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
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. …