Alfred Stieglitz, Photographer, Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona (1994)



 In terms of historical impact, Alfred Stieglitz was more of a force as a supporter of modern art -- photography, painting and sculpture -- than as a photographer, though he created images of genuine feeling and inventiveness.


 It was at his 291 Gallery, 291 Fifth Avenue in New York City, from 1905 - 1914 that he introduced European artists like Rodin and Toulouse-Lautrec to America before the major exposure of modernism at the 1913 Armory show.


 Stieglitz similarly championed American modernists like Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Arthur Dove and, of course, his eventual wife, Georgia O'Keeffe. All artists should be so lucky to have such an indefatigable, passionate and effective supporter as Alfred Stieglitz. O'Keeffe's artistic destiny might have been quite different, much more difficult, much less fame and fortune, without his backing.


 The photogravures from Camera Notes, Stieglitz's publication, seem, in general, out-of-date to the modern eye, but interestingly revealing of a period state of mind. They are often heavily atmospheric and picturesque, reaching for aesthetic, poetic, sentimental, even anecdotal effects of Victorian painting in an attempt to create an "art" photography and legitimize their relatively fledgling endeavor as a true art form.


 Some photos rise above others by reason of technique, the humanity of the photographer, or the luck of a great subject. Not the least of which is Stieglitz himself with "An Icy Night," 1901, where a line of street lights seen behind an avenue of leafless trees in winter has a direct beauty of perception and poetry.


 Frank Eugene's "Portrait of Stieglitz," 1901, speaks equally of Eugene's artistry, with light dramatically defining Stieglitz's profile in an otherwise dark photo, and Stieglitz's own intensity of personality.


 Works by Gertrude Kasebier, Rudolph Eickemeyer, Jr., Joseph T. Keiley and several others are excellent.


 Gallery notes for this exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum suggest that the treatment of the subject, not the subject itself, was most important. There is no question that the photographers are after "effects", but the subjects, their expressiveness and meaning are equally important.


 Certainly the concern at the turn of the century for the aesthetics of photography coincides with a similar, widespread attitude in painting since the 1860s, including aspects of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and the early art-for-art's-sake philosophy of Whistler. But these photographers, Whistler and the other artists never reached the point of abandonment of the reality of the world that later -- and present day -- art-for-art's-sake abstractionists, non-objectivists, conceptualists and the many other "ists" of the moment have done.


 The best artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cezanne, etc. -- were always equally concerned with expression, content, aesthetics and the relation of their art to nature and humanity.




Copyright by Don Gray


Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms