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Stieglitz in Focus

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

He rarely photographed his first wife, Emmeline Obermeyer, whom he married in 1893, when he was 29 and she 20, not long after he returned to New York from Germany. They were, it seems, illmatched. Emmy, a family friend, was prudish and materialistic, very different from her spirited husband. But a $3,000 annual allowance from Emmy’s father, a wealthy brewer, combined with one from his own father, meant Stieglitz never had to work for a living. They had one child, Kitty, born in 1898. Stieglitz, at first the doting father, photographed his daughter’s every moment of “delight and discovery.” But as Kitty— who would spend most of her adult life in psychiatric hospitals—grew older, father and daughter became more and more estranged.

The year of his marriage, Stieglitz signed on as the unpaid editor of the prestigious American Amateur Photographer magazine. The advent of dry-plate photography in the 1880s created a boom in amateur photography, which became a pastime for gentlemen of leisure in Europe and America. Camera clubs in London and other cities held huge and, for the most part, indiscriminate exhibitions of their members’ works. Stieglitz was appalled by the thousands of images that often covered gallery walls from floor to ceiling.

As a magazine editor, his brusque, autocratic manner soon led to trouble from gentlemen-photographers who expected their work, however banal, to be published. His verdict on a typical submission: “Technically perfect, pictorially rotten.” When subscribers canceled in protest, he told his publisher the magazine was better off without them. By then, few photographers were as widely exhibited or admired as Stieglitz, but respect for his authority was undercut by a lifelong streak of grandiloquence. Describing himself in 1921, for instance, he would write: “Photography is my passion. The search for Truth my obsession.”

Forced to resign his editorship in 1896, he turned to the New York Camera Club (whose halfhearted members were considering a switch to a newer fad—bicycles) and reinvented its newsletter as a serious art periodical he called Camera Notes. In it, he announced that every published image would be “a picture rather than a photograph,” leaving to himself alone the decision as to which was which. His judgments about art, he later declared, were “not a question of personal likes and dislikes; not a question of theory; I approach the subject in a scientific way, objectively, impersonally.”

Stieglitz signaled his displeasure with the big camera clubs by organizing in 1902 a small, invitation-only group he dubbed the Photo-Secession—a name he borrowed from similar groups in Vienna and Paris. His fellow revolutionists, as he saw them, were mostly young, mostly unknown photographers— among them, Edward Steichen, Gertrude Kasebier, Clarence White and Alvin Langdon Coburn. The group shared a belief that exhibition standards for art photography were woefully lax. In his usual bombastic style, Stieglitz issued a manifesto declaring that the Photo- Secession stood for “rebellion against the insincere attitude of the unbeliever, of the Philistine, and largely of exhibition authorities.” The organization’s goal, he said, was to force the recognition of photography “as a distinctive medium of individual expression.”

The group held its own exhibitions and published a lavish quarterly, Camera Work, which included prints made using photogravure, the finest process for black-and-white reproduction. When photographs for an opening in Belgium went astray, the exhibitors lifted prints from an issue of Camera Work and hung them instead. No one noticed the difference.

The work of the Photo-Secessionists tended toward moody, soft-focus imagery. They often printed with gum bichromate, which allowed them to use brushes and sponges in the darkroom to add texture and remove unwanted details. Steichen’s works in particular looked like paintings, charcoals or washes. “Gummism,” however, had its detractors. In 1907, British playwright George Bernard Shaw, a friend of some of the group’s members, maintained that one who indulges in the practice “fails in respect for his art” and “is a traitor in the photographic camp.”

Although Stieglitz at first tolerated the heavily retouched work of his fellow Secessionists, most of his own photographs were remarkably free of manipulation. To supply the kind of painterly atmospherics that others added in the darkroom, he exploited the real-life effects of rain, snow, mist and smoke. In his Japanese-flavored Spring Showers (1900-1901), a rain-soaked foreground and misty tower in the distance frame a lone tree on a city street amid asphalt and masonry. In a grittier view a year or so later, The Hand of Man suggests Stieglitz’s growing ambivalence about the changing face of New York City. Ostensibly a majestic photograph of a rail yard, it is also an ominous tableau of smoke, steam and steel in which not a single human figure is visible.

From 1905 to 1917, Stieglitz managed, without pay, the Photo-Secession’s exhibition space at 291 Fifth Avenue (two small rooms with burlap-covered walls, and a washroom that doubled as a makeshift darkroom, on the top floor of a brownstone). Passionate and combative, he was known to take unappreciative visitors by the arm and lead them out the door of the gallery. He was a relentless monologuist who could hold forth for hours on life and feeling and expression. But he was undeniably charismatic. After one visit, critic Henry McBride wrote that he wondered “whether it is Mr. Stieglitz or the pictures on the wall at the Photo-Secession that constitute the exhibition.” A New York Sun columnist advised readers to visit the gallery during Stieglitz’s lunch hour, lest “the seductiveness of his golden voice” persuade them that photographers invented Impressionism.

Stieglitz had no interest in profiting from the sale of photographs, least of all his own. “He was fiercely anticommercial throughout his entire life,” says Greenough. “His goal with the Photo- Secession was primarily to have art museums accept and exhibit photography.” He achieved nothing less in 1910 when he was invited to organize an unprecedented exhibition at Buffalo’s Albright Art Gallery. The show—600 photographs by more than 60 artists— filled the museum’s eight galleries and set attendance records. After the show, critic Austin Lidbury saluted Stieglitz in American Photography as a “Napoleon of pictorial photography” who had “the fanaticism of a Mad Mullah, the wiles of a Machiavelli, the advertising skill of a P.T. Barnum, the literary barbs of a Whistler, and an untiring persistence and confidence all his own.”

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