Painters of Light: Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand

Article excerpt

Stieglitz, Steichen, And Strand defined photography as art.

Malcolm Daniel, curator of photographs, says the title of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition - "Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand" - "goes to the heart of what this show's about: the interwoven stories" of three friends, colleagues, and pioneers. Call them the Three Musketeers, dueling to win acceptance for a new medium as an art equal to painting.

The exhibition of 115 photographs (most from 1900 to 1920) on view until April 10 has an almost narrative flow. It begins with the trio's ringleader, Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), a chief advocate for the Pictorialist masterpieces of his protege Edward Steichen (1879-1973) and later for the modernist images of acolyte Paul Strand (1890-1976). Stieglitz is best known as editor of the journal Camera Work and for his influential gallery "291," called by painter John Marin "the biggest little room in the world."

It's hard now to imagine how photography was sniffily dismissed as a mechanical process without artistic merit. When exhibited at expositions it was relegated to the machines section or industrial pavilion. Victorian tastemaker John Ruskin admitted in 1872 that photographs were useful "for geographical and geological pursuits" but pegged their value "for art purposes' worth [at] a good deal less than zero."

When Stieglitz first proposed donating American photographs to the Metropolitan around 1904, the director was aghast, saying, "Why, Mr. Stieglitz, you won't insist that a photograph can possibly be a work of art?" Not until 1928 did Stieglitz cross the hallowed threshold with a gift of 20 of his own prints. He crowed: "The Metropolitan Museum has opened its sacred halls to Photography.... My photographs have performed the miracle!"

Museums today, pressured by the recession, are installing exhibitions like this one from their own collections. Fortunately, thanks to gifts from Stieglitz and his wife, painter Georgia O'Keeffe, the Metropolitan can do it in spades. Three galleries - one for each photographer - display in depth the work of three Old Masters of the medium, offering a rare look at a pivotal period in the history of photography.

In his early career Stieglitz crusaded to raise the status of Pictorialist photography, practiced mainly from 1889 to 1914. These soft-focus, self-consciously aestheticized images were all about Beauty with a capital "B." They imitated paintings and often involved hand manipulation of the negative or print to prove the image was not merely a record of reality but also a unique creation of an artist's vision.

Somewhat oddly since he was its chief promoter, Stieglitz did not shoot his own images in soft focus; nor did he subject the surface of the photographic plate to darkroom tricks. "The Steerage" (1907) is a straightforward study of lines, light, shadow, and geometric forms. (Stieglitz later called it his first "modernist" photograph.) He insisted photographs are not description but metaphor. "Photography is my passion," he said. "The search for Truth is my obsession."

After 1917 Stieglitz pursued aesthetic truth with a passion, literally his passion for O'Keeffe (whom he married in 1924). For the next 20 years he made more than 331 images of her. The portraits chart the ups and downs of their intense relationship, from the soft curves of her nude body during their heady infatuation through her independence after she traveled to New Mexico. "Georgia O'Keeffe - Hand and Wheel" (1933), a close-up of her hand on the shiny wheel of her new Ford V8, suggests her mobility and increasing distance.

When the 21-year-old Steichen came through New York on his way to Paris to study painting, he made a beeline to Stieglitz's domain, the Camera Club of New York, to show his portfolio to the master. Steichen won the seal of approval for his moody landscapes, which Stieglitz exhibited in his gallery and published in magazines. …