Alfred Stieglitz

Alfred Stieglitz


Inductee Sponsor: Frederick Quellmalz


Alfred Stieglitz is undoubtedly one of the most significant contributors to the history of photography. He contributed not only scientific and artistic photographic studies, but also introduced modern art to America and furthered the theory of photography as art. Stieglitz was born in Hoboken, New Jersey on January 1, 1864. He was the oldest of six children.

From a prosperous German-American family that emigrated to the United States in 1849, education and culture were greatly encouraged. In fact, to finish his education, he was sent to Germany in the early 1880s to study mechanical engineering. First he studied at the Karlsruhe Realgymnasium, then at the Berlin Polytechnic and finally at the University of Berlin. Until he bought his first camera in 1883, he studied under physicist Hermann von Helmholtz and the chemist August von Hofman, from which he received the foundation to build on his future passion, photography. Stieglitz was captivated from the very moment he took his first images. Hermann Wilhelm Vogel, a well-known photographic chemist, taught at the Polytechnic. As soon as Stieglitz discovered this, he enrolled immediately. From that point on, he focused all of his attention and energy on photographic chemistry and artistry.

Stieglitz convinced Vogel and school administrators to allow him access to the darkroom twenty-four hours a day. In turn, he would maintain the laboratory. With his background in chemistry and interest in expanding the limitations of the medium and perfect his darkroom technique, Stieglitz was now able to experiment with photographic chemistry extensively. Working closely with Vogel who, by 1884, had discovered how to make negatives sensitive to all colors except red, Stieglitz had access and made use of the new orthochromatic plates. Although Stieglitz worked diligently on the chemistry and technical aspects to photography, he fully believed photography as an art form. Artists who saw my early photographs began to tell me that they envied me; that my photographs were superior to their paintings, but that unfortunately photography was not an art…I could not understand why the artists should envy me for my work, yet, in the same breath, decry it because it was machine-made—their ‘art’ painting, because hand-made being considered necessarily superior…There I started my fight…for the recognition of photography as a new medium of expressions, to be respected in its own right, on the basis as any other art form. Also inspired by the controversial, but recognized Peter Henry Emerson who introduced theory on the aesthetics of photography as an art, Stieglitz turned his attention to the new platinum process. This type of processing was difficult. Instead of the image reacting with the surface of the paper, thus producing a sharp, clear image, during the platinum process the image is absorbed into the paper. The result was an image that took on the texture of the paper and creating a more “painterly” image. Difficulties stemmed from frequent spoilage and few tonal ranges. However, inspired and challenged, Stieglitz conducted experiments to prevent spoilage and increase tonal range by adding mercury or uranium. He also worked with the photogravure process, which is described as an intaglio process. Photogravure is a method of reproducing photographs in ink in large editions. A positive transparency of a photographic image is used to control the etching of a specially prepared metal plate and thus the resulting print appears to the naked eye to be of a smooth, continuous tonal range from white to black. The next thirty years of Stieglitz’s life was dedicated to perfecting and producing images with platinum process. Stieglitz was a thorough and committed scientist and photographer and published his findings in numerous photographic journals.

By the 1890s Stieglitz had established an international reputation for advancements in photographic chemistry and producing fine artistic photographs and decided move to New York City. Upon Stieglitz’s arrival to New York, his father purchased a portion of the Heliochrome Company, (later known as the Photochrome Engraving Company) for him to run. Stieglitz did not enjoy running a business, but did expand his knowledge of ink printing. While running the company, Stieglitz continued producing his images, experimenting with photographic chemistry (by usage of the more well equipped labs such as the Society of Amateur Photographers of New York and the Camera Club of New York) and publishing articles promoting photography as an art. He also worked with the newly introduced hand-held camera. Many photographers rejected the small camera, but Stieglitz believed it to be an instrument worth testing. He made some of the first successful images at night, in rain and snow. Also during this decade he married Emmeline Obermeyer; they had one daughter, Katherine. By the late 1890s Stieglitz had exhibited some of his work (he maintained artistic privacy exhibiting only selected work and rarely sold images) and received many awards. However, he remained discouraged with the general disregard for the science and especially the art of photography.

In response, he founded the Photo-Secession Group in 1902. Along with the other original members, Edward J. Steichen, Gertrude Kasebier and Clarence H. White, they formulated their mission to secede from conventional expectations and explore the creative potential of photography from both a theoretical and scientific point of view. Needing space to gather, work and exhibit, Stieglitz opened gallery 291. In addition to photography, the gallery was open to and exhibited such paintings by Cezanne, Picasso, Braque and Matisse. The gallery was also a gathering place for writers, philosophers and musicians. Ultimately, it was Stieglitz who not only made way for photography as an art, but also brought modern art to America. However, the group met some resistance. Even long-time friends of Stieglitz criticized the group. Eventually, even some of the original members of the Photo-Secession group turned against Stieglitz. It was inevitable. Stieglitz founded the group and was burdened with much of the decision-making, which with such positions, one often makes more enemies than friends. Determined and not easily defeated, Stieglitz continued. Camera Work was a publication that was also a result of the group collaboration. Over the next fifteen years, the gallery, the Photo-Secession group and the publication consumed Stieglitz. Unfortunately, his marriage also ended during this time. He was also unable to dedicate much of his time to his personal photography. He did produce a body of work that many believed to be his best, however when the gallery closed and Camera Work ceased in 1917, Stieglitz devoted his time to photography and developed an even more celebrated body of work.

Although seemingly tragic, 1917 marked a major turning point in Stieglitz’s life. Georgia O’Keeffe and Stieglitz began their relationship in 1917; she eventually became his wife. Over the next twenty years together, Stieglitz made more than 300 images of O’Keeffe. Some of the first images of O’Keeffe were developed with a new process Stieglitz was exploring. With the onset of World War I, the price of platinum soared and companies stopped producing the platinum paper Stieglitz so loved. From 1918 through the early 1920s Stieglitz experimented with palladium paper. This process is the exact process as platinum. The only deviation is the use palladium salts in place of the platinum salts. Noticeable difference in the final product is a darker brown coloring (sepia). He continued working in the manner, when he again redirected his camera and processing approach.

Searching for another way in which to make a personal, artistic statement with his camera, Stieglitz looked to the sky. In the early 1920s he made some of his first images of clouds. However, by using the palladium process, the resulting images were extremely bright, and one was unable to differentiate between the sky and the clouds. Driven by challenge, Stieglitz began to experiment with some of the newly introduced emulsions and silver gelatin paper. With this paper, combined with the “straight” photographic practices inspired by Paul Strand, success found Stieglitz once again and by 1924 he had an artistic series he called Equivalents. I wanted to photograph clouds to find out what I had learned in forty years about photography. Through clouds to put down my philosophy of life—to show that the success of my photographs was not due to subject matter—not to special trees, or faces, or interiors, to special privileges, clouds were there for everyone. Paul Strand inspired the characteristics of most of this series, some of his 1920s work, and most of Stieglitz’s later work.

Strand was strongly influenced by Stieglitz in that many of his first photographic experiments were with soft focus and darkroom alterations. However, the work of contemporary painters such as Picasso made more of an impression on the young photographer. He began to deviate from his contemporaries and attempted to make artistic photography without manipulation of camera or development. With his use of geometric shapes, patterns and space, Strand’s work began to take a dramatic departure from Pictorialism. Stieglitz encouraged him to continue in this direction. He even honored him by dedicating the last two issues of Camera Work to Strand’s work. Strand’s compositions were open; a small piece of a larger image, and leading the mind to question beyond the image. Each image was taken deliberately with intense focus on composition. Little darkroom alteration needed when the original image is carefully decided upon. Stieglitz regarded Strand’s work as brutally direct, pure and devoid of trickery. And Stieglitz knew.

Accomplished photographic scientist, photographer, gallery owner, art dealer, collector and writer, Stieglitz was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 1971. Throughout his life, until his death in 1946, he fought for the art and science of photography. A great, fearless fight. And if he were alive today he would still be fighting. Photography as a respected art form is still not accepted by some today. So intricately intertwined in our individual and collective lives, we often take photography for granted. We forget the small, unique miracle that occurs ever time we click the shutter.

By Lori Oden For IPHF

You seem to assume that a photograph is one of a dozen or a hundred or maybe a million,–all prints from one negative necessarily being alike and so replaceable. But then along comes one print that really embodies something that you have to say that is subtle and elusive, something that is still a straight print, but when shown with a thousand mechanically made prints has something the others don’t have. What is it that this print has? It is certainly something born out of spirit,–and spirit is an intangible while the mechanical is tangible…

If what I feel about life is not in a print of mine, then I might just as well say that any machine can take a picture and turn out a print mechanically. You might get wonderful pictures as a result, but they would not contain that something called love or passion, both of which are the essentials needed to bring forth a living print—or any other living creative expression.


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