In the history of photography, and more particularly, in the history of American photography, Alfred Stieglitz looms large. Born in 1864, a year or so before the American Civil war ended, Stieglitz died not long after the atom bombs ended World War II. When he was a boy growing up in Hoboken, New Jersey, photography was a complex and even dangerous art. The Daguerreotype was just giving way to the tintype and roll film wouldn't be invented for another 20 years. But, by the time he died, colour film was an established technology and photography itself had been a medium of the masses for 50 years.
Self portrait, 1907, printed 1930, Gelatin silver photograph,
Stieglitz started taking photographs in the 1880s while still an engineering student. At 24 he won first prize in a British photographic exhibition judged by the renowned English photographer, P.H. Emerson. There were many more such accolades to come.
By 1889 Stieglitz was working and exhibiting in New York and was well on the way to becoming an important voice on the American photographic scene. His intense involvement in what we now call the Pictoralist movement led him in 1905 to set up the 'Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession' with the painter and photographer Edward Steichen in the latter's studio at 291 Fifth Avenue in New York. '291' as the gallery came to be known, opened naturally enough with a show of work by Photo-Secession photographers.
But 291 did not confine its exhibitions to photography. Indeed, it is credited with being the first gallery in the USA to show the works August Rodin, Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. It was also the making of a generation of young American artists, including Georgia O'Keeffe. Although it only survived until 1917, 291 put Stieglitz at the epicentre of Modernism.
Two years before 291 opened its doors, Stieglitz had begun to produce the seminal photographic publication Camera Work. Widely regarded as one of the finest American art magazines of the early 20th century, Camera Work was an extraordinary labour of love. (The production process for instance involved hand-tipping individual photogravure images into each copy of the magazine.)
Although his early work was very much in the Pictoralist tradition, by the time Stieglitz formed the Photo-Secessionist group, he had begun to move away from the highly manipulated and painterly style that characterised late Pictorialism. Eschewing excessive manipulation and elaborate printing processes, his work increasingly moved toward the kind of unvarnished realism that would become the hallmark of modern photography.
Equivalent, 1924, Gelatin silver photograph,
On June 17, 2010, the Art Gallery of NSW will be showing the first exhibition of Alfred Stieglitz photographs ever held in Australia. The collection of images on display in the AGNSW's Rudy Komon gallery has been drawn from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, the Museum of Modern Art New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, J Paul Getty Museum Los Angeles and Museum of Fine Arts Boston, as well as other institutions.
Alfred Stieglitz: The Lake George years includes 150 photographs and publications from the 1910s to 1930s. Among the works on display will be representative images from the cloud photograph series Stieglitz called the Equivalents, as well as photographs from his multi-decade series of portraits of his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe.
For more details on the show and associated film series, please visit the AGNSW website, www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au. The show concludes on September 5, 2010.
See Photo Review magazine Issue 44 for the print edition of this profile which includes additional images.
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