Historical Photographers: Alfred Stieglitz, Part I

This week we’re going to discuss one of the most influential and, in many ways controversial, figures in the world of photography. He campaigned to get photography recognized as an art form co-equal with painting and sculpting. He established several photography clubs and movements. He worked tirelessly to bring new art forms, both photographic and traditional, to America. Starting today, we will be discussing the life and work of Alfred Stieglitz.

Stieglitz was born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1864. He grew up there, attending schools in the area but never finding one that challenged him. Finally, his father packed up the family, sold their business, and moved back to his native Germany in hopes of finding a school that could give his first son a proper and thorough education. When he was attending the Technische Hochschule for mechanical engineering, Stieglitz met Hermann Wilhelm Vogel when he signed up for Vogel’s chemistry class. At the time, Vogel was an important researcher and scientist working in the new field of photography. Vogel’s rigor and his interest in a newly-emerging artistic and cultural field were just what Stieglitz needed to spark his interest. Stieglitz soon met Adolf von Menzel and Wilhelm Hasemann, two German artists who specialized in making art from nature. Inspired and encouraged by them, Stieglitz soon purchased his first camera and set to traveling and capturing Europe’s natural beauty. As the 1880s progressed, Stieglitz began writing articles for photography magazines and amassing the books and magazines that would be the bulk of his libraries back in the United States.

He returned to New York, albeit reluctantly, after his sister’s death in 1890. Once there, he steadfastly refused to find work in a field other than photography and also steadfastly refused to sell his photographs. His father purchased a small photography business for Alfred, hoping that his eldest son would be able to indulge his passions and earn a living from it. However, Stieglitz had such a high standard for his own work and the work of his employees that the outfit, Photochrome Engraving Company, rarely made a profit. However, while maintaining it, Stieglitz came into contact with the editor of The American Amateur Photographer magazine. This magazine began to carry articles and features written by Stieglitz. His own exhibitions did well and within a few years, Alfred Stieglitz was known throughout the photography world as a name that meant high-quality, attention to detail, and a relentless pursuit of perfection. In 1892, he had purchased his first hand-held camera and used it to capture two of his most famous images: “Winter, Fifth Avenue” and “The Terminal.” The following year, he was invited to become the co-editor of The American Amateur Photographer for his tireless work in advocating for photography as an art on par with painting.

At the insistence of his parents, Stieglitz married in 1893. His wife, Emmy, was nine years younger than he and the sister of one of his business associates, Joe Obermeyer. Their marriage was not marked by warmth or common interests. Stieglitz, envious of his younger twin siblings’ close relationship, bitterly resented Emmy for failing to become his “twin.” He took Emmy on a delayed honeymoon through Europe where he continued to pursue photography and met French photographer Robert Demachy, and Linked Ring founders George Davidson and Alfred Horsley Hinton. While on this trip, Stieglitz captured several more of his famous photographs including A Venetian Canal, “The Net Mender,” and A Wet Day on the Boulevard, Paris.

After the honeymoon and their return to New York, Stieglitz was unanimously elected to become one of the two American members of the Linked Ring society. Viewing this election as the impetus he needed to step up his cause of promoting artistic photography in the United States, Stieglitz spent the next two years arguing for the merger of the Society of Amateur Photographers and the New York Camera Club. Both groups were more focused on photography’s technical aspects and not at all on its artistic aspects. The membership of both organizations was decaying and their funding base was virtually nonexistent. When they merged to form the Camera Club, Stieglitz began pouring his energy into using the club as a basis for educating Americans on artistic photography. The club’s magazine expanded to carry printed works as well as articles written by Stieglitz. However, as his work became more in demand and more exhibitions were granted to him, Stieglitz was forced to bring in outside help to run the Camera Club and to edit its magazine, Camera Notes. Since the men he brought on board, Joseph Keiley and Dallet Fugeut, were not members of the Camera Club, the older members began to resent Stieglitz’s policies and began working to oust him. The continual battles would soon cause Stieglitz to break down and resign as editor of Camera Notes.

However, there is much more to be said about the life and times of Alfred Stieglitz. Stay tuned for the next installment in this work to learn more about one of the men who made photography into the art and discipline it is today!

— da Bird