Published by Safe-T-Gallery Inc.
Don Burmeister: Owner/Editor
Barbara Confino: Associate Editor
Would you like to see a photography exhibition curated by Alfred Stieglitz? Hard to pull off, as the man himself has been dead since 1946, and the Photo-Secession, the group of pictorialist photographers he founded in 1902, disbanded over 100 years ago! But you can get a good idea of what such an exhibition might look like at the Metropolitan Museum’s current show, “Photographic Treasures from the Collection of Alfred Stieglitz”.
Stieglitz was one of the most important figures in the history of photography at the Met, in large part as a consequence of three groups of photographs he donated to the museum, starting with 22 images in 1928. A much larger group of 419 pictorialist images was made in 1933, and a posthumous gift of 199 photographic prints dates from 1949, though it is not clear to what extent this last bequest resulted from Stieglitz’s own decisions or those of the executor of his estate, Georgia O’Keefe. In any event, these gifts were game changing, the first especially, as these were the first art photographs to enter the Met’s permanent collection, and they legitimized fine art photography as worthy of consideration by this august institution.
Drawn mostly from the 1933 gift, the present show of approximately 50 prints contains 3 or 4 prints from 1949, but none from the 1928 donation; the latter omission is regrettable, as a certain amount of curiosity about which specific images sparked the museum’s relationship with fine art photography is only natural. Visitors who follow photography will recognize most of the names represented in this show: Alvin Langdon Coburn, F. Holland Day, Gertrude Käsebier, Clarence White and, of course, Edward Steichen are among the best known. No works by Stieglitz are included, though you can see some of his photos in the larger companion exhibition “Stieglitz and His Artists: Matisse to O’Keefe”.
These photographs all fall within the canon of pictorialism. The dominant photo style of the early 20th century, it emphasized soft focus (i.e., “blurry”) imagery, subtle tonal gradations within a limited tonal range and, most importantly, the immediately appealing subject matter (aside form straightforward portraits) most viewers would consider “picturesque.” Many pictorialist photos were printed with very dark tonalities, not infrequently so dark that one has difficulty reading the image; for example, in “The Black Vase,” Steichen’s photograph of a woman with a vase, one would not find the vase unless clued to do so by the title.
Most of the images on the walls feature people, either in portraits or allegories emphasizing traditional virtues and the like; these are complemented by a few landscapes and still lifes. In keeping with the pictorialist aesthetic, they are easily approachable works that appeal to one’s romantic sentiments with nothing difficult or critical of existing social and economic conditions. The closest exception to this generalization is found in Day’s photographic reconstruction of the crucifixion of Christ in which Day cast himself in the lead role. Viewers may alternatively find this series deeply spiritual, blasphemous, or simply zany (I tend toward the latter opinion).
One take-away from this exhibition is the confirmation of what a great photographer Edward Steichen was. Of the many portraits in this show, his profile image of the actress Mercedes de Cordoba stands out for its ability to both capture this woman’s essence and mystify it at the same time. Compare this portrait to others of the actress you can find on the web and you will see instantly what a large talent Steichen possessed. His landscape “Storm in the Garden of the Gods – Colorado” will likewise impress and enchant you even if the title does not.
All of the images in this exhibition merit your attention and will, hopefully, gratify you immensely; there are no duds. If there is a downside to this show it is that too large a dose of pictorialism is like a gourmet dinner consisting only of sweets; at the end of the meal you may want a shot of brandy to cleanse the pallet. In lieu of brandy I suggest you go around the corner and sample works in the Met’s gallery of contemporary photography.