Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Alfred Stieglitz: The Patient Photographer

Great Artists

I  have always been a great believer in today. Most people live either in the past or in the future, so that they really never live at all. So many people are busy worrying about the future of art or society, they have no time to preserve what is. Utopia is in the moment. Not in some future time, some other place, but in the here and now, or else it is nowhere.
Alfred Stieglitz

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 of the painters whose work is shown in the art galleries of today.
 —Alfred Stieglitz

"I wanted to photograph clouds to find out what I had learned in forty years about photography. Through clouds to put down my philosophy of life – to show that (the success of) my photographs (was) not due to subject matter – not to special trees or faces, or interiors, to special privileges – clouds were there for everyone. 
Alfred Stieglitz

Alfred Stieglitz [1864-1946]: "Let me here call attention to one of the most universally popular mistakes that have to do with photography—that of classing supposedly excellent work as professional, and using the term amateur to convey the idea of immature productions and to excuse atrociously poor photographs."
Photo Credit: Gertrude Käsebier [1852-1934], 1902.
Source: US Library of Congress: Prints & Photographic Div.

Alfred Stieglitz didn't consider his photography as works of art, but his photos of everyday life evoked as much emotion as any expressionist artist of the last century. In Stieglitz's photos, one has a photographic record of the immense changes taking place in America, notably New York City—from its transition at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century from an uncultured and uncivilized city of undistinguished character to a vibrant metropolis teeming with the changes brought about by innovation, immigration and imagination.

He was a perfectionist, shooting the same scene many times and using the best paper and highest printing methods to achieve what he wanted, and, yet, resisted all attempts to classify him as an artist and his work as art. Nor did he must care for distinctions between amateur and professional. For him, there was only good photography and bad photography, the latter usually resulting from poor planning and lack of patience. Stieglitz gave the truism, "Patience is its own reward," additional meaning.

Moreover, for Stieglitz, such classifications were for academics who failed, at first glance, to see the beauty in front of them as it was happening in the then and now. As a photographer, his work recorded what his heart saw, notably the everyday lives of ordinary people.

In that regard, we owe a debt of gratitude to Stieglitz. He was one of the pioneers of both street photography and using a hand-held camera. His advice on getting the perfect picture ("Patience") is as relevant today as it was when he wrote this in The Hand Camera—Its Present importance, in 1897:
In order to obtain pictures by means of the hand camera it is well to choose your subject, regardless of figures, and carefully study the lines and lighting. After having determined upon these watch the passing figures and await the moment in which everything is in balance; that is, satisfied your eye. This often means hours of patient waiting.

My picture, "Fifth Avenue, Winter" is the result of a three hours' stand during a fierce snow-storm on February 22nd 1893, awaiting the proper moment. My patience was duly rewarded. Of course, the result contained an element of chance, as I might have stood there for hours without succeeding in getting the desired pictures."
Fifth Avenue—Winter: This was taken by Stieglitz on February 22, 1893, after patiently waiting for three hours during a winter storm. As Stieglitz said: "My patience was duly rewarded. Of course, the result contained an element of chance, as I might have stood there for hours without succeeding in getting the desired pictures."
Photo Credit: Alfred Stieglitz, 1893
Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8e/Stieglitz-Winter.jpg
Stieglitz was well-suited in temperament and position to chronicle the changes he was seeing through his hand-held camera, which was at first a Folmer and Schwing 4x5 plate film camera, which did not require the need to lug around a tripod—giving him artistic freedom.

During the course of his long career, spanning more than 50 years, Stieglitz produced more than 2,500 mounted photographs, including The Terminal" (1893), Venetian Canal (1894) and The Steerage (1907). As well, there are a number of famous photos of Georgia O'Keefe, the well-known American abstract painter of southwestern landscapes.

Growing Up

Alfred Stieglitz was born to Edward Stieglitz and Hedwig Ann Werner in Hoboken, New Jersey,  on January 1, 1864, the first son of German-Jewish immigrants. The Stieglitz family would eventually have five more children, but Alfred would always be the eldest child. A few years later, the family would move into a brownstone in Manhattan, New York.

In 1871, he attended the Charlier Institute, the best private school in New York. Although he enjoyed the school, he did not find it overly demanding. The summers were spent at Lake George in the Andirondack Mountains, a place Stieglitz would return to many times in his adult life.

He moved with his family to Germany in 1881, when his father sold the family business for $400,000. That money would provide the young Stieglitz with an allowance of $1,200 a month. The next year, Stieglitz began studying mechanical engineering at the Technische Hochschule in Berlin, but soon became interested in photography.

He was influenced by Hermann Wilhelm Vogel, who was an important scientist and researcher in the then developing field of photography. He also met German artists Adolf von Menzel and Wilhelm Hasemann, both of whom introduced him to the idea of making art directly from nature. He bought his first camera and traveled through the European countryside, taking many photographs of landscapes and peasants working on the Dutch seacoast and undisturbed nature within Germany's Black Forest. He won prizes and attention throughout Europe in the 1880s.

Although his parents returned to the U.S. in 1884, Stieglitz returned only in 1890, rather reluctantly, after his parents summoned him home after the death of his sister, Flora, during childbirth. He had considered America uncultured compared to Europe. But when his father threatened to cut off his allowance, the younger Stieglitz dutifully returned to New York City.

A Working Photographer in New York

By then, he had found his passion—photography—and had decided that was how he would make his living. He married Emmeline Obermeyer, the daughter of his father's business associate, on November 16, 1893. Emmy, as she was called, was 20; Alfred was 29.

It was not a marriage of love. Stieglitz later wrote that he did not love Emmy when they were first married and that their marriage was not consummated for at least a year. It was a marriage of financial convenience, in that she had inherited a considerable fortune from her father, a brewery owner.

This allowed him the freedom to pursue his art. But it was not a match made in heaven. He was looking for an artistic equal, which to no fault of hers, was not hers to give and share. From 1893 to 1896, Stieglitz was editor of American Amateur Photographer magazine, but his forceful autocratic manner was his undoing, and he was forced to resign. 

In 1898, Stieglitz's daughter, Katherine, or "Kitty," was born. Stieglitz took many photos of Kitty, in a sense creating a photographic journal of her life. He would revisit the idea of serial portraiture several times throughout his career. Stieglitz exhibited and published many pictures of his daughter, confirming that he considered them important pieces of his photographic oeuvre.

At the New York Camera Club, later called The Camera Club of New York, he reformatted its newsletter into a serious art periodical known as Camera Notes, for which he was editor between 1897 and 1902. Its distinguishing feature would be that each published image would be a picture, and not a photograph.

In 1902 Stieglitz founded an elite group of photographers called the Photo‐Secession, which included Edward Steichen, Clarence White, and others whose work exemplified the highest accomplishments of the art of photography. In 1905, Stieglitz, along with fellow photographer and painter Edward Steichen, founded the Little Galleries of the Photo‐Secession, which quickly became known as 291 from its address on Fifth Avenue. He also started a lush photo magazine, Camera Work. His aims were to bring European tastes to America through the relatively young artistic medium:
Because Stieglitz was fascinated with the relationship between photography and the other arts, he began to exhibit works by leading European and American modern artists, including Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brancusi, as well as Marius de Zayas, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and Georgia O'Keeffe, often giving them either their first shows in the USA or their first ever exhibitions.

Gallery 291 quickly became the centre for avant‐garde art in America, attracting not only painters, sculptors, and photographers, but also writers, poets, critics, and musicians.
Georgia O'Keefe: An artist of American Modernism, O'Keefe first met Stieglitz in 1916. They married in 1924 and remained so until Stieglitz's death in 1946. Stieglitz took more than 300 photos of her between 1918 and 1937. This is one of the earliest photographs.
Photo Credit: Alfred Stieglitz, 1918.
Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/3/3c/Stieglitz_okeeffe_1918_Corrected.jpg
Relationship with O'Keefe
In January 1916, when Stieglitz saw a portfolio of drawings by a young artist named Georgia O'Keeffe, he made plans to exhibit her work, without first contacting the young artist or asking her permission, at 291. When O'Keefe went to the gallery in May 1916, she was at first not pleased with Stieglitz's presumption or physical presence. He felt an immediate attraction, both physically and artistically. It would take a year of correspondence to convince O'Keefe of the seriousness of his finer feelings.

By then, a combination of poor finances, the First World War and Stieglitz's changing interests persuaded him to close the 291, end his association with Photo-Secession and cease publication of Camera Work in 1917.  His marriage to Emmy was over in all but name. 

By July 1918, Stieglitz and O"Keefe were living together. It was then that Stieglitz took many of the famous nudes of O'Keefe, reportedly in the family apartment that he was still officially sharing with his wife. She walked in on them during one of the photography sessions.Stieglitz and O'Keefe would marry six years later in 1924. But in the interim, they would be together most of this time, in which Stieglitz took more than 350 mounted prints of her. Many were studies of the human form, including close-up details of her hands, a dynamic and intimate chronicle of an individual

At the end of 1924 the Boston Museum of Fine Arts acquired a collection of 27 of Stieglitz's photographs, the first time a major museum included photographs in its permanent collection. On December 15, 1929, two weeks after his 65th birthday, Stieglitz opened his last gallery, An American Place, which became known as "The Place." 

It was. There, photographers such as Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter received early exposure. From the windows of this 17th-floor gallery and from his apartment  in The Shelton Towers, Stieglitz photographed New York City undergoing transformation to a high-rise metropolis. The view from his apartment changed even more dramatically with the addition of the General Electric Building, completed in October 1931.

It was also during the1920s and early 1930s that Stieglitz made some of his most accomplished photographs, including a series of photographs of clouds, which he called Equivalents. By this time, Stieglitz and O'Keefe were spending more time apart, she spending a lot of time in New Mexico painting, and he remaining in New York. 

Stieglitz stopped taking pictures in early 1938, when he suffered a serious heart attack, one of six coronary or angina attacks that would affect him over the next eight years. He would spend most of these years in the darkroom preparing photos, and not out on the street, in his natural milieu. For example, in the last 10 years of his life, he would spend summers at Lake George, New York, where he had converted a shed into a darkroom.

Alfred Stieglitz suffered a stroke and died on July 13, 1946, in New York. His wife, Georgia O'Keefe, was able top rush to his bedside before he died. He was 82. O'Keefe took his ashes to Lake George and buried them at the foot of a tall pine tree beside the waters.

Stieglitz, the man who initially refused the idea of photographer as artist, has produced some of the most evocative works in early modern photography. Stieglitz remains a leading pioneer, who made photography a more acceptable medium of expression.

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