Profiles in Black & White: Alfred Stieglitz

In Article, Black and White Photography, Photographer on September 26, 2013 at 4:22 pm

“Photography is not an art. Neither is painting, nor sculpture, literature or music. They are only different media for the individual to express his aesthetic feelings… You do not have to be a painter or a sculptor to be an artist. You may be a shoemaker. You may be creative as such. And, if so, you are a greater artist than the majority the painters whose work is shown in the art galleries of today.”

-Alfred Stieglitz

Self-Portrait, Alfred Stieglitz, 1907

Self-Portrait, Alfred Stieglitz, 1907

Alfred Stieglitz, born in Hoboken, NJ in 1864, was raised in privilege. But he was not the only one to benefit from said upbringing; the art and photography worlds should be grateful as well. As a talented yet unchallenged student in America, Stieglitz’s father’s fortune allowed them to move back to Germany, where Edward (Alfred’s father) thought his son would be more rigorously educated. This eventually led Alfred to Technische Hochschule in Berlin, where Stieglitz would be provided the challenge he craved by Hermann Wilhelm Vogel, a chemistry professor. Through Vogel, a noted early scientist in the research of photography, Stieglitz discovered his preferred artistic outlet. With the purchase of his first camera – along with a monthly allowance greater than some made in a year – he took to the European countryside, photographing the lands and their peasants. He also began what would be a very large collection of books on photographers and photography technique. In 1887, Stieglitz would have his first article published. That same year, he would win his first award in a contest held by Amateur Photographer. When he was finally compelled to return to America in 1890 by his parents, Stieglitz set out on a mission to prove that photography would become the next great art form.

Over the course of his career, Stieglitz produced over 3,000 pictures inspired by many muses. One of the first was capturing the art found within nature, an ideal planted within him by German artists Adolf von Menzel and Wilhelm Hasselman. The urban landscape would fascinate him as well, producing such photos as The Terminal (1892) and Winter-Fifth Avenue (1893). At a time of great upheaval and transition, Stieglitz was able to capture his surroundings as they departed their simpler roots and boomed into modern cityscapes and industry.

The Terminal, 1892

The Terminal, 1892

The transition of his surroundings would be paralleled in Stieglitz’s work. Originally a pictorialist, like many of his era’s counterparts, he would move towards modernism as his career matured, along with a greater fascination with people as his main subject. This included experiments with subjects both clothed and nude. His second wife, painter Georgia O’Keefe, inspired many photos in both manners. Another frequent curiosity would be human hands, contorted against a plethora of different settings. Sometimes they were the singular focus of the photo, while in others their distinctive pose within a photo stole focus from the main subject. As his career waned, the final photos seemed to combine everything he had learned into a well-refined work of art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art highlights this in his Looking Northwest from the Shelton (1932): “His photographs seem not to celebrate the astonishing growth of new buildings but rather almost geological permanence and stability,” they state on their website.

Looking Northwest from the Shelton, 1932

Looking Northwest from the Shelton, 1932

While Stieglitz left quite the impact on the art world through his own work, it can be argued that he had as much in not more of an impact as a patron. He was frequently published in photography and art magazines – along with heading Camera Notes and the influential Camera Work – and spoke in numerous venues across the country. He would provide inspiration and advice to numerous upcoming photographers, such as – previously covered here – Edward Weston, Paul Strand and Harry Callahan. As he got older, less of his time was spent on photographing and more overseeing his art galleries (Anderson Galleries, 1921-1925; The Intimate Gallery, 1925-29; An American Place, 1929-46). These, along with his earlier organized exhibitions co-opted with Edward Steichen at 291, provided an intrinsically important outlet for artists of all sorts, be it the avant-garde European works of Rodin and Picasso or Americans such as Strand, his wife O’Keefe and western landscape stalwart Ansel Adams. These factors, combined with his own works and personal collection of other’s works, have led some to label Stieglitz as a Renaissance Man and the most important figure to rise out of American visual arts history.

Stieglitz died in 1946 at the age of 82. Examples of his work can be found: here.

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