On Photography: The work of Alfred Stieglitz

“In photography, there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.” – Alfred Stieglitz

Alfred Stieglitz is best known as the photographer who made photography accepted as a form of art. During his 5 decades-long career, he made photographs, opened and operated art galleries.

His early years

Alfred Stieglitz studied at the Berlin Polytechnic and then at Berlin University before emigrating to the United States. He studied physics and chemistry, then in 1883 he bought his first camera. He was entranced by the images. He continued his chemistry studies in earnest. He was able to convince his instructor, Hermann Wilhelm Vogel, and the school administrators to allow him 24-hour access to the school’s darkroom. Vogel was a well known photographic chemist. Under his tutelage, Stieglitz worked and explored photographic chemistry. When Vogel discovered how to make photographic plates sensitive to all colors but for red (orthochromatic) Stieglitz was among the first to work with this media.

Photography is art

Stieglitz was a master of technique and process. At the same time, he realized that photography was an art.

Artists who saw my early photographs began to tell me that they envied me; that my photographs were superior to their paintings, but that unfortunately photography was not an art…I could not understand why the artists should envy me for my work, yet, in the same breath, decry it because it was machine-made—their ‘art’ painting, because hand-made being considered necessarily superior…There I started my fight…for the recognition of photography as a new medium of expressions, to be respected in its own right, on the basis as any other art form.

New York City

Alfred StieglitzBy the 1890s, Stieglitz had a reputation both in advancing photography technically as well as for his artistic photographs. He moved to New York City. His father purchased a share of the Polychrome Engraving Company for Stieglitz to run. While not enamored with running the business he did so learning valuable lessons about printing with ink. All the while, he continued making photographs. He worked with the Society of Amateur Photographers of New York and the New York Camera Club. He wrote articles on photography as art. He began working with smaller, handheld cameras, making some of the first successful photographs at night, in the rain and in the snow. He exhibited his work but rarely sold any of them. He was very concerned with the lack of respect for the science and art of photography.

Photo-Secession Group

The Photo-Secession Group was created by Stieglitz along with Clarence White and Gertrude Kasebier in 1902. The group’s mission was to

…secede from conventional expectations and explore the creative potential of photography from both a theoretical and scientific point of view.

The group needed a place to meet and work. Stieglitz opened Gallery 291 to provide that space. It also featured photographic works and was available for the exhibition of paintings. Notables whose work hung in Gallery 291 included Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, and Braque. Writers, philosophers and musicians assembled at the gallery to share ideas and their work.

Over the ensuing 15 years, Stieglitz devoted his energies to pushing photography as art and publishing Camera Work. The photography he made during this time was considered by many to be his best work. His first marriage ended during the Gallery 291/Camera Work years.

Georgia O’Keefe

His relationship with painter Georgia O’Keefe began in 1917. They later married. During the next 20 years, Stieglitz would make over 300 photographs of his wife. With World War 1 raging in Europe, platinum, the base for his favorite printing paper was all but impossible to obtain. Stieglitz turned to palladium paper — exactly the same process as platinum but with the resulting prints being darker brown or sepia in coloration.

Paul Strand

Stieglitz turned his camera to the skies in 1920 and began photographing clouds. Palladium prints were too bright to show the definition against the sky so he began experimenting with silver gelatin paper. The paper combined with the “straight” methods of making photographs was inspired by Paul Strand. This led to a body of work in 1924 named Equivalents.

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.

Paul Strand influence inspired a lot of the characteristics of Stieglitz’s work on Equivalents and most of the work he created in later years. “Stieglitz regarded Strand’s work as brutally direct, pure and devoid of trickery.”

Stieglitz’s life

Alfred Stieglitz devoted his life to photography. He was a photographic scientist. He owned art galleries. He was an art dealer. He collected art. He was a writer too. He worked throughout his life for the art and science of photography until his death in 1946. He was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 1971.

Excerpted from the biography of Alfred Stieglitz on the IPHF website written by Lori Oden 

Read more mini-biographies of influential photographers on Photofocus.

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