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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By the time Stieglitz and O’Keeffe were married in 1924, her career as an artist was blossoming, thanks in large part to her husband’s energetic promotion. But there was friction. Independent and aloof, “Miss O’Keeffe,” as she insisted on being known, apparently loved “my funny little Stieglitz,” but she eventually grew weary of the constant stream of family and friends that her husband insisted on keeping around him. If posing for Stieglitz had been difficult, looking after him as he grew increasingly frail in the late 1920s (he had a heart condition and was a hypochondriac) was far harder. Feeling suffocated in New York and suffering from headaches and insomnia, O’Keeffe in the 1930s began spending as long as six months a year in New Mexico without him. Stieglitz grew anxious she would abandon him altogether. “That’s death riding high in the sky,” he said of a cloud picture he made, “ever since I knew Georgia couldn’t stay with me.”

With and without his wife in the 1920s and ’30s, Stieglitz summered at his beloved Lake George. He converted a shed there into a proper darkroom in 1927, the first he’d ever owned, and photographed its exterior, the outbuildings and the hills around it as reverently as if they were, in his words, “the Sphinx and pyramids.” In New York City the rest of the year, he presided, in turn, over two small, resolutely uncommercial galleries (The Intimate Gallery and An American Place) devoted to American modernist art. On a card announcing the latter’s opening, Stieglitz warned: “No formal press views, No cocktail parties, No special invitations, No advertising.”

The couple’s winter home was a small, bleak apartment in the Shelton, Manhattan’s first skyscraper hotel. Some of Stieglitz’s last photographs before heart disease ended his camera work in 1937 were crisp, formally composed views of skyscrapers under construction taken from the couple’s 28thfloor windows. (When a building was completed, he’d usually lose interest.) “In the 1890s, New York had been a place he found profoundly exciting,” says Greenough. “By the 1920s and ’30s, Stieglitz with his romantic spirit felt the modern age was destroying the human element within the city.” People, in fact, rarely appear in his later cityscapes.

By the 1930s, O’Keeffe’s paintings were selling for as much as $10,000, and her annual income was far greater than Stieglitz’s. A 1938 profile of her in Life magazine identified her dour-looking husband, then 74, as the man who “helped this one-time schoolteacher to become one of the country’s most prosperous and talked-of painters.”

Stieglitz died in 1946 at 82. Though as lovers their commitment sometimes wavered, as artists he and O’Keeffe had always been each other’s most loyal supporters. “I believe it was the work that kept me with him—though I loved him as a human being,” O’Keeffe wrote eight years before her own death in 1986 at 98. “I put up with what seemed to me a good deal of contradictory nonsense because of what seemed clear and bright and wonderful.”

Stieglitz photographed only what he knew, and his most revealing works were of the things that were part of his daily life. Stieglitz in Yosemite is unimaginable. “I never knew him to make a trip anywhere to photograph,” O’Keeffe wrote. “His eye was in him, and he used it on anything that was nearby. Maybe that way he was always photographing himself.”


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