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Alfred Stieglitz and the Philadelphia Museum of Art

September 15, 2007–February 17, 2008

A monumental figure in twentieth-century photography, Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) changed the course of the medium not only with his extraordinary photographs, but also with his passionate efforts to establish photography as a fine art and with his innovative publications and galleries. After Stieglitz's death, his wife, the painter Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986), chose several institutions to receive representative gifts of his work, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This 1949 gift laid the groundwork for the Museum's renowned and ever-growing collection of international photography, now numbering around 29,000 images.

This inaugural exhibition—in the Julien Levy Gallery's new location in the Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building—pays tribute to the Museum's treasured holding of the master's work with a selection of some of the finest prints from its bountiful collection of six hundred images by Stieglitz, many of them donated by his family and friends. The exhibition concentrates on Stieglitz's work in several series throughout his career, revealing his consistent concentration on aspects of his own personal universe.

New York City Views

Alfred Stieglitz was born on January 1, 1864, in Hoboken, New Jersey, 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 took the family to Europe for several years, where Alfred continued his studies in Karlsruhe and Berlin, Germany. He bought a 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 photographs are from a summer walking tour of the European countryside in 1886. Stieglitz began submitting these images 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 in 1890, where he became business partners with his Berlin roommates Louis Schubart and Joseph Obermeyer. In 1893, he acquired a 4 x 5–inch handheld camera and became quickly engaged in photographing the vibrant pace of life in New York City, making his now-celebrated image The Terminal. That year he also married Obermeyer's sister, Emmeline, and after an extended honeymoon trip in Europe and growing international recognition for his work, Stieglitz ended his business career to concentrate on photography. A contrast with his pastoral work of the 1880s, these urban images focus on human dominance of the landscape—railroad tracks that span the continent and skyscrapers that reach for the clouds—but are devoid of people.

"I was born in Hoboken. I am an American. Photography is my passion. The search for Truth my obsession. " —Alfred Stieglitz, 1921

By the time the above self-portrait was made, Alfred Stieglitz was married and well established in the career for which he is known. After resigning from business in 1895 to concentrate on photography, he became vice-president of the Camera Club of New York and expanded its newsletter into the illustrated quarterly Camera Notes. Within a few years, he had issued a portfolio of his photographs, had a solo exhibition in New York, gained membership in the Royal Photographic Society in London, showed his work internationally, and became a father. In 1903, he began publishing the lavishly printed journal Camera Work and, in 1905, opened his first exhibition space, The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession (later known as 291 for its Fifth Avenue address). The journal and 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 showed six hundred photographs by more than sixty artists. The following year, around the time of the above self-portrait, he presented the world's first solo show of work by Pablo Picasso at 291. In this romantic self-portrait, Stieglitz's face emerges dramatically from the depths of an unspecified setting. At age forty-seven, he appears in his prime with a steely gaze aided by spectacles and a vigorous, if graying, moustache. His persona as an oracle and an impresario is bolstered by this soft-focus depiction, in which he seems about to speak.

From the Shelton

In 1925, Alfred Stieglitz opened his second exhibition space, The Intimate Gallery, and moved with Georgia 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 had been a vital subject in Stieglitz's work since the 1890s, when he used pictorial techniques to viscerally convey the cold bite of winter air or the hot grit of a train yard. He continued to photograph Manhattan throughout his career and, in 1931, began regularly shooting pictures of the construction he could see from the window of his third gallery, An American Space. 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, which dominates these pictures. 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 summerhouse around the same time. The Shelton pictures are distinct in 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.


Alfred Stieglitz typically photographed only the people who were most important to him. The birth of his daughter Katherine, known as Kitty, in 1898 stimulated the idea of creating a photographic journal of her life, and he revisited the idea of serial portraiture several times throughout his career. Stieglitz exhibited and published many pictures of his daughter, confirming that he considered them works of art. The photographer's second family was the group of artists—known as "The Stieglitz Circle"—and writers who congregated at his galleries, men who shared his passion for modernism and American art. Stieglitz was an early and long-term advocate of artists John Marin (1870–1953) and Marsden Hartley (1877–1946), exhibited paintings by Philadelphia painter and teacher Arthur Carles (1882–1952), and added painter Arthur Dove to his group. Another artist associated with his galleries was Georgia O'Keeffe. 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, also on view in this gallery. 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 indigenous subject matter.

Stieglitz devised a consistent format for his portraits of artists, showing the sitters crisply and 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 solid, 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, New York.

Georgia O'Keeffe

In 1918, Stieglitz offered Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986) an apartment in New York and sent photographer Paul Strand (1891–1976) to escort her from Texas, where she was teaching. Stieglitz had shown O'Keeffe's work at his gallery, 291, but except for her pictures and their active correspondence, he hardly knew her. O'Keeffe came into his 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. Her impact on his work was tremendous, and, 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 attempting to capture aspects of his subject, O'Keeffe said in 1978 that in these pictures "he was always photographing himself."

Two views from early in the portrait series show O'Keeffe in front of her charcoal drawing No. 15 Special of 1916–17. Enamored of her expressive hands and eager for her touch, he poses her toying with a button and then isolates her fingers against a dark background to focus on their shape. In 1924, Stieglitz divorced his wife and married O'Keeffe. Their complex liaison shifted dramatically in 1929, when O'Keeffe began spending summers in New Mexico while Stieglitz remained, by choice, in New York. The trip was as much a tonic for her as she had been for Stieglitz, but it 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 emotionally engaged with a young woman named Dorothy Norman, whom he began photographing extensively. There is more distance in these images of his wife, and in one she 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 Stieglitz's second exhibition space, The Intimate Gallery. Stieglitz began photographing Norman 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 (1876–1957) sculpted heads and the photographs of visually disembodied heads by the artist Man Ray (1890–1976), the photographer Lee Miller (1907–1977), and others in the late 1920s. His preoccupation with photographing hands, seen in the O'Keeffe series, is continued here.

When The Intimate Gallery was forced to close in 1929, Dorothy 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. Norman was also increasingly engaged with photography and by 1931 was actively making pictures, developing and printing her work in the gallery's darkroom with Stieglitz. The Museum is the major repository for many of these photographs. Profoundly affected by his death in 1946, 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. Many of the photographs in this exhibition come from her impressive collection of Stieglitz images. Though Norman sometimes purchased works of art from her mentor, he gave her numerous photographs, many with inscriptions and private communications, as seen in the case in this gallery.

Many works by the Stieglitz Circle, including Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, and Georgia O'Keeffe, are on view in gallery 172 in the Museum's main building.

Lake George

After his youthful travels in Europe, Stieglitz spent his time only in New York City or Lake George. 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, but just as Stieglitz turned his camera to the sky, so, too, did he point it at the earth. Several close-up images of grasses from 1933 were made during an especially productive summer at Lake George and represent a departure in his work. Another subject he pursued was that of dying chestnut and poplar trees, which, once leafless, revealed their fascinating shapes to his lens.


During the summer of 1922, Alfred Stieglitz began work at his Lake George retreat on the famous Equivalents, a photographic series of clouds. His first efforts join the landscape and sky into moody visual passages that the artist initially equated with music. Confident in this new direction, Stieglitz 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 a 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. Once the prints were made, he wasn't strict about maintaining their original orientation, moving them from horizontal to vertical to suit his purposes, sometimes leaving stray foliage stranded in midair.

This series offers a photographic parallel to the abstract paintings of John Marin, Georgia O'Keeffe, and others Stieglitz promoted at his galleries, in which an element of the everyday world is used to evoke a sensation or mood not directly tied to its meaning as an object. While depicting a specific grouping of clouds, Stieglitz also wanted to create a visual work of art that could be experienced in a less linear fashion, conjuring feelings and impressions. Several of the pictures here, dating from 1930–32, were made when O'Keeffe was spending summers in New Mexico and Stieglitz was intensely involved with Dorothy Norman; some of these later views were inspired by Norman and given to her as gifts.


One of the distinctive features of the Stieglitz family property at Lake George was its towering poplar trees, some of which were planted by Alfred Stieglitz's father. Among the largest deciduous trees in North America, poplars are somewhat delicate and thus generally not long lived. Their genus name populus (Latin for "people" or "nation"), upright stature, and limited lifespan make them an apt symbol for human existence. Stieglitz had grown up with these poplars during his many seasons at Lake George, and their decline was perhaps a reminder of his own lessening vitality in his late sixties.

Stieglitz first turned his attention to the trees in 1932, a time when he was avidly photographing outdoors, and the series can be seen in connection with concurrent views made at Lake George, including the Equivalents. The failing health of the trees, however, revealed the elaborate circulatory system of branches that truly engaged Stieglitz. The stand of poplars, which he returned to on his visits to Lake George, is shown from a variety of distances and under different conditions. On at least one occasion, the impulse for renewal appears as a leafy center among the bare branches, but the fate of the tree is unmistakable. The noble stateliness of the poplar also provides a natural counterpoint to the images of the General Electric Building that Stieglitz had recently photographed from his apartment at the Shelton Hotel. In both bodies of work, Stieglitz uses a compelling formal element in his life as a focus of artistic and personal meditation.

Main Building


Katherine Ware, Curator of Photographs

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