Historical Photographers: Alfred Stieglitz, Part III
Moving from advocating solely for photography and more for advocating for modern art, Alfred Stieglitz took the unusual step on 1907 of working together with Clarence H. White, a friend, on a series of photographic experiments. The pair hired two models and took photos of them both clothed and nude. The prints from these photographs were done using a variety of unusual techniques, including toning, waxing and drawing on platinum prints. These photos remain the most unusual and distinct of Stieglitz’s career.
While Stieglitz was continuing to enjoy great artistic success, his artistry rarely converted into commercial success. The Little Galleries exhibit which had helped launch Pamela Coleman Smith’s career operated at a loss most months. Subscriptions to Camera Work began to fall off, leaving Stieglitz just $400 from the endeavor. Emmy, his wife, continued to spend beyond their modest means keeping a full-time governess for their daughter Kitty and insisting on an annual trip to Europe where they stayed in the best hotels. In 1907, Emmy took the family on the annual trip and while on the ship, Stieglitz captured the photo that became his signature image and one of the most important images in the 20th century: The Steerage. During this trip to Europe, Stieglitz saw the first commercial demonstration of the Autochrome Lumière color photography process and was soon experimenting with it alongside his friends and colleagues Steichen, Frank Eugene and Alvin Langdon Coburn.
When the family returned to the US, Stieglitz was forced to face several new problems. The Camera Club Trustees requested his resignation from the club — a request that Stieglitz ignored. Since he had left the club, its membership had plummeted and the Club was nearing bankruptcy. However, the members at large of the club did not want Stieglitz to resign or to be forced out. When forty of them resigned in protest at the Trustees’ actions, Stieglitz was reinstated as a life member.
Stieglitz also closed down the Little Galleries for a brief time, reopening them in February 1908 under the name “291.” This new name represented a breaking away from the old traditions of photography and even Photo-Secession. In 291, Stieglitz sought to bring down the barriers between the different art forms and displayed controversial works such as August Rodin’s sexually explicit drawings alongside more “acceptable” paintings and drawings. Photographs were interspersed throughout the exhibit. The works displayed came from both established artists and new up-and-comers, from both Europe and America, and from all schools of artistic discipline. The goal of this mixture was to “set up a dialogue that would enable 291 visitors to see, discuss and ponder the differences and similarities between artists of all ranks and types: between painters, draftsmen, sculptors and photographers; between European and American artists; between older or more established figures and younger, newer practitioners.”
Edward Stieglitz, Alfred’s father, passed away in 1909 and left his son a princely inheritance of $10,000. Alfred invested this money in his studios and his magazine, keeping both going for another several years. The success of 291 brought Stieglitz into contact with many new artists. Though he continued to defend the Photo-Secession movement from its detractors and continued to argue against those who thought him too confined and too narrow in his scope to be qualified to judge new photography styles, the next several years were years of quiet for him. His own photography from this era, The Steerage excepted, is unheard of and unpublished.
The outbreak of World War I in 1914 caused Stieglitz much stress. He had many friends and family in Europe and was constantly concerned for their safety. In addition, the print house that handled the photogravures for Camera Work was in Germany and Stieglitz was forced to find another firm to handle such matters. The economic downturn that resulted from the war hit the art world hard. With art seen as a luxury, subscriptions to Camera Work and visitors to 291 fell off sharply. Stieglitz’s friends, among them Marius de Zayas, Paul de Haviland, and Agnes Meyer, all of whom were more modern artists featured in 291, encouraged him to try a completely new project. However, this new project, an avant-garde journal called 291, was a financial disaster that ceased production after 12 issues.
In 1915, Stieglitz met Paul Strand. Strand had been a frequent visitor to 291. However, influenced by the modern art scene, Strand developed a new style of photography that focused on the bold lines of everyday items. Stieglitz was intrigued by this style and soon gave Strand a major exhibit in 291. In 1916, Stieglitz saw a portfolio of works from a new artist named Georgia O’Keeffe. Without waiting for her permission to show them, Stieglitz put them all over 291. When the two finally met, Stieglitz was immediately smitten both artistically and physically. However, O’Keeffe did not return his affections immediately and began a budding relationship with Strand. However, the relationship between O’Keeffe and Strand was not destined to last and, by the end of 1917, O’Keeffe and Stieglitz were nearly inseparable. Their relation formed the bridge to the next chapter of Stieglitz’s life and helped him move completely away from pictorial photography towards modern art.