Watch: Alfred Stieglitz, ‘The Steerage’

Alfred Stieglitz played a vital role in the elevation of photography and its acceptance as a Fine Art form in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A pre-eminent example of Stieglitz’s efforts to show that photography has intrinsic artistic merit, The Steerage is widely hailed as his masterpiece of Modernist photography. The photograph would have a profound impact on the development of Fine Art photography. Stieglitz took the photograph whilst on board the SS Kaiser Wilhelm II, one of the largest and fastest ships in the world at the time.

Having left the first class deck to roam around the ship, Stieglitz stumbled across a scene that he immediately felt compelled to photograph. Looking down into the lower class deck, known as the ‘steerage,’ Stieglitz saw an aesthetically arresting scene in which the crowded men, women and children interweaved with the angular shapes of the ship. Later describing the scene, Stieglitz would say that he “saw a picture of shapes and underlying that the feeling [he] had about life.”

Aside from its importance in the development of Modernist photography, the socio-political themes of The Steerage have led to its inclusion within the history of immigration in America. Tied connotatively to notions of the American Dream and scenes of arrivals at Ellis Island, the fact that the photograph was taken on a ship travelling from the United States to Europe is often overlooked. The people on the ship may have been denied entry to the United States or be returning home, like Stieglitz, to visit family and friends.

The appalling conditions of the steerage class were well known at the time and Stieglitz’s photograph captures the closeness of space. His father had come to the United States during the mass migration of over one million Germans between 1845 and 1855 and the photographer was sympathetic to immigrants arriving in the United States seeking a better life. He was, however, cautious about admitting the uneducated into the country and avoided talking about the political implications of the photograph, preferring to focus on its place in the history of Fine Art photography. Summarising the significance that he placed on the photograph in terms of his own career and the history of photography Stieglitz said, “if all my photographs were lost, and I’d be represented by just one, The Steerage, I’d be satisfied.”

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