Alfred Stieglitz - Biography and Legacy
American Photographer and Publisher
Hoboken, New Jersey
New York, New York
Biography of Alfred Stieglitz
Alfred Stieglitz was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, just before the end of the American Civil War. Born to German-Jewish immigrants, Edward Stieglitz and Hedwig Ann Werner, Alfred was the eldest of six children. In 1881, the Stieglitz family fled the East Coast and moved back to Germany, hopeful that the German school system would challenge young Alfred in the way America's had not. The following year, while enrolled at the Technische Hochschule in Berlin, Stieglitz was exposed to photography for the first time.
Although Stieglitz studied to be a mechanical engineer, he purchased his first camera in 1882 and shot vistas of the German countryside. Indulging his newfound appetite for photography, the self-taught artist practiced, researched, and theorized about this instant medium. Throughout the rest of the decade, Stieglitz published articles and photos in the British magazine Amateur Photographer. This earned him a reputation among the elite European photography circles. In 1890, he moved back to America to rejoin his family after the death of his sister Flora. There, he led the Pictorialist movement, which advocated the artistic legitimacy of photography.
After arriving in New York City, Stieglitz became the owner of the fledgling Photochrome Engraving Company. Soon he was made co-editor of The American Amateur Photographer, which solidified his position in the still-niche photography world.
The self-proclaimed champion of American photography, Stieglitz was in search of the best forum to present it to the public. Stieglitz concentrated all of his efforts into launching Camera Work magazine - the voice of the Photo-Secessionist movement. The Secessionists concentrated on the technical skill and creative possibilities of the photographer, rather than just the image itself. Upon the urging of friend and fellow photographer Edward Steichen, he opened an exhibition space called the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession. It was the first of its kind to place paintings and photographs on the same aesthetic plane.
291, as the gallery became known, was the exhibition space for the artistic avant-garde. It exhibited Stieglitz's work and the art of other American and European modernists. Friends' work would hang beside pieces by Europe's biggest artistic titans like Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, and Henri Matisse. A show at the gallery exposed artists and their works to influential people who wrote and spoke about contemporary art. Pieces there were seen by writers like William Carlos Williams, collectors like Leo Stein, and members of the social elite like Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowinshield.
Between 1922 and 1935, Stieglitz worked on his Equivalent series. Directing his camera to the sky, Stieglitz took photos of clouds, hoping the abstracted images would reflect his artistic intent. Cropped close, the images are experiments in shape and composition. Later Stieglitz opened the Intimate Gallery (1925-30) and An American Place (1930-46), both following in the footsteps of 291. An exhibition of Stieglitz's own work was hosted by the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1937.
Stieglitz and O'Keeffe
Stieglitz first saw Georgia O'Keeffe's artwork in 1916. Without permission or knowledge of the artist, he displayed her drawings on the walls of his gallery. When she objected, he merely stated, "You don't know what you've done in these pictures." This would be the starting point of their relationship.
The couple married in 1924, but their personal relationship began shortly after their first meeting. Stieglitz used his position as husband, gallery owner, and proponent of modernism to market O'Keeffe as the quintessential female artist of the era. In 1917, Stieglitz began work on the Georgia O'Keeffe - A Portrait series. Forty-five of the total 329 photographs depict O'Keeffe in the nude. In many of the photographs, Stieglitz crops her body, leaving just a naked torso or fetishized body parts. This series was O'Keeffe's unveiling to the public. She became famous for three reasons: her art, her husband's photographs of her, and his insistence that she was the painter of womanhood.
Stieglitz suffered a fatal stroke in the summer of 1946, while O'Keeffe was away on one of her long sojourns to the Southwest.
The Legacy of Alfred Stieglitz
Alfred Stieglitz led the Pictorialist movement, which advocated the artistic legitimacy of photography in the United States. Without his influence, photographers like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston would never have been able to become household names. His own works defined the greater Pictorialist project and set a firm aesthetic example for his contemporaries, many of whom were exhibited in Camera Work magazine. Prior to his efforts, photographs were seen purely as historical records. He single-handedly popularized the medium and introduced America to European modernism with Gallery 291. Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin, Henri Matisse, and Paul Cézanne all received their American debuts at the gallery. He launched the career of his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe, and lauded her - however unfairly - as the greatest female artist of the 20th century. He laid the foundation for the current proliferation of digital cameras. While nearly everyone is an amateur photographer today, few were at the fin de siecle, and Stieglitz was the leader of those few.