New York Photo Review
NYPR Archives - 2010

Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand

Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand
Reviewer #1
Georgia O’Keefe, 1918 by Alfred Stieglitz. Source:
Alfred Stieglitz, "Georgia O’Keefe, 1918"

Stieglitz, Steichen Strand, the current in-house blockbuster at the Metropolitan, presents work that is the bedrock on which the world of American art photography is built.

Born in New Jersey during the American Civil War, Alfred Stieglitz came to prominence as a photographer, writer and gallery owner at the turn of the twentieth century. (As a gallerist he was also the first to show the work of Picasso, Matisse and Cezanne in the United States.) The son of a wealthy merchant, and married initially to an even more wealthy heiress, he was a most tireless and influential proselytizer for photography as a fine art. His own photography, not coincidentally, was the first to be collected by the Met as art, and he bequeathed his own considerable collection to the museum as well. Edward Steichen and Paul Strand, both a generation younger than Stieglitz, were both encouraged and promoted by him.

All three men participated in the great sea-change that brought photography from the murky (but at times enchanting) world of Pictorialist, quasi-painting that marked artistic photography at the end of the 19th century, into the clearer, sharper, ‘more photographic’ style of the twentieth. Aside from a few earlier Stieglitz pieces, this exhibition concentrates on the period when all three were producing their most striking and essential images. Each photographer has his own room, and each room would be worth a visit on its own right.

Pride of place goes to the old man. He was one of the first photographers to grasp the concepts of modern composition in photographs, the idea that a photograph is shaped not only by the content of the image, but by the overall shape that the image makes in the print. “The Steerage” with its lighter top and darker bottom is a step in that direction, but it becomes fully formed in his intimate series of photographs of his mistress (and eventually wife) Georgia O’Keeffe. Closely cropped, intimate views, these pictures are clearly a collaboration between the two artists. Steiglitz then printed the negatives on platinum paper allowing for sensitive gradations of grey and the bright and dark areas. Pictures like no others seen at the time, they were irreproducible. The show concludes its wall of O’Keeffes with two images made 15 years after the initial set. Same hands, same artists, but the chemistry had changed (literally and figuratively.) We see two, cold, silver-gelatin prints of those beautiful fingers, now caressing a cow skull and an automobile hubcap.

The Flatiron by Edward Steichen. Source:
Edward Steichen, "The Flatiron" 1904

Edward Steichen had the longest and most varied career of the three, with perhaps even more influence on the American photography scene than Stieglitz. This exhibit however, focuses on his earlier work, most of it still influenced by pictorialism. In what was one of the revelations of the show to me, the Met presents its three versions of “The Flatiron”. The wall label states that these are the only known prints of this iconic New York image. All three are gum-bichromate prints, one printed in 1905 and two in 1909, each unique in its color values. Steichen was an early advocate of color processes, and the change from the nearly monochromatic image of 1905 to the rich blues of the later two is striking.

The third room houses the work of Paul Strand. Of the three, he was the one with the most social consciousness. Initially introduced to photography by Lewis Hine, for several years Steiglitz and his circle encouraged him to adopt a more radical approach to the medium. Those few years produced the richest work of his career. Some of the images emerge from a political concern, most notably “Blind”, his image of a New York woman, taken with a 90° angled lens on the street. But his more abstract works–close-ups of shadowed cups, fence posts, and, most notable by its absence, “Wall Street”–exerted even greater influence on modern photography. His series of plant close-ups presage an entire genre of nature photography.

Again, along with the chance to see old favorites, there were some revelations. A vitrine with vintage issues of Steiglitz’s magazine Camera Work shows two iconic images of Strand’s “Picket Fence” and “Washerwoman”. No known vintage exhibition-sized prints of these pictures exist, an indication that no matter the quality of the work, the business of selling art photography was still years behind the curve.

In short, this is one hell of a show, basic to the understanding of the entire field of photography, both in New York, and in the world. The biggest question raised is: Why isn’t this the core of a permanent, historical display of photography at the Met? As wonderful as this exhibition is now, this work is worthy of being seen by every visitor to the Met– no matter what year they happen to arrive.

Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand

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Wednesday, November 10 to
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