Alfred Stieglitz was a photographer who promoted the modernist movement in art and almost single-handedly altered how photography was perceived as an art form. Although the rise in quality and availability of technology means that almost everyone is an amateur photographer today, the medium was still relatively new and unexplored when Stieglitz began his career. His extensive writings, gallery showings and artistic efforts, put photography on the map of fine art and turned photographs into something worthy of being hung in an art gallery, rather than a mere inartistic way to preserve images. Obsessive and driven in his personal life as well as his career, he had a reputation for being consistently infatuated with younger women and had several affairs, including a late in life marriage to famous painter Georgia O'Keefe. His own photography often focuses on the softer and more natural ephemera of the hard and brutal rise of American industry, using subjects like snow and steam to quite literally soften the hard edges of industrial scenes. Although his own photography is respected as meaningful art in itself, his most enduring legacy is the effort he put towards changing public perception of photography and clearing a path for photography to be viewed as fine art.
Childhood & Early Life
Born on January 1, 1864, in Hoboken, NJ to German-Jewish immigrants, Alfred Stieglitz was first of six children, including a pair of twins. For his early education he was sent to the finest private schools in New York.
In 1882, he began studying at the ‘Technische Hochschule’ in Berlin for a degree in mechanical engineering. It was at this school that he discovered his passion for the developing field of photography.
In 1890, he was forced to return to New York to be with his family after his eldest sister Flora died in childbirth. Although he didn't want to come back to the city, after eight years of the cultured and artistic freedom of Germany, he ultimately returned to his grieving family when his father threatened to cut his allowances.
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Following his return to New York, Stieglitz became a leading advocate for the pictorial school of photography and wrote extensively, for 'The American Amateur Photographer' and other publications, about the principles of photography as a fine art. In 1890, his father bought him a small photography studio in New York where he could display his own work.
In 1892, he became the editor of 'Camera Notes', the periodical journal of the New York Camera Club. He continued to use his influence within the club to promote the rise of photography as a respected art form.
By 1902, Stieglitz and a group of like-minded photographers stepped away from the Camera Club to begin an independent project, as part of what he called the Photo-Secession. This project began with a single show of photography carefully selected by Stieglitz from his circle of friends and grew into a new independent publication called 'Camera Work'.
These perfectionist selections met with critical acclaim and a positive reception among the general public. Stieglitz edited the publication from 1902 to 1917.
Following, the renaming of his first gallery to '291', in 1908, his work was featured in an exhibition by the National Arts Club billed as a 'Special Exhibition of Contemporary Art'.
This exhibition displayed his work alongside that of his fellow photographers, as well as influential modern painters such as Mary Cassat and James McNeill Whistler in what is often recognized as the first public art show to display photography alongside other forms of fine art.
In 1917, his work began to show a marked shift in focus and ideals. Steiglitz's work began to trend more towards un-manipulated photography, rather than the darkroom magic that characterized his early career. This year he also photographed Georgia O'Keefe, the artist who would become one of his most famous portrait subjects and later his wife.
Most of the later part of his career was dedicated to maintaining his several galleries, which continued to promote his message of photography as fine art by displaying photographs and paintings with same care and respect.
Although his photographs are known and respected in their own right, his biggest contribution to art is arguably his endeavours to promote photography as fine art.
'The Steerage', taken in 1907, remains one of his most influential and recognizable photographs. Taken from a viewpoint in which both upper class passengers and lower class passengers in steerage can be seen on their separate decks, this photograph is considered a perfect example of the modern documentary style. It not only displays the aesthetic principles of modernism, but also makes a ringing commentary on the subject matter without saying a word.
Some of Stieglitz's most enduring and famous photographs are portraits of his fellow artist and eventually wife, Georgia O'Keefe. His extensive series of portraits was dedicated to capturing her personality and inner life as much as her physical appearance. He took and published over 250 portraits of her from 1917 to 1924.
Awards & Achievements
In addition to his own photography, Stieglitz was well-known for his galleries that celebrated art forms of all kinds alongside photographs. Many famous artists, including Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin and Henri Matisse all got their first American exposure in his galleries. He was responsible for organizing some of the largest and most diverse showings of fine art in the country.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1893, Stieglitz succumbed to pressure from his parents and married Emmeline Obermeyer, the sister of a business associate. Though he and Emmy had one daughter, it was a relationship of financial convenience for him and he was commonly open about his discontent. The couple divorced in 1924. In the same year, a few months after his divorce, he married Georgia O'Keeffe.
Two of this eminent personality’s siblings were twins and he was reportedly jealous, always wishing for a soul mate of his own. This idea of an intellectual twin led him to seek out a passionate relationship with fellow modern artist Georgia O'Keefe.