Alfred StieglitzOne of the most interesting stories in American art revolves around the life of a man who, while an artist of some repute with a tremendous influence on the history of painting in this country, probably never wielded a paint brush in his life. He was born in 1864 in Hoboken, New Jersey, to wealthy parents of German descent who had come to this country only a decade before. He grew up with all the advantages of an upper-middle-class lifestyle, a college education, and study abroad in his parents' native Germany. There in 1883, he began his art career in a medium that at the time wasn't even considered by most to be an art medium--photography.
Upon his return to New York City, Alfred Stieglitz quickly established himself as a photographer with photographs of the city that mimicked the Impressionist paintings he saw in Europe. He also founded and edited a small magazine called Camera Notes promoting innovative photography. Due in large part to Stieglitz efforts, photography demanded to become an art medium, at first imitating painting, then moving beyond that to emphasize those artistic advantages it held over the other arts. Perhaps Stieglitz's greatest single work has much the same qualities as a painting. His classic photo, The Steerage, produced in 1907, appears to show the hopeful arrival of Emma Lazarus' "huddled masses" from Europe's overpopulated countries on its lower level juxtaposed against the wealthy first class arrivals on the upper level. In fact, the ship, upon which Stieglitz was a passenger, was Eastbound, thus the so called "huddled masses" were returning to Europe.
The trip was a fateful one for Stieglitz. There he met Pablo Picasso for the first time, to whom he showed the photo, The Steerage. Picasso was said to have admired it greatly. In Paris, Stieglitz met a number of other avant-garde artists, and when he returned to this country, he brought some of their paintings with him. He began showing them in his tiny photo gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue, side by side with artistic photographs by himself and others. His was the first gallery on these shores to display work by Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Duchamp, and Monet, to name just a few. In later years, he moved toward photographic portraiture with his artist-wife, Georgia O'Keefe as his primary subject. Meanwhile, his 291 Gallery remained a focal point in the evolution of avant-garde art in this country, both photography and painting, until the building was torn down in 1917. Alfred Stieglitz died in 1946, as revered by painters as by photographers.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
8 July 1998