Historical Photographers: Alfred Stieglitz, Part II

Part I of this series was posted last Monday

After resigning from the Camera Club and his position as editor of its magazine Camera Notes, Stieglitz continued to correspond with other photographers. Among them was Eva Watson-Schütze, a fellow American photographer. She urged Stieglitz to use his influence to put together an exhibition that would be judged solely by photographers. Throughout its history, photography had been judged primarily by painters and other types of artists who were unfamiliar with its technical characteristics. Stieglitz had been campaigning since 1898 to create a photographer-only standard of judging and, with encouragement from Watston-Schütze and other like-minded photographers, he found the energy to create such an exhibition. Held at the National Arts Club, this exhibition featured prints from many of Stieglitz’s close friends. In honor of the Munich photographers and exhibits that had inspired him to such a goal, Stieglitz named this movement of photography the Photography-Secession. However, Stieglitz wasn’t just seceding from the artistic constraints placed on photography in the era — he was seceding from the Camera Club, in a way, by maintaining his personal control over the exhibit.

Spurred by the exhibit’s success, Stieglitz set out to launch a completely independent photography magazine that would carry on the same high standards as the Photo-Secessionist movement. Called Camera Work this magazine included prints of photogravures that were so high in quality that when one set of prints failed to arrive for an exhibit in Belgium, the magazine’s prints were used instead.

However, by 1904, Stieglitz was once again mentally and physically exhausted. He insisted on approving every detail of the Camera Work magazine all the while preparing and promoting his own exhibits and working to put together shows for other Photo-Secessionists. The equivalent of three full-time jobs took its toll and in 1904, he decided to take his family for a long trip to Germany. As was his usual modus operandi, Stieglitz planned a grueling series of exhibitions, meetings and excursions for this “restful” vacation. However, he collapsed upon reaching Berlin and spent the next several months photographing Germany while his family visited relations within the country.

On his way back to the US, Stieglitz stopped in London to try to convince the members of the Linked Ring society to open a chapter in America. However, Stieglitz was already known as a force to be reckoned with, a person who would allow no standards but his own to be imposed on photography, and who was forceful in having his way. The Linked Ring members feared that if they opened an American chapter with Stieglitz as its head, they would soon find themselves beneath him. Before Stieglitz could convince them otherwise, he took ill again and was forced to return to the US.

His return home brought him back into a world of turmoil with this colleagues and dealing with every photographer and photography association in the US that wanted to take him down as the de facto voice of photography. During this time, Stieglitz’s friend Edward Steichen convinced the photographer to take out a lease on a series of rooms near his own Fifth Avenue apartment and to use them as an exhibit hall. At first he worn-out Stieglitz was disinterested but Steichen persisted, reminding him that this project would be completely under his control just like Camera Work. In the end, the exhibition was opened and many of the prints were sold, netting the show around $2,800 — as well as giving Stieglitz a fourth full-time job.

As photography became more and more well accepted and much of Stieglitz’s earlier work paid off, he began looking for ways to shake off the new and growing complacency. Reaching out to other artists, he began exhibiting drawings and paintings next to photographs. The first non-photographer artist to benefit from this new outlook was Pamela Coleman Smith. The exhibition showing her work interspersed with photographs and the resounding success of that exhibit inspired Stieglitz to alter course from merely being an advocate for photography and instead expand to become an advocate for modern art.