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Alfred Stieglitz

Text from American Visions : The Epic History of Art in America

The son of wealthy Jewish parents, Stieglitz was born in New Jersey in 1864, the last year of the Civil War, and died in New York in 1946. He first learned photography, of which he was to become a master, in Germany in the 1880s. His career thus spanned two cultural worlds in America: in it all manner of strands, both nineteenth- and twentieth-century, twined together, producing a uniquely vigorous and, in part, messianic temperament. He was courageous, obdurately persistent, impatient with fools, and sometimes an arrogant prig. A twentieth-century American, but with the bark still on him. He could change his opinions but was incapable of compromise. A wide Puritan streak in him combined with a deep sense of the erotic, which he expressed in his photographs of Georgia O'Keeffe with breathtaking frankness. He was formed in the mold of American Transcendentalism, of Thoreau especially, but without the sense of God's presence in nature that infused the nineteenth century: nature itself was enough for Stieglitz. "Standing up here on the hill," he wrote to a friend in 1920, "away from all humans-seeing these Wonders taking place before one's eyes-so silently-it is queer to feel that beyond the hills there are Humans astir-&- just the reverse of what one feels in watching the silence of Nature. -No school-no church-is as good a teacher as the eye understandingly seeing what's before it-I believe this more firmly than ever."

Stieglitz cared passionately about the visual arts, not as decor or confirmation of received ideas, but as "the very breath of life" - the means whereby the health of a society could be assessed. No ringmaster ever fought harder for "his" artists. If you believed in renewal, you had to believe in modernism; and without renewal, what could America claim for itself? For an artist, the burden of Stieglitz's belief could be heavy indeed. The messiah did not have a light hand with his apostles. He knew; others must understand.

That Stieglitz was "agin the system," and in particular against the Academy - meaning not just the National Academy in America but academic thinking in general - goes almost without saying. He regarded academic rules and prescriptions as effete, as a way of playing it safe with arts that should be conduits of vitality. In particular he rebelled against the academic assumption that photography, though useful to the artist, was inferior to painting.

The idea of art merely for art's sake, with all that it implied - a certain languor, a decorative bonelessness, and a gratin audience - repelled Stieglitz as much as any academic formulae. "My whole life in this country," he wrote to a friend in 1914, "has really been devoted to fighting the terrible poison which has been undermining the American nation. As an American I resented the hypocrisy, the short-sightedness, the lack of construction, the actual stupidity in control everywhere." He did not want an "activist" art, preaching political slogans; but, somewhat in the spirit of William Morris, he despised any art that was not engaged with the conditions of life, that would not challenge and refresh its viewers' responses to the world. To Stieglitz, the moral passion of the artist was therapeutic and could not be feigned in the work; art's meaning could only work its way outward from the maker's own moral core. In part, it expressed itself in fine craftsmanship, a dedication to the difficult nuances of the work, in painting and sculpture no less than in photography. Stieglitz loathed whatever was botched or skimped, a fact that shows itself everywhere in his own photography. But in larger part, it showed itself in what Stieglitz - a devotee of Bergson - believed was the recognizable elan vital of the work, its power to communicate the purity, freshness, and honesty that lay in the artist's own character. This is why Stieglitz expected so much from "his" artists, and it explains the sometimes bruising rejections and quarrels that arose in his various relationships with them.

Even to discuss the value of the creative impulse in such terms strikes today's postmodernist as hopelessly naive. When the "self" is a mere "construction," sincerity deflates; when all reality is "mediated," none dare speak of freshness; and when the art world is a sanctimonious commercial mill, its inhabitants shrink from words like "purity," except as sales talk. But Stieglitz believed otherwise, and it is unlikely that modernism would have found its foothold in America in the way that it did - as a model of authentic experience in the arts, as against whatever was stale, rhetorical, and unfelt - if he had not.

There were many other ways which Stieglitz's convictions would have clashed with the assumptions of our own day. One was his fierce belief in the autonomy of the arts, and the unique character and needs of each medium. "The arts ... have distinct departments, and unless photography has its own posslbilities of expression, separate from those of the other arts, It is merely a process, not an art." Not for him the arbitrary mix-and-match from the image-haze of postmodernist sensibility, or the assumption that photography could be used merely as "information" or "process" without regard to its intrinsic qualities. For the idea of the intrinsic, coupled with "the spirit of the thing," was the cornerstone of his esthetic. It meant respect for each medium on its own terms, and Stieglitz refused to accept the hierarchies of his day by which painting and sculpture stood at the top and photography and crafts in a vague netherworld. To the extent that photography imitated painting, it condemned itself. And if painting imitated photography, its fate was the same. Only by robust equality could the Great Concert be played: otherwise, "as they are all placed in their separate cells," he wrote, imagining the arts as different species in Noah's Ark, "they grow so self-conscious that finally, if one were to take them out and put them together they would all fall upon one another and kill each other."

Steiglitz never bothered to paper over the changes in his thinking. The man who led the charge for the autonomous value of photography in America began in the 1890s as a "Pictorialist" - one who strove to give his photographs ("pictures," the public invariably called them) a resemblance to painting. There were two branches of Pictorialism, soft and hard; the soft was very soft indeed, seeking Barbizon-style blurs, romantic murk, and often cloying sentimentality, with much manipulation of focus, negative, and print. Stieglitz preferred the hard, in the sense that although he wanted the unfussed photographic character of the print to predominate, he allowed his images to evoke the character of paintings. Thus The Terminal, 1892, with its draft horses steaming in the cold wet, is straight out of the New York of the Ashcan School. But all is relative: Stieglitz's photographs, compared to most other Pictorialist ones, were - a word he valued - "straight." Most of the time, when he spoke of pictorial photography, he meant photographs that stand on their own with value as works of art - not ones that aped oil painting, watercolor, or etching in their effects.

In 1902 with his younger friend the photographer Edward Steichen (1879-1973), he started the "Photo-Secession" group and appointed himself its leader. The record of its ideas was a handsomely produced quarterly magazine, Camera Work, which began publication in 1903. The meaning of "PhotoSecession" was nebulous then and remains so still; it was cribbed from the Viennese and Munich Sezessionist art movements, which were for the new and against the academic. What Stieglitz's secessionists were seceding from was what they considered poor photography. The group included such photographers as Gertrude Kesebier, F. Holland Day, and Clarence White. Presently the PhotoSecession installed itself in a small permanent gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue; and after 1909 as Stieglitz began to lose interest in current photography and his attention shifted to painting and sculpture, this gallery, "the biggest small room in the world," became New York's epicenter for the artistic avant-garde - the Ellis Island, as conservatives darkly thought, of bad foreign art.


 


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