In the summer of 1875, a smalltown portrait photographer in upstate New York invited an 11-year-old boy to join him in his darkroom. The youngster watched in fascination as faces slowly appeared on coated-metal plates submerged in developing trays. When the photographer bent over the finished tintypes to brush a bit of red pigment onto faces in the photographs, the boy asked why he did that.
“Makes ’em look more natural,” the photographer replied.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” the lad shot back.
The young upstart was Alfred Stieglitz. Brilliant, opinionated, and often tactless, he would do more than anyone in America to persuade the art world that photography deserved a place alongside painting and sculpture. Although his legacy has been colored by his battles on behalf of other photographers, his role as the nation’s earliest champion of modernist painting and his marriage to painter Georgia O’- Keeffe, Stieglitz was himself a consummate photographer, as a new exhibition at Washington’s National Gallery of Art demonstrates. Supported by the Eastman Kodak Company, the show—“Alfred Stieglitz: Known and Unknown”— is on view from June 2 through September 1 and is accompanied by a scholarly two-volume publication and an online exhibition at www.nga.gov.
“Today Stieglitz is most known for his portraits of O’Keeffe and for his studies of New York City from around the turn of the 20th century,” says Sarah Greenough, the National Gallery curator who organized the exhibition. “But many of his other photographs have not been seen or reproduced in the last 50 years.” The 100 prints in the new exhibition are drawn from the more than 1,600 photographs (all printed and mounted by Stieglitz himself) that O’- Keeffe bequeathed to the National Gallery in two gifts—the first in 1949, a few years after his death, and the second in 1980. “This is far and away the most comprehensive collection of Stieglitz’s photographs that exists anywhere,” Greenough says.
The eldest of six children in a family of argumentative German-Americans, Alfred Stieglitz (pronounced Steeg-litz) was born in 1864 in Hoboken, New Jersey, and raised in a brownstone on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Small in stature, with unruly dark hair and a broad, crooked nose (broken in a childhood fall), Stieglitz had intense, deep-set eyes that give him a romantic, intimidating air in early portraits.
His father, a retired woolen merchant and Sunday painter, moved the family back to Germany in 1881. The next year, 18-year-old Alfred began studying mechanical engineering at Berlin’s Technische Hochschule but soon switched to photography, then being transformed by better cameras and chemicals.
Eager from the outset to elevate photography’s status, he hiked the European countryside with his camera, producing artistic scenes of peasants scything hay and mending nets on the Dutch seacoast. Of a later picture-taking sojourn in Germany’s Black Forest, he wrote: “No tall factory buildings with their modern rectangular lines of bricks and windows to disturb, no railroads with smoky locomotives to dim the pure atmosphere.” Clearly, says Greenough, he was “emulating the popular painters of the day.”
Stieglitz began winning prizes and attention in Europe in the 1880s. Sun Rays—Paula, Berlin, his 1889 photograph of a well-dressed young woman writing a letter in his own small room, is lit by stripes of sunlight filtering through venetian blinds. The picture is a triumph of technique: Stieglitz managed to control the contrast between sun and shadow without losing the detail in either. Paula endures as a tender if stagy memento of the young woman who was likely his first long-term lover.
Throughout his life, Stieglitz would have periodic infatuations with younger women, in some cases marked by bursts of photography. Recognizing the signs, his first wife threw him out of the house in 1918 after coming home to find him photographing the young Georgia O’Keeffe. As his second wife, O’Keeffe herself realized she had a serious rival when, in the 1930s, Stieglitz took a series of photographs, some nude, of an attractive heiress named Dorothy Norman. “When I make a picture,” he once explained, “I make love.” And after making love, he liked to take pictures.