An Exhibition Review by Neal Rosenau
For those interested in the history of photography, and for anyone who loves looking at great photos, a new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is an exciting must-see.
Titled simply Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand, the exhibit dedicates one large room to each of these three pioneering masters of American photography – Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Paul Strand. The galleries’ walls are filled with iconic works such as Steichen’s “Flatiron Building” (three unique prints to compare); the multiple Stieglitz portraits of artist Georgia O’Keefe and his brooding, painterly images of New York City; and Strand’s photo-abstractions alongside his crisp unforgettable street scenes.
You may have seen these images reproduced over the years, but here are the originals, often one-of-a kind, made by the photographers themselves. It’s a visual feast in which you can savor and appreciate each artist’s skill and style, ponder what they saw and wanted us to see, and find your own associations and comparisons between and among the images.
Alfred Stieglitz (STEE-glits) is the personality and influence who unites the three men in this exhibit. He made himself into the defining force, impresario and major-domo of artistic photography in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century. Born in Hoboken in 1864, raised and educated in New York City and Germany, he returned to the U.S with knowledge of the chemistry and physics of photography and the aesthetics of modern art.
Stieglitz set out in the 1890’s to help define photography as an ART fully as creative and expressive as drawing, painting or sculpture. He spent over 40 years realizing that goal in his own photographs, through active work in camera clubs, by writing and editing club publications (such as Camera Notes and Camera Work), and by the works – photos and other art – that he displayed in a series of New York galleries he ran.
At the Met, you can look at some of Stieglitz’s most memorable images, including painterly, “pictorialist” work like “The Terminal” and “Winter – Fifth Avenue”, both from 1893 By the time he made his image called “The Steerage” in 1907, his work employed sharp-edged clarity to express his modernist vision.
There is a wall displaying some of his portraits of Georgia O’Keefe from the years after he met her in 1917. (He took over 300 of these portraits in all, ranging from nudes to fully clothed studies and including face, hands, breasts, feet, and images of the artist with icons of her work.)
In the Stieglitz gallery, you can see the change in thinking that he went through regarding how photography should present itself. From approaches where he tried to make a photo look like a painting, his work turned to a more straightforward presentation of its subject matter – certainly no less reflective of the art movements of the day, but much more faithful to the clear-focused capabilities of his tools: cameras and lenses.
The other two famous photographers in Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand represent opposite ends of the Stieglitz continuum. In the words of the Met Museum’s Curator of Photography, Malcolm Daniel, “Steichen and Strand bookend the era of Stieglitz.” Years apart, each of them came to Stieglitz with a portfolio of photos to show, and each left inspired and with a sense of direction for their work. This Met show demonstrates how distinctive those directions were and how each was important for the ways serious photography is practiced to this day.
Because Stieglitz was such a personal force in thinking about photography and introducing ideas of modern art to America, he was a magnet for aspiring photographers who wanted his judgment on how their work stacked up. Edward Steichen (STY-ken) came in 1900, Paul Strand in 1917. (Such pilgrimages to the great man continued for decades – among the callers was the trained pianist Ansel Adams, who arrived from San Francisco in 1936 with his Yosemite photos, a visit that helped secure New York exhibitions – and a new career.)
Steichen was 21 when he saw Stieglitz at the Camera Club of New York. His images in 1900 were “examples of the soft-focus, self- consciously artistic style favored by serious amateurs,” according to the Met’s wall placard. Stieglitz loved the prints and bought three of them on the spot for $5 each – a huge thrill for Steichen, who had never before sold a photo for more than 50 cents.
At the time, Steichen was on his way from his Milwaukee home (where his family had moved from his birthplace in Luxembourg). He was headed to Paris to pursue his painting career. Two years later, he returned to New York with a reputation as an able portrait photographer and his head full with ideas of the expressive potential of modern art.
When he put the ideas into practice in New York, he pointed his big view camera at the Flatiron Building. Over 5 years time, he made three platinum prints from his 1904 negative, brushing each with gum bichromate to achieve different coloristic effects. The three images are displayed side-by side today for the first time since 1997. Flatiron by Edward Steichen, 1904, from he Metropolitan Museum of Art
In this gallery, you can follow some of Steichen’s work into the 1920’s. Here are portraits, including a striking image of sculptor August Rodin profiled in front of his “Thinker.” You can view the dominating image of financier J.P. Morgan in the hallway outside the exhibit room itself. There are three powerful prints of Rodin’s sculpture “Balzac,” photographed by the light of the moon alone. The moon plays a big role, too, in a memorable, moody image called “The Pond–Moonrise” from 1904.
After World War I, Steichen gained fame as chief photographer for Conde Nast’s Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines. He became head of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, where he curated the hugely popular Family of Man exhibit that lives on today on in the form of coffee table books.
But by 1920, the dominant style of modern photography had turned from Steichen’s painterly approach. According to the Met, it happened in 1915 to 1917 with the work of Paul Strand.
Strand was a high school student at New York’s Ethical Culture High School when he was bitten by the photography bug. He was a member of the school’s camera club, where the advisor was Lewis Hine, a pioneering documentary photographer whose work helped change American child labor laws. In 1907 (Strands was 17) Hine took his camera clubbers to visit an exhibit of Photo-Secession works at Stieglitz’s Little Galleries (the 291 Gallery) on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
Strand was hooked. As soon as he graduated high school, he devoted himself to photography, reading in the library of the Camera Club of New York and learning from the club’s older members. He put together a portfolio of platinum prints of soft-focus images in the Pictorialist style advocated by Stieglitz and practiced by Steichen. These images he showed to Stieglitz.
But Stieglitz’s thinking about modern photography had moved on, and he advised Strand to “sharpen his focus and confront his subjects squarely.” You see some of the results from 1915-1917 on the gallery walls: abstracts of bowls, furniture, New York back yards and sun shadows; unforgettable street shots like “Blind” or “Conversation” between two orthodox Jews; or the iconic “Wall Street.”
Strand’s new photos comprised the last exhibit Stieglitz mounted at his legendary 291 Gallery, and they filled the final editions of Camera Work, the high-quality publication Stieglitz edited.
Strand went on to a long career in photography (he died in 1976). Samples of that later work are on the walls of this gallery, including portraits, close-ups of foliage, and a series of photos from Mexico.
B&W – AND COLOR, TOO
Nearly all the works in Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand are in black and white, printed using a variety of processes – gelatin silver, palladium, platinum, direct carbon and photogravure. For those of us who grew up on a world of grayscale photography – and who learned to make pictures in real “wet” darkrooms – there is a subtlety, a softness, a special romance in these images produced with chemicals rather than pixels.
But since few of us practiced the variety of techniques on display here, (including Steichen’s overpainting with gum bichromate), there is a helpful exhibit outside the main galleries that gives us a brief gloss on how various chemical techniques worked and how curators can determine what was used on a particular print.
The color in the monochrome images was put there to achieve artistic effect. For instance, Steichen’s “Flatiron Building” is distinctly blue in all three incarnations.
Surprisingly, perhaps, there are also a few very early full-color images in the exhibit. They are color transparencies called Autochromes that appear in the Steichen section. These are early color process using a process based on microscopic particles of potato starch dyed red-orange, green and blue-violet. The transparencies on display are modern copies: the originals are so fragile and subject to damage from light that they will be on display for only one week at the end of January.
All 115 images in this exhibit are drawn from the Met’s collection (which began when Stieglitz donated some of his prints in 1928). This is a great chance to see some images that rarely hang for public viewing. Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand is one of the Met’s “big shows” this season and will be on display until April 10.