Stieglitz in Focus

A new exhibition at Washington's National Gallery of Art tracks the development of seminal photographer Alfred Stieglitz

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Having convinced many that photography could be as expressive as painting, Stieglitz now faced up to the contradiction inherent in advancing one medium by disguising it as another. Gummism, he concluded, had gone too far. “Photographers must learn not to be ashamed to have their photographs look like photographs,” he wrote in 1913. Soon he was praising such photographers as Paul Strand, who did not use “trickery” and “flimflam” in order to “mystify an ignorant public.” Painting and photography, he now argued, were inherently different; photography’s very realism freed painting to become more abstract.

As if to prove his point, Stieglitz had already become a crusader on behalf of avant-garde art. In 1908, with Steichen’s help, he had begun exhibiting modernist art instead of photography at “291.” In fact, the gallery exhibited paintings by Matisse, Picasso and Cezanne years before the landmark 1913 Armory show in New York brought them to America’s attention. (At a Picasso exhibition at 291 in 1911, the only two buyers were Stieglitz himself and a critic from Brooklyn, who paid $12 for a pencil drawing.) To the indignation of critics and the puzzlement of subscribers, Camera Work, too, had begun devoting more and more pages to abstract art. Stieglitz explained, with typical hauteur: “Before the people at large, and for that matter the artists themselves, understand what photography really means, as I understand that term, it is essential for them to be taught the real meaning of art.”

At the same time, Stieglitz was pushing his own work toward abstraction. A harbinger was the picture for which he is perhaps best known, The Steerage (p. 80),which he photographed in 1907 but didn’t publish until 1911. The portrait of working-class passengers crowding two decks of a transatlantic steamer is a tightly balanced, almost Cubist composition—“a picture of shapes,” he called it. More obviously abstract was a series of pictures that he took in 1915 and 1916 from the back window of his gallery. Rather than softening the pictures, as in his earlier cityscapes, shadows, twilight and snow now accentuated the sharp geometry of corners and planes.

But his own photographs were rarely exhibited in the decade from 1910 to 1920. He was feuding then with many of the old Secessionists, and his authority with them had eroded, along with his marriage. He used his cherished 8- by 10-inch view camera, its bellows now held together with string and adhesive tape, mainly for portraits of friends and artists. Family money could no longer support his quixotic endeavors. In 1917, Stieglitz closed 291 and mailed the final issue of Camera Work to its 37 remaining subscribers. He then experienced one of his periodic turnabouts. Over the next eight years, he would produce more finished photographs than he had in the previous 30, and his life would be utterly transformed. The agent of this change was a young schoolteacher and aspiring artist named Georgia O’Keeffe.

Stieglitz first became aware of O’- Keeffe’s work in 1916, when he was 52 and she 28. A friend of hers, Anita Pollitzer, had brought a series of the artist’s charcoals to 291 for an opinion. Without asking O’Keeffe’s permission or even learning her correct name, Stieglitz exhibited ten of the drawings that spring as the work of “Virginia O’- Keeffe.” When O’Keeffe learned of the show by accident a few weeks later, she marched over to the gallery to confront the impresario. He later remembered the young woman with “a Mona Lisa smile” and a prim black-and-white outfit who demanded, politely but firmly: “Who gave you permission to hang these drawings?” Though surprised that this young unknown would object to the attention he’d given her work, Stieglitz was not about to back down. “You have no more right to withhold these pictures,” he informed her, “than to withdraw a child from the world, had you given birth to one.” Then he took her to lunch.

O’Keeffe left both soothed and stimulated. In truth, seeing her pictures on the walls was precisely what the ambitious artist had been hoping for. “I would rather have something hang in 291 than any place in New York,” she’d confided to Pollitzer a few months earlier. Adding to the excitement, she found the intense, blunt-talking older man she’d encountered very “easy to look at.” Within two months, she was confessing to him that her drawings now felt “as much yours as mine.” For his part, Stieglitz was hopelessly infatuated. When O’Keeffe took a teaching job in Texas, he deluged her with long, often deeply personal letters, as many as four a day. A month after O’Keeffe moved to New York for good in June 1918, settling into a small borrowed apartment that he’d found for her on East 59th Street, Stieglitz left Emmy and moved in with her. “I don’t believe there ever has been anything like her,” he wrote his friend the painter Arthur Dove. “Mind and feeling very clear— spontaneous—& uncannily beautiful— absolutely living every pulse beat.”

Their top-floor flat was hot that summer, and O’Keeffe often painted in the nude. Stieglitz kept his view camera on a tripod nearby so he could photograph her whenever the impulse struck him. It often did. The hundreds of pictures he made of her were not cool, academic figure studies. They were powerful and sensuous portraits of an identifiable woman with whom he was obviously in love. Many of the photographs were taken with the lens just inches from O’Keeffe’s hands or nude torso. Modeling for Stieglitz was hard, time-con suming work—he stage-managed her every pose and raged if she fidgeted during a long exposure. Late in life, she recalled: “I was photographed with a kind of heat and excitement and in a way wondered what it was all about.”

Their apartment became a gallery in exile, to which Stieglitz invited friends and critics to see his latest work and the vivid, semiabstract paintings of his talented protegee. Stieglitz didn’t publicly exhibit the pictures he’d taken of O’- Keeffe until 1921—his first one-man show in eight years. The exhibition, at the Anderson Galleries in Manhattan, drew thousands of delightedly scandalized visitors. O’Keeffe was displayed before the New York art world not as an important new artist but as an artist’s subject, and a nude one at that. Rumor had it that Stieglitz was asking $5,000 for one of the photographs of his undraped lover. “Gracious Heavens! $5000 for a mere photograph!” declared Henry McBride in The Dial magazine. “And then everyone had to see the exhibition over again, the crowd about the nude being particularly dense.”

O’Keeffe later wrote: “Several men— after looking around awhile—asked Stieglitz if he would photograph their wives or girlfriends the way he photographed me.” Stieglitz, O’Keeffe continued, found the idea amusing. “If they had known what a close relationship he would have needed to have to photograph their wives or girlfriends the way he photographed me, I think they wouldn’t have been interested.”

Later, when a critic suggested that Stieglitz “moulded” his sitters, the photographer was indignant. Taking up the implied challenge, he set about photographing clouds. The sky above the Stieglitz clan’s longtime summer home at Lake George, New York, became his new obsession, and he produced hundreds of images of clouds in all kinds of weather. He mounted the prints sideways, or with only a snippet of horizon, to force the viewer to see them as pure pattern. When a cloud picture came out right, he felt he was revealing a truth that was “more real than reality.” To the poet Hart Crane, a friend, he wrote, “Several people feel I have photographed God. May be.”


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