The Lives of Alfred Stieglitz

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.