Lisa Robinson's weekly History of Photography Column
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History of Photography: An introduction to Alfred Stieglitz

Alfred Stieglitz is a name many photographers may recognize as “a big deal” but also a name that they might not be well acquainted with. While Stieglitz sets a lot of things in motion for photography’s growth, I want to revisit his earliest days in photography.

Beginnings

In 1881, Stieglitz was working with a mechanical engineer in Berlin, Hermann Wilhelm Vogel. Vogel was known for his work with orthochromatic emulsions and an avid photography enthusiast. His work and passions rubbed off on Stieglitz who began being curious about photography himself. Vogel taught him how to master the technical aspects of photography and Stieglitz began applying it to the pictoralism style that was popular at the time.

Photography championed as art

It’s speculated that Stieglitz may have been drawn to photography and it’s battle as an independent art based on his Jewish roots. As an American born to immigrant parents, Stieglitz did not take to the “old ways” in either religious or cultural customs. Some have even interpreted Stieglitz taking up image making as an act of rebellion against the old ways as Judaism is based on text rather than images. So his embrace of pictorialism (which was also embraced by Christianity) could be construed as a definite shredding of the “old ways” so to speak. I’m not sure how much I take that to heart, but it is an interesting thought to consider.

The American Amateur Photographer magazine

After Stieglitz came back to the US from working Berlin, he became the editor of The American Amateur Photographer and used it as a platform to promote using handheld cameras. Interestingly, despite handheld cameras being introduced as a democratized version of “real” cameras that were simple enough for “anyone” to use, Stieglitz still held that there was a difference between amateurs and artists and only artists could make fine art images. It was a radical change in thinking and one that I think all of us using handheld cameras today, as professionals, have him to thank for getting the ball rolling on the change in ideology.

Cropping

Stieglitz also injected another radical departure in photographic thinking by promoting the idea that image making can extend beyond just taking the photo. That you don’t have to show/print everything that is in the negative. He famously cropped the image Winter on Fifth Avenue and the final image used less than half of what was originally captured in frame.

The full frame version of the original capture of Winter on Fifth Avenue
The final version of Winter on Fifth Avenue by Alfred Stieglitz.

He also was a proponent of photographing in all kinds of conditions. He was no “Fair Weather” photographer. He went out in snow and rain and in the night as well, not being swayed from hard lighting situations and he held that those conditions have the potential for holding more truth and accuracy than any fair weather day.

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