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Self-Portrait
Self-Portrait, c. 1911
Alfred Stieglitz, American
Gelatin silver print
Image and sheet: 9 13/16 x 7 5/16 inches (24.9 x 18.6 cm)
From the Collection of Dorothy Norman, 1980
1980-128-3
[ More Details ]

Alfred Stieglitz

American, 1864 - 1946

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A monumental figure in twentieth-century photography, Alfred Stieglitz changed the course of the medium not only with his extraordinary photographs-works that reveal his consistent concentration on aspects of his own personal universe-but also with his passionate efforts to establish photography as a fine art and with his innovative publications and galleries.

Early Years

Born on January 1, 1864, in Hoboken, New Jersey, Alfred Stieglitz was the eldest child of German immigrant parents. The family moved to New York City in 1871, and the young man later studied at the City College of New York.

In 1881, Stieglitz's father sold his business and relocated the family to Europe to take advantage of the health, educational, and cultural opportunities there. On the journey they met two boys-Louis Schubart and Joseph Obermeyer -who were traveling to join their parents abroad. Alfred formed a close bond with them both, and they all later became roommates at the Polytechnikum in Berlin, where Stieglitz continued his studies after secondary school in Karlsruhe.

He acquired his first camera in 1883, and shifted his academic emphasis from mechanical engineering to photochemistry, conducting independent trials on making photographs with artificial light. His first surviving images are from a summer walking tour of the countrysides of Italy, Bavaria, and Switzerland in 1886.

Stieglitz began submitting these photographs to competitions, and the following year the eminent photographer Peter Henry Emerson awarded one of his Italian pictures first prize in a contest sponsored by The Amateur Photographer, a London magazine. These early photographs of rural and mountainside areas are artistically derivative but have a delightful tone that suggests Stieglitz's youthful personality and his appreciation of the people he met in these regions.

Stieglitz returned to New York City in 1890 and became business partners with his friends Schubart and Obermeyer. From then on he would spend his time almost exclusively either in the City or at Lake George, the retreat in the Adirondacks his father had purchased a few years earlier.

A Career in Photography

In 1893, Stieglitz acquired a 4 x 5-inch handheld camera and became quickly engaged in photographing the vibrant pace of life in New York City. That year he also married Obermeyer's sister, Emmeline, and embarked upon an extended honeymoon trip in Europe. International recognition for his work began to grow, and in 1895 Stieglitz ended his business career to concentrate on photography.

Soon he became vice president of the Camera Club of New York and expanded its newsletter into the illustrated quarterly Camera Notes. As director of the publication, he used it to promote work he admired-including his own-until differences of opinion forced his resignation in 1902. The following year he established a successor journal, the lavishly printed Camera Work. In both, he used the printing technique of photogravure to reproduce fine photographs-it being the only printing process he considered rich enough to convey the subtleties of works of art.

In 1905, Stieglitz opened his first exhibition space, The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession (later known as 291 for its Fifth Avenue address). Both Camera Work and the gallery served as pulpits from which to promote photography as a fine art and were later important in introducing European modernist art to North America.

During this time, Stieglitz continued his own work in photography and also organized outside exhibitions, such as the ambitious International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography at the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo in 1910, which featured six hundred photographs by more than sixty artists. The following year, he presented the world's first solo show of work by Pablo Picasso at 291.

Portraits

Stieglitz typically photographed only the people who were most important to him. The birth of his daughter Katherine, known as Kitty, in 1898 had stimulated the idea of creating a photographic journal of her life, and he would revisit the idea of serial portraiture several times throughout his career. Stieglitz indeed exhibited and published many pictures of his daughter, confirming that he considered them works of art.

His second family was the group of artists and writers who congregated at his galleries, men who shared his passion for modernism and American art. An early and long-term advocate of artists John Marin (1870 - 1953) and Marsden Hartley (1877 - 1943), Stieglitz also exhibited paintings by Philadelphia painter and teacher Arthur B. Carles (1882 - 1952), and added painter Arthur Dove (1880 - 1946) to his group. Authors and critics, such as Sherwood Anderson (1876 - 1941), were also part of his circle, their writing on American themes paralleling the artists' depictions of native subject matter.

Stieglitz devised a consistent format for these portraits, stark and less overtly artful, showing the sitters solidly filling the picture while looking toward the camera. He often posed his subjects in front of paintings at his gallery, carefully selecting these backgrounds for their special significance. The monumental presentation of these artists reflects Stieglitz's profound conviction in their visionary work. In addition to conveying his esteem, the portraits were meant to shape public perceptions of these artists in exhibitions and publications. Other portraits, while still tightly composed, have a more active feel to them, such as the images of Emil Zoler, a Stieglitz gallery assistant, and Richard Menshausen, the caretaker of the Stieglitz family's property at Lake George.

Another artist associated with Stieglitz's galleries was Georgia O'Keeffe (1887 - 1986). While his initial portraits of her echo the frontal, bust-length format he used with other artists, their romantic involvement quickly led to a more varied and extensive series of images.

Life With O'Keeffe

Georgia O'Keeffe came into Stieglitz's life at a point of transition, just as he was closing his first gallery and ending the publication of his journal Camera Work. She arrived in New York in June of 1918, and by July Stieglitz had left his wife and daughter to move in with her. The two were married in 1924. Her impact on his work was tremendous. Returning to the idea of a photographic series of portraits, he photographed O'Keeffe obsessively in their first year together, making perhaps as many as three hundred exposures. Though the title of the series, Georgia O'Keeffe: A Portrait, suggests he was engaged in capturing aspects of his subject, O'Keeffe said in 1978 that in these pictures "he was always photographing himself."

In 1925, Alfred Stieglitz opened his second exhibition space, The Intimate Gallery, and moved with O'Keeffe to the thirtieth floor of the recently completed Shelton Hotel at 48th Street and Lexington Avenue in New York. Their apartment provided an ideal perch from which to gaze at the city below and to witness the spectacular rise of several Art Deco skyscrapers, including the Sherry-Netherland (1927) and the Waldorf-Astoria (1931) luxury hotels-the changing city having been a vital subject in Stieglitz's work since the 1890s.

The couple's complex liaison shifted dramatically in 1929, when O'Keeffe began spending summers in New Mexico while Stieglitz remained, by choice, in New York. The trips were as much a tonic for her as she had been for Stieglitz, but they also represented a geographical and emotional gulf between them. His first portraits on her return from New Mexico show O'Keeffe with a new symbol of independence, the Model T Ford, and later with the animal bones she had brought back from the desert. Still later images from the series were made after Stieglitz became involved with a young woman named Dorothy Norman, whom he began photographing extensively. In one, his wife appears as a headless nude.

Dorothy Norman

Dorothy Norman (1905-1997) was an adventurous young woman from Philadelphia who moved to New York as a newlywed in 1925. Her twin passions of social activism and the fine arts eventually brought her to The Intimate Gallery. When the gallery was forced to close in 1929, Norman became a driving force in making arrangements for a new exhibition space, An American Place. She quickly became indispensable to Stieglitz as a confidant, and, for a time, as a lover. He began photographing her in 1930, when she was twenty-five years old and pregnant with her second child.

His early portraits of her are stark, restrained, and elegant, emphasizing her youthful face and smoldering dark eyes. Slightly later images have a somewhat looser quality and show Norman with a more frank gaze, but the portraits remain largely formal despite Stieglitz's use of the versatile handheld Graflex camera. Stieglitz's familiarity with modern art is apparent in some of the portraits in which the white oval of Norman's face seems to float, echoing artist Constantin Brancusi's sculpted heads and the photographs of visually disembodied heads by the artist Man Ray, the photographer Lee Miller, and others in the late 1920s. His preoccupation with photographing hands, seen in the O'Keeffe series, was continued here.

Norman herself was increasingly engaged with photography as well, and by 1931 she was actively making pictures; developing and printing her work in the gallery's darkroom with Stieglitz.

Though Alfred Stieglitz and Dorothy Norman were both married, they had a powerful emotional connection to one another. Stieglitz made relatively few nude portraits of Norman, partly due to these circumstances. Two of these images may have been made in Boston when their relationship was first consummated, while the third was made when Stieglitz visited Norman at her summer home in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. These small and very personal images were an act of lovemaking, presented as mementos to Norman, who kept them until her death.

Manhattan Photos

Stieglitz continued to photograph Manhattan throughout his career and, in 1931, began regularly shooting pictures of the construction he could see from the window of An American Place. The north-facing window of his home at the Shelton also offered an extraordinary and dynamic panorama. The view from his apartment changed even more dramatically with the addition of the General Electric Building, completed in October 1931. In one image, Stieglitz gives a full-frame look at this high-rise, showing how completely it dwarfs the surrounding buildings. Subsequent shots throughout the year truncate the structure and reveal a new contender for the skies, the Industrial Mart.

The stillness and contemplative nature of these images are in sharp contrast with the freer, more mobile views Stieglitz created at his Lake George house around the same time. The Shelton pictures are distinct among Stieglitz's urban work in so starkly emphasizing the verticality of Manhattan's newly constructed modern towers and for the large scale of the prints that echo their powerful mass and thrust. He again shows an unpopulated cityscape and, abandoning the atmospheric techniques of his earlier urban work, conveys mood by photographing the nuanced shifts in light on his subject. The G.E. Building becomes a central feature of Stieglitz's life, and the portrait series he makes of it is not unlike the one of O'Keeffe, documenting the changes in both his internal and external worlds.

Lake George Photos

Stieglitz photographed many aspects of life at his retreat at Lake George, from its vegetation to its outbuildings to its visitors. A small structure known as "The Little House" served as his darkroom and as a regular photographic subject. Houses, barns, and sheds around the estate also found their way into his pictures, echoing an interest in architecture and geometry that dates back to some of his early work in Italy and coincides with his growing commitment to American themes in art.

The country estate was his kingdom and his home, a place where he was surrounded by those who knew him best and loved him anyway. In this accepting atmosphere, away from art world concerns, the artist relaxed and slowed his pace, often creating particularly exploratory and adventurous photographs. His series of cloud pictures, known as the Equivalents, is one of the finest examples.

The Equivalents began during the summer of 1922. Stieglitz's first efforts joined the landscape and sky into moody visual passages that the artist initially equated with music. Confident in this new direction, he exhibited this group a few months later at the Anderson Galleries in New York. The following year, he put away his 8 x 10-inch view camera on a tripod and used his 4 x 5-inch handheld Graflex camera to photograph the clouds alone, resulting in smaller images that he named Equivalents in 1925. The Graflex could be pointed directly at the sky, freeing the image from earthly constraint. The weather at Lake George was often mercurial and dramatic, providing endless variations in subject. The ephemeral nature of his subject offered an additional challenge, and Stieglitz had to work quickly to capture a cloud configuration he liked before it shifted, never to be seen again except in his prints. When mounting the prints, he didn't always maintain their original orientation, sometimes leaving stray foliage stranded in midair.

Poplars

Another subject Stieglitz pursued at Lake George was that of dying chestnut and poplar trees, which, once leafless, revealed their fascinating shapes to his lens. Some of these distinctive trees had been planted by his father, and Stieglitz had grown up with them. Their decline was perhaps a reminder of his own lessening vitality in his late sixties.

Stieglitz first turned his attention to the poplars in 1932, a time when he was avidly photographing outdoors. The failing health of the trees revealed an elaborate circulatory system of branches that truly engaged Stieglitz. He exhibited a group of these images that same year under the general title The Dying Chestnut Tree-My Teacher, further suggesting its special meaning for him. On at least one occasion in his images, the impulse for renewal appears as a leafy center among the bare branches-but the fate of the tree is still unmistakable. At the time these images were made, Stieglitz was only to continue photographing for another few years.

After his death in 1946, Dorothy Norman worked to preserve his legacy, writing a book about him in 1960 and founding the Alfred Stieglitz Center at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1968.

Alfred Stieglitz and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2007

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