According to John Gould Fletcher, Alfred Stieglitz was a "philosopher, guide, teacher, discoverer of genius, inspirer of the machine age, prophet and Messiah. (Block 764) It would be difficult to argue Fletcher's statement because it was Stieglitz who provided the essential example of the mean by which the artist could reach out to a new and more accurate mode of representing the world of experience. Stieglitz knew that many hardly even considered photography an art and was determined to prove otherwise. Through his many different photography techniques, Alfred Stieglitz revolutionized photography by opposing the traditional standards of art and photography. And since his talent was so enormous, it was not difficult for him to prove that photography was an important art. This father of photography was the man who did the most for art in America.
When Stieglitz was born on the first of January in 1864 no one realized what a genius this young Jewish boy would become. (Block 764) Growing up, Alfred was infused with an appreciation for art by his family and surroundings. His father, Edward Stieglitz, was an amateur artist who was constantly socializing with other artists. The Stieglitz's family home was decorated with prints and art objects of famous artists of the day. At age five, the family relocated to New York City. Stieglitz attended several schools, both private and public.
From early on Alfred was observant and sensitive to others feelings. He was also very inquisitive and precocious. He was trilingual by the age of seven, fluently speaking German, French and English. Before the age of sixteen Stieglitz attended the City College of New York where he studied engineering. While living in New York Stieglitz was introduced to his first photograph when he was nine years old. Right away he was fascinated with the process of film development that this photographer has shown him.
After the photograph made a print, he began to add carmine to the cheeks explaining that this touch up made subjects look more natural. Alfred immediately disagreed arguing that this effect merely spoiled the clarity of the images photographed. This feeling remained with Stieglitz and intensified as he grew. In 1881, Edward Stieglitz wanted to give his son a better education and moved the family to Germany. First, Alfred studied at the Real gymnasium in Karlsruhe, Germany. Shortly thereafter, he went to study at the Berlin Polytechnic Institute.
He began to study engineering. He was quite knowledgeable in the field. One day in 1883, while walking through downtown Berlin Stieglitz purchased his first camera on impulse. Shortly, thereafter Stieglitz made his first print and with this began his love for photography. After studying for several more years at the Berlin Polytechnic Institute, Alfred and his family moved back to New York City in 1890.
While back in America, Stieglitz followed his photography career, which greatly developed over the years in Germany. Since Steiglitz's introduction to photography at age nine and the purchase of his first camera a decade later, Stieglitz was intrigued by this art form. Soon after he bought his first camera he changed his focus at the Berlin Polytechnic Institute. After conducting many self-directed experiments, he decided to enroll himself in Herman Wilhelm Vogel's photochemistry class. Vogel became Stieglitz's mentor, teaching him the scientific bases and technical principles of photography. (Zilczer 654) Vogel taught Stieglitz the chemistry of photography and gave him a better understanding the development process.
After Stieglitz decided to pursue photography seriously, he absorbed artistic influences from English photographers, notably P. H. Emerson. Emerson, like Stieglitz in his later years, had rejected the sentimental subjects and manipulated prints of Victorian and pictorial photography, instead he advocated 'truth to nature' in straight photography that captured the appearance and atmosphere of the visible world by respecting the integrity of the of the photographic medium. Stieglitz owed many of his ideas to Emerson.
(Zilczer 654) Alfred Stieglitz took pictures in a time when photography was considered only a scientific curiosity and not an art, but that only caused him to commit to the idea of photography as an art. Stieglitz was quoted saying, "Artists who saw my early photographs began to tell me that they envied me; that my photographs were superior to their paintings, but that unfortunately photography was not an art... I could not understand why the artists should envy me for my work, yet in the same breath, decry it because it was machine-made - their... .' art' painting - because hand-made, being considered necessarily superior...
There I started my fight... for the recognition of photography as a new medium of expression, to be respected in its own right, on the same basis as any other art form." (Leggat 1) And with that, he began photographing the unfashionable, of which he had become the leading authority in his field. Stieglitz did not thin that photographs should look like a painter's work. To this end, and partly because of his search for America's essence, he began shooting photographs of the streets of New York City.
He searched for unusual subject matter, such as workhorses, muddy streets and emigrants in steerage, trying to record the feeling of life within his photographs. He began to break conventions by insisting upon clarity and detail and by experimenting with strange uses of light. His trademark was sharp contrast of black and white. Stieglitz also realized that fewer objects in a picture drew more attention to the subject. He began to study form rather than subject matter. Stieglitz believed that the function of photography was to provide visual truths, not to give pleasure.
Throughout the 1890's Stieglitz used his hand held camera to capture candid scenes of New York life. The Terminal, a photogravure of a streetcar driver watering down his horses and Winter on Fifth Avenue, the first pictorial photograph of a snowstorm, anticipated the frank treatment of working-class urban subject matter. (Zilczer 654) As he witnessed New York transform from a quiet city with cobblestone street and horse drawn carriages to a shining symbol of the modern metropolis with towering sky scrapers, he was able to capture the first successful rainy day, snowstorm, and night photographs. Even Picasso, a renowned Spanish artist, was impressed with his work stating that Stieglitz was "one of the most active experimental photographers in the world... this is exactly what I have been trying to say in paint." Alfred Stieglitz was an experimenter and experientia list: by this it is meant that his work was predicted on hypothesis testing and conclusion, as well as a "process of interacting with his environment including materials of tradition and institutions as well as his local surrounding." (Kiefer 7) Stieglitz, being one who has always seen photography as an art and not a weak imitation of other forms of art, always tried to be a perfectionist. A friend once asked him for a duplicate print from a certain negative he had made.
"There will be but one print," said Stieglitz, "there will be no duplicates."A waste print?" the friend asked. "You do not understand," Stieglitz replied patiently, "There will be but one print that will express me. The others will not express me. They will be nothing." (Block 764) Stieglitz's methods reflected his commitment to "straight" photography. Around 1898, he devised a method to control development to produce the effect of a wash drawing. Stieglitz experiments with this pictorial technique.
Stieglitz termed his works pictorial rather than artistic because of the aesthetic merit of the photographs. Despite the diplomatic approach, pictorialists were determined to make pictures with the camera, which created images of aesthetic value. Pictorialists used a relatively limited number of subjects that were easily identifiable by the general public. They avoided topical, political or controversial subjects and stuck with figure studies, landscapes and genre scenes. Pictorialists put a premium on domestic subjects and other materials close at hand. The idea that a photographer had to venture to some exotic and faraway place at great expense of time and money was considered absurd, and self-defeating to those intent on creative results.
(Peterson 20) Pictorialists believed that photographs should be simple and concise. The photographs should suppress detail. They also believed that one would not have to travel farther than their front yard for find a myriad of subjects, all simple with aesthetic value. "Stieglitz's early philosophies were firmly grounded in Wissenschaftideologic (the German academic research ideal), photochemical theory and practice, empiricism, perceptual theory, and materialism - all legacies from his 1880's Berlin education. In addition, as a young man, he was deeply influenced by German idealists and romantic philosophies." (Kiefer 4) Stieglitz linked together French modernism with advanced American photography and termed the notion "idea photography." It was a concept Stieglitz predicated on the interrelationship of art and science.
Although he never concisely defined "idea photography," he used it as a guideline for his work between 1907 and 1910 and in his gallery, "291." In 1902, after the growing progressive movement in American photography, Stieglitz founded a group concerned with pictorial photography known as the Photo-Secession. The aims of this movement were to draw together American interesting in are to advance photography as applied to pictorial expression, to unite progressive American photographers and to hold exhibitions of all artwork. A month after it's founding, the Photo-Secession group organized an exhibition, American Pictorial Photography, at the National Arts Club in New York to introduce the group. Stieglitz's stand against standardization, institutionalism and commercialism, as well as his high standards, attracted talented young people to his group. Not too long after the group was formed, Stieglitz opened his own gallery, properly name "291" because of it's location at 291 5 th Avenue. Here he displayed photographs that were above commercial standards.
There Stieglitz found himself acting as an official interpreter for photography, fighting for its right to live as a form of creative expression (Block 765). It was here that Stieglitz was quoted, saying "The result is the only fair basis for judgement. It is justifiable to use any means upon a negative or paper to attain the desired end." And so Stieglitz did. As Stieglitz grew older, he became less active in the world of photography. He never put down his camera though. Looking at his works, it is obvious that his photographs and choice of subjects matured as he matured.
After divorcing once, Stieglitz met Georgia O'Keeffe. O'Keeffe would soon become one of Stieglitz's last, but most involved subjects. These photographs conveyed much emotion and reality of life. He consciously used shapes, lines and tones to portray meaning. The photographs of O'Keeffe were taken over a 20-year period. It is said that in these hundreds of portraits, there were some of is most deeply felt and original contributions to modern photography.
At the same time of his O'Keeffe series, Stieglitz began to shoot another series entitles Equivalents, which was photographs of clouds. Stieglitz believed that the moody and ethereal patterns he recorded by turning his camera skyward mirrored his own emotional states (Zilczer 656). Stieglitz used "idea photography" for this series. In 1930 Stieglitz began a final series of photographs of New York as seen from the window if his last gallery, An American Place, and from the window of his room at the Shelton hotel. This final series documented the constructions and transformation of the city, all from mostly the same angle. Sadly, in 1937, Stieglitz, plagues by heart trouble, could not longer lift his cameras and stopped taking photographs.
Upon his death on July 13, 1946 in New York City, O'Keeffe donated most of his work to various museums, as he had instructed. His remains were cremated and his ashes were secretly spread over Lake George, New York. On that day in July, the world of photography has lost a great father figure. Stieglitz did many wonderful things to help bring photography to its respectful position it attains today. Photography does not change much within a person.
Stieglitz remained true to his pictorialists ideals, as well as his "idea photography" throughout his life. And even he recognized after 50 years. "Last summer as I was rummaging through the attic in Lake George, to my great surprise, I found 22 of my old negatives, many in imperfect condition, scratched and battered... At once I began to make prints of them, naturally being most curious to know what they would look like when printed on commercial paper instead of platinum which I had used exclusively for the first 35 years of my career. When I saw the new prints from the old negatives I was startled to see how intimately related their spirit is to my latest work. A span of 50 years.
Should I exhibit in spite of my distaste for showing publicly... There was Photography, I had no choice." -Alfred Stieglitz (Aperture 18) Alfred Stieglitz. American Masters. Archive of American Art... Alfred Stieglitz: Masters of Photography.
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