Alfred Stieglitz was one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, and remained at the forefront in the progression of the photographic medium from scientific experiment into the realm of high art. He was also an inspiring promoter of Modern art and through his own gallery shone a light on a number of pioneers of American Modernism.
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Alfred Stieglitz was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1864. During his early years Stieglitz won many awards for his photographs in America, where his work detailed everyday life. Inspired by the movability of the handheld camera, Stieglitz used a 5 x 4 portable camera and during the period between 1891 and 1901 produced some the most iconic turn of the century photographs we have today. At this time Stieglitz was also the vice-president of The Camera Club of New York, and from this position he pushed the medium of photography into the new century, and into the public eye.
As his career developed Stieglitz refused to allow himself to plateau, and was constantly pushing and promoting both his own and the work of other great artists. From his gallery Stieglitz previewed works by Auguste Rodin, Toulouse-Lautrec and Claude Monet, amongst others. In 1925 Stieglitz organized one of the largest exhibitions that the American art world had experienced at that time. He presented seven American artists to the world, entitling the exhibition “Alfred Stieglitz Presents Seven Americans: 159 Paintings, Photographs, and Things, Recent and Never Before Publicly Shown by Arthur G. Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Charles Demuth, Paul Strand, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz”. In 1936 Stieglitz also exhibited one of the first ever shows of Ansel Adams in New York City.
However in 1938 Stieglitz suffered from a serious heart attack, one that would seriously weaken both him and his spirit. Stieglitz had hoped to return to the gallery during the periods in which his strength regained, but he died in 1946 after suffering a stroke. Stieglitz’s work has been shown in national art galleries world-wide, and the artist is now considered a pioneer of modern street photography. The largest collection of his work can be found at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, which holds around 1,642 of his photographs.
Alfred Stieglitz's Masterpiece, 'The Steerage'
This picture here is one of the most recognisable photographs of all time and is called The Steerage. It was taken by Alfred Stieglitz in 1907. Since then, its widely become hailed as a masterpiece of Modernist photography, it’s also become Stieglitz’s best known image.
At the time, he was travelling from New York to Europe on the grand ship S.S. Kaiser Wilhelm II with his first wife, Emily and their daughter. After three days of being stuck in first class, Stieglitz felt stifled and uncomfortable by the atmosphere of what he described as ‘the nouveau riches’ and he was desperate to get out and see a bit more of life in the ship. On one of his wanderings, he stumbled across a scene that he immediately felt compelled to photograph. Looking down into the third-class area, known as the ‘steerage.’ He saw in particular the straw hat of a young man looking down over a railing and he realised that this was the key to taking a superb photograph, so in a panic he dashed back to his apartment to get his camera, hoping the man would stay where he was. Luckily, the man was still there when he got back, and Stieglitz took one picture with the only plate that he had in his camera at the time.
Since then, it has become an exemplary piece of Modernist photography with this pursuit of geometry and line in everyday life. It’s an extraordinary composition with a great balance of many different factors. We have the many, many people at odds with the firm lines of the ship, for example. The oval of the man’s straw hat draws the eye down from the upper deck into the hubbub of the lower deck. It was hugely regarded by his peers on his return. It’s since then become ever associated with class, and of course the inflow of immigrants to Ellis Island during the heady growth of America in the early twentieth century. While those class distinctions are correct, here we have an upper-class man looking down at the cramped, unpleasant conditions on Steerage. What is often not mentioned is it was taken on the way to Europe, not America, although some of the passengers may have been immigrants who had been refused entry in the weeks before.
Stieglitz and his peers made photograveures of their photographs for inclusion in the legendary journal of photography Camera Work. And Stieglitz certainly made many photograveures of this image. This print is a photo graveure from the period, but its outside of the printing run for Camera Work and it comes from the collection of Georgia O’Keefe who was Alfred Stieglitz’s wife from 1924. It’s an exceptionally rare and beautiful piece of photography.