Alfred Stieglitz: A Cultural Pioneer

Alfred Stieglitz played a vital role in the elevation of photography and its acceptance as a new art form in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In 1890, Stieglitz returned to New York from his travels around Europe, determined that photography should be considered Fine Art. He dedicated much of his early career to the promotion of photographers such as Gertrude Käsebier and Clarence H. White. Forming an organisation called the Photo-Secession in 1902, Stieglitz positioned himself at the centre of the artistic group, which would eventually include seventeen artists, predominantly working in the Pictorialist style. To support the group’s promotion Stieglitz founded the influential magazine Camera Work, which was first published in 1903 and ran a total of fifty issues until its closure in 1917. In many ways, the magazine defined the artistic ambitions of photographers in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

During this early period of Stieglitz’s career, the city of New York was his most frequent subject matter. Going Home by Ferry is one of several photographs that Stieglitz made in the first decade of the 1900s which focused on the ferry terminals in Lower Manhattan. The photograph is significant for its unusual and interesting depiction of city life. Stieglitz’s photograph documents the burgeoning population of workers that travelled to the island of Manhattan daily to work, and suggests the rapid growth of the city with its allusions to industry. This print in many ways is an early experiment with the subject matter for his later photograph, The Steerage. Taken in 1907, The Steerage similarly splits the composition of the photograph into upper and lower registers, and shows people arriving into New York harbour. The photograph would go on to mark a defining moment in Stieglitz’s early career and is considered one of the earliest examples of ‘Modernist Photography.’

Stieglitz’s photographs of New York’s port influenced several artists after him, particularly Paul Strand, to whom Stieglitz dedicated the final issue of Camera Work. Strand’s 1921 Manhattan employs similar visual imagery and a parallel approach to depicting the city of New York. Stieglitz’s later career was dedicated to promoting modern art and he remained an influential figure until his death in 1946. The photographs he took in the final years of his career are in marked contrast to his earlier Pictorialist style often focusing on abstraction. Stieglitz eventually gave up photography in 1937.

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