'Keeffe's body, filling the lens with her nude torso alone. A part of a larger series of portraits of O'Keeffe, it presents an intimate view of the woman who was Stieglitz's muse for the latter part of his life. He approached O'Keeffe like he might a landscape; the viewer is encouraged to see not nakedness but flowing organic lines - a finely judged composition. In consequence, however, she is also depersonalized and reduced to her component body parts - she is hair, breasts, and arms.


Palladium Print - Museum of Modern Art

Equivalent
Equivalent

Title: Equivalent (1930)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Stieglitz's cloud series - Equivalents - captured ephemeral formations in the sky. This photo is divided between dark, black clouds on the left and bright sky on the right. Without context, the subject seems difficult to pinpoint, though Stieglitz intended the series to be an exploration of his changing mental state, with each shot of the sky representing an equivalent of his mood at the time the picture was captured. One of his more revered later works, the series is also the high point of abstraction in his career.


Gelatin Silver Print - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.