I thought it would be appropriate to begin this series of posts for The Camera Club with a brief piece on Alfred Stieglitz, one of The Camera Club’s earliest and most influential members.
In studying the fractal history of photography, we frequently encounter myriad claims of invention and hear seemingly endless debates over true versus derivative ingenuity, but in the countless interwoven timelines and records of the field, Alfred Stieglitz stands out not only as the man credited with elevating photography to its current stature as an accepted and celebrated form of fine art, but also as the most instrumental and effective proponent of early modern art in America, helping to usher in an entirely new epoch in the history of art at large.
Born New Year’s Day in 1864 in New Jersey and raised in New York City, Stieglitz was an inspired academic from childhood, with his father, a Lieutenant in the Union Army receiving officers’ pay, taking a tremendous interest in the scholastic advancement of his first son. His father enrolled him in the Charlier Institute, the finest school in New York at the time, and later moved him to Germany to study during the last year of high school, fearing the school he was enrolled in was not challenging enough for him. In 1881, Stieglitz arrived in Germany and studied under Hemann Vogel, a chemist and leading researcher in the developing field of photography. It was about this time that Stieglitz bought his first camera and traveled around Europe photographing both nature and the peasant classes of Germany and Italy. At the same time, he began writing articles for the magazine The Amateur Photographer on the subject of photography and, more notably, aesthetics. After winning a Christmas photography contest held by the magazine, he gained even more notoriety.
Though he was making a name for himself and was quite content living in Europe, Stieglitz was still dependent on his father and returned to New York City after the death of his sister, but only under threat of losing his generous monthly allowance of $1300 a year from his father. Back in his good graces upon returning to America, his father bought him a small photography company called “The Photochrome Engraving Company”, hoping he would be able to pursue his interests in the field and make a living at the same time. It is safe to say that business was not Stieglitz’s forte, as his interests lay with the costly exacting perfection of the photographic processes and production techniques. This obsession combined with the generously high wages he paid his employees prevented the business from turning a profit. He began writing for The American Amateur Photographer and almost immediately was offered the position of co-editor of the publication, where he wrote of photography’s rightful place beside painting and other art forms, yet, illustrative of both his lack of business sense and his intermittent ethical stances, he refused to draw a salary as The Photochrome Engraving Company was printing the photogravures for the magazine and he did not want to seem biased.
Always one to adapt and accept with enthusiasm the evolution of photography and its tools, Stieglitz purchased a handheld 4×5 camera in 1892. This allowed him to shoot more frequently and without the encumbrance of a tripod, and it was with this camera that he made some of his most admired early images.
In 1893, Stieglitz married a young brewery heiress named Emmeline Obermeyer – not for love, but for “financial advantage.” He was both known to enjoy the company of young women and to be ambitiously determined, traits which would prove problematic not only in his first marriage but throughout his life. Working even while honeymooning in Europe, Stieglitz went out of his way to meet the top photographers in his travels and was eventually unanimously voted into Linked Ring, a British photography group whose principal purpose was to push photography as a legitimate fine art form. Upon returning to the US, Stieglitz quit his jobs and pushed to merge the two photography clubs in New York City, which he believed were outmoded and idle, eventually succeeding and combining the two as The Camera Club of New York in 1896. He chose to become the Vice President instead of President so that he could take advantage of the classes the club offered instead of wasting his time with administrative matters. Shortly thereafter, Stieglitz began publishing Camera Notes, which quickly became recognized as the finest photography magazine in the world.
Stieglitz then turned his attention to showing his own photography as works of art, producing the portfolio “Picturesque Bits of New York & Other Studies” in 1897 and exhibiting 87 prints in a one man show at the Camera Club in 1899. This show was followed shortly thereafter by a falling out with the old guard at The Camera Club, who thought Stieglitz was too controlling and eccentric. He was largely unfazed and even motivated by the fragmentation of the club, then focusing his energy on putting together a total photography show in 1902 called “Photo-Secession”, a name calling attention to the fact that photography was wrongly considered outsider art. The show opened to public and critical acclaim. It was around this time that Stieglitz met the photographer Edward Steichen and became fast friends with him, even opening a small gallery in 1905 in the same apartment building that Steichen lived in, calling it “The Little Gallery of the Photo-Secession.” The first show featured 100 prints from 39 different photographers, all chosen by Stieglitz himself. Soon after, he decided to showcase the watercolor paintings and drawings of Pamela Coleman Smith, which was a revolutionary exhibit simply for the fact that Stieglitz was showing accepted forms of fine art in a gallery of photography, a form of art yet to be recognized by the art world at large. This marked the beginning of Stieglitz as not only a promoter of photography, but of modern art in general.
In 1907, Stieglitz began experimenting with toning, waxing and drawing on his platinum prints. When he next traveled to Europe, he saw a demonstration of the Autochrome Lumiere color photography process, which he of course fell in love with and adopted immediately, making him one of the very earliest photographers to create true color exposures, not simply toned or otherwise colored photographs.
Due to his new costly experiments, and his lack of fiscal discipline in general, Stieglitz briefly had to close the Little Gallery, but reopened it shortly after in 1908 as “291”. The new gallery name represented a lot to Stieglitz and the art world at the time, symbolizing a shift from the photo-secession mindset as photography as outsider art and also allowing Stieglitz to do anything he wanted with such an abstract name, which didn’t conjure any thoughts of a specific art medium or even style. Bridging the gap between accepted traditional art forms and new media became his primary focus, and with great influence from Stieglitz, The National Arts Club hosted a “Special Exhibition of Contemporary Art”, which is recognized as the first major US show with photographers given equal stature as painters.
In 1909, Stieglitz’s Father died. He used his inheritance to keep the 291 gallery and his magazine Camera Work going as long as he could. In 1912 he broke new ground again, publishing a special edition of Camera Work devoted entirely to the modern art painters Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, without a single photograph printed in the issue. If the art world was going to be hesitant to accept photography as art, Stieglitz’s world of photography was going to turn the tables and fiercely appropriate modern art itself.
After being shown a portfolio of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work in 1916, he could not wait to display the pieces, hanging the actual pages of the portfolio without contacting the artist for the originals or even asking permission first. O’Keeffe eventually heard about the unsolicited show and paid Stieglitz an angry visit in his New York gallery. By the end of 1917, the two were writing each other all the time. The next year, O’Keeffe moved from Texas to New York to be with the still-married Stieglitz. His wife Emmy kicked him out after returning home one evening to find Stieglitz photographing O’Keeffe in the nude. From 1918 to 1925, Stieglitz made over 350 mounted prints of O’Keeffe, many of them nudes. Though their marriage would prove to be untraditional at best, Stieglitz and O’Keeffe wed in 1924 in a private casual ceremony at the Stieglitz family lake house.
The Boston Museum of Fine Arts attempted to acquire 27 Stieglitz photographs in 1924, but Stieglitz refused to sell them, insisting instead on donating the prints to control which images they would receive. Stieglitz had by this time become known as the Godfather of Modern Photography, even granting Ansel Adams one of his first shows in New York City in 1936. At the end of his life in 1946, Alfred Stieglitz had mounted over 2500 prints of his own images and promoted the works of countless others, and while he was not without his faults and detractors, he will always be credited and lauded for elevating the medium of photography to the same respected level of fine art as painting & sculpture and for fervently piloting modern art to America’s shores.
I think that a lot of the misunderstandings about “new media” stem from the misguided assumption that looking at images displayed on a computer is anything like looking at other kinds of images. Obviously, the images you see on your screen are fundamentally different from the “traditional” spectrum of images, like paintings, prints, and photographs in that they are arrangements of 1’s and 0’s transmitted and displayed as electromagnetic radiation. But they also differ substantially from the images produced from other technologies that rely on similar physical properties, like cinema or television. The main difference being when you look at anything on a computer screen (not just an image, but text; and even when you listen to audio) you are necessarily making a copy of that thing as you look at it. Non-networked activity, like word processing, would be impossibly slow with out the ability to make (at least) temporary copies of everything, and networked activity (the Internet) as we know it would cease to function. Imagine if the Internet worked like a lending library: each site or server had a limited number of copies that it could give out at any given time, and people, for example, you had to wait for someone to sign out of Gmail before you could sign in. The way it is now, it’s more like a City Hall: you ask a server for something and it makes you a copy and sends it to you.
What this means for our discussion is that every online collection of images faces essentially the same conundrum as the museum filled with camera-wielding photographers: should we let them make copies? In practice, the question is mostly rhetorical. People are going to make copies whether the institutions that maintain the images want to or not. The question is really what dispositions do those institutions take towards the seer-copier and what does that mean for the future of aesthetic reproduction?
Faced with an extreme version of this crisis in 2009, the National Portrait Gallery of London came up with a novel “solution” that not only didn’t work, but that also ended up unintentionally making a radical argument against existing copy protections.
In 2009, the British National Portrait Gallery rolled out an ambitious project to digitize their entire collection. By the spring of 2009, the gallery had already posted more than 60,000 high-resolution images to their website using a program called Zoomify that allowed users to view the works but not easily download their own copies. That March, Derrick Coetzee, a UC Berekely computer science grad student and administrator on Wikipedia, devised a method to download images from the gallery’s website. Coetzee promptly downloaded 3000 of the gallery’s images and posted them to Wikipedia’s free media archive, Wikimedia Commons. On July 10th, the gallery notified Coetzee that they intended to begin legal proceedings against him through the UK courts for copyright violation. The gallery claimed that although the works in question were in the public domain, the high-resolution photographs of those works were the copyrighted property of the gallery and Coetzee had no right to download or reproduce them without obtaining the proper license. The Gallery offered to drop their claims if Coetzee removed all the images from Wikipedia and “refrained” from downloading any more images. The following week, Erik Moeller, the deputy director of Wikimedia Commons publicly refused to remove any of the images, arguing on both legal and philosophical grounds that such images belonged in the public domain.
Both parties agreed that the paintings in question were in the public domain—they were clearly all so old that their normal copyright had lapsed. And they also implicitly agreed that the core of the legal debate was whether or not a painstaking reproduction of an non-copyrighted image constituted a new copyrightable work. In their initial response to the gallery, Wikimedia summarized the 1998 U.S Appeals court case Bridgeman v. Corel which ruled that a so-called “slavish” reproduction of a work cannot constitute a new work because it is not sufficiently creative or different enough from the original; it fails what is known as the “sweat of the brow” standard. If such “slavish” reproductions constituted new works, the argument goes, how could reproductions by different people be differentiated from each other? How could the copyrights of such “new works” ever be protected if there was no physical way to tell the difference between them? Furthermore what was to stop someone from rephotographing such a “new work” and thus claiming a new copyright for that copy of a copy? For its part the National Portrait Gallery posited that the images represent, “a painstaking exercise on the part of the photographer that created the image in which significant time, skill, effort and artistry have been employed and that there can therefore be no doubt that under UK law all of those images are copyright works…”
And so a bizarre new chapter in the history of photographic reproduction began to unravel.
Historically, photographs had only gained admission into museum collections after the Museum had been able to establish its viability amongst the other High Arts as rare and precious objects. In “The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism,” (full article, pdf) Douglas Crimp diagrams this first phase in the Museum’s campaign to “recuperate the auratic” with regards to photography, where “auratic” means authentic and/or original, i.e. like painting or sculpture. That is, according to Crimp, museums were directly responsible for the “triumph of photography-as-art,” through their post- World War II promotion of American photographers like Edward Weston, Edward Steichen, and Walker Evans. The photographs of these “artists” were made on elaborate enough equipment and their appearance was striking enough that museums could finally see past their practical existence as mere reproductions (of reality, or their photo-negatives) and they could begin to regard them as rarefied Works of Art along with the historic authentic and original Arts. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the museum more or less protected the auratic art-photograph from the onslaught of its postmodern practitioners like Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince, whose appropriation techniques attempted to mock the originality of any photograph, by quickly including their subversive works into traditional Blue Chip exhibitions.
But when Coetzee’s actions raised the prospect of widespread digital reproduction of the Portrait Gallery’s archival photographs, the Museum had no choice but to incidentally develop a new strategy for protecting the aura of photographs. And here’s where it starts to get absurd.
In order to conserve aura, the National Portrait Gallery borrowed exactly that strategy of appropriation artists (like Levine and Prince) that had originally sought to destroy the myth of the original. In doing so, they arrived at a totally inverted definition of the “auratic” photography. Namely, the Gallery claimed that their photographic reproductions were in fact new, creative works with a unique existence (i.e. “auratic”) not despite but because of their visual identity to the source material. Specifically, the gallery contended that the images constituted new works because in making them, their photographers had expended “time” and “effort” in the service of “artistry”. Since the final goal of such “artistry” is a perfectly transparent reproduction, the more these artistic efforts remain invisible, the more these images become “artistic”.
The Gallery inadvertently ended up recapitulating the formal logic of the ready-made and appropriation art, wherein the work of the artist is signaled not through new visible aesthetic qualities but through invisible, “behind the scenes”, work and conceptual choices, including, above all, the choice to obscure any obvious authorial intervention. Historically, this shift had allowed artists to intercede upon the straightforward production of aura–to problematize any clear (i.e. authentic) path from original “author” to work. Here, however, the Gallery mirrors this avant-garde strategy in an attempt to make a legal argument for strong authorial presence: reproductive verisimilitude paradoxically becomes an argument for auratic authenticity. Put another way, the basic formal strategy of the Gallery is similar to Sherrie Levine’s in her After Walker Evans images, where the artist simply made a copy of famous Evans’ photographs—both simply attempt to reproduce their source images as closely as possible—but the intended outcomes are at odds: Levine uses the strategy of bald appropriation to question the nature of authenticity, whereas the Gallery uses it to claim authentic ownership.
In support of Coetzee, Peter Hirtle, president of the Society of American Archivists, wrote: “The conclusion we must draw is inescapable. Efforts to try to monopolize our holdings and generate revenue by exploiting our physical ownership of public domain works should not succeed.” Here, Hirtle recognizes that the Gallery has conflated physical ownership over an image with ownership over its virtual, intellectual (copy)rights.
So while the Gallery originally claimed Coetzee/Wikimedia has violated copyright law, it’s really the Gallery itself that did the most violence to the basic distinction that copyright set out to make between these two types of ownership.
Barring contemporary questions of fair use, copyright historically allowed an artist to sell a version of a work without having to sell his unique, that is, authentic privilege to the production and reproduction of that work. Therefore, copyright was one of the most powerful means by which aura came to be guaranteed in a world of mechanical (and later, digital) reproduction where copies were extremely easy to make in practice: copyright assured that works could be endlessly reproduced and distributed but only with the permission of the original author, i.e. the maintenance of an “authentic” lineage to the work’s original production.
Legally and logically, then, in the age of reproduction, there is no necessary relationship between the person who owns a work and the abstract intellectual property rights of that work, unless a specific license is arranged otherwise. In the case of the Wikimedia dispute, the copyright of the works in question has been dissipated into the public domain: the Gallery owns the physical work of art but the intellectual rights of reproduction, distribution, etc. belong to the public. Nevertheless, the Gallery tried to leverage its physical monopoly on the works to arbitrate access to their virtual rights, effectively destroying the distinction between the two types of rights; not only does the Gallery prohibit digital reproduction, their website unequivocally states, “we also exert strict controls on all photography in the Gallery, which is allowed only on the understanding that copyright rests with us and that any further reproduction deriving from resulting photographic materials is subject to our written permission.” By prohibiting visitors from making their own reproductions of the source material or sharing the gallery’s reproductions, the Gallery’s policy effectively precludes any of their holdings from ever entering a digital public domain.
The conclusion we have to draw, according the Gallery’s actions, is that the rights to an image are subject less to the rule of copyright law and more to the rule of force: rights “belong” to whoever happens to be able to secure the conditions required to make a reproduction. Here, sheer physical access to an original is made the sufficient condition for the creating a legally unique (i.e. “auratic”) likeness—uncoupled from the intended logic of copyright law, aura becomes a function of what is literally un-authorized reproduction, the very activity that had historically and logically threatened its existence. Thus in a strange twist, the Gallery actually produces the aesthetic conditions it seems to fear the most, mangling the last feasible ways of preserving aura and its legal protections in the age of digital reproduction.
Ironic Epilogue: Facing a protracted legal battle and negative press, the National Portrait Gallery eventually backed away from their complaint against Coetzee and Wikimedia. The Gallery no longer has any high-res images on their website; fortunately, high-resolution images of the museum’s entire collection are available, however, on Wikimedia.