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Alfred Stieglitz - Gifted Gallery

Alfred Stieglitz, born January 1, 1864, was an American photographer and modern art promoter who was instrumental over his 50-year career in making photography an accepted art form. In addition to his photography, Stieglitz was known for the New York art galleries that he ran in the early part of the 20th century, where he introduced many avant-garde European artists to the U.S.

Stieglitz was a student in Germany when he bought his first camera, an 8 × 10 plate film camera that required a tripod. Despite its bulk, Stieglitz travelled throughout Europe, taking photographs of landscapes and labourers in Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.

"Photography fascinated me, first as a toy, then as a passion, then as an obsession."

- Alfred Stieglitz

Stieglitz considered himself an artist, but he refused to sell his photographs. His father purchased a small photography business for him so that he could earn a living in his chosen profession. Because he demanded high quality images and paid his employee high wages, the Photochrome Engraving Company rarely made a profit. He regularly wrote for The American Amateur Photographer magazine. He won awards for his photographs at exhibitions, including the joint exhibition of the Boston Camera Club, Photographic Society of Philadelphia and the Society of Amateur Photographers of New York.

Stieglitz collected books on photography and photographers in Europe and the US and wrote articles on the technical and aesthetic aspects of photography. Through his self-study, Stieglitz developed and refined his vision of photography as an art form. In 1887, he wrote his very first article, "A Word or Two about Amateur Photography in Germany", for the new magazine The Amateur Photographer. He then wrote articles on the technical and aesthetic aspects of photography for magazines in England and Germany.

In 1892, Stieglitz bought his first hand-held camera, a Folmer and Schwing 4 × 5 plate film camera, which he used to take two of his best known images, Winter on Fifth Avenue and The Terminal.

In 1902, Stieglitz founded Photo-Secession, a radical and controversial movement that was influential in promoting photography as a fine art. For this group, photography was viewed not just as a documenting tool, but as a new way of expression and creation, whereby an image could be manipulated to achieve a subjective vision.

The ideas of Photo-Secession, and the establishment of photography as a fine art, were promoted through Stieglitz's Camera Work, a quarterly photographic journal published from 1903 to 1917. The first issue was printed in December 1902, and like all of the subsequent issues it contained beautiful hand-pulled photogravures (a process that uses gelatin to transfer the image from a black and white negative to a copper printing plate), critical writings on photography, and commentaries on photographers and exhibitions.

In the introduction to the first issue, Stieglitz wrote:

"Only examples of such works as gives evidence of individuality and artistic worth, regardless of school, or contains some exceptional feature of technical merit, or such as exemplifies some treatment worthy of consideration, will find recognition in these pages. Nevertheless, the Pictorial will be the dominating feature of the magazine."

In 1905 Stieglitz opened the "little galleries of the Photo-Secession" in New York at 291 Fifth Avenue, which later became known as gallery '291'. The effect of the First World War and the changes in the New York arts scene meant that by 1917 Stieglitz could no longer afford to publish Camera Work or to run the gallery.

In 1916 Stieglitz first saw the work of the American artist Georgia O'Keeffe and was impressed by the expressive power of her large abstract drawings. The following year he hosted her first solo exhibition at his gallery '291' in New York. He also started to photograph O'Keeffe, posing her in front of her work and finding ways to fuse her body with the compositions. This was the start of an extraordinary collaboration that lasted over 20 years and resulted in over 300 photographs. Stieglitz and O'Keeffe's artistic dialogue extended to a profound influence on each other's work. They became lovers and married in 1924.

Influenced by the large abstract drawings of O'Keeffe and the work of American photographer Paul Strand, Stieglitz adopted an arguably more Modernist approach in the 1920s and 1930s. He started to make small gelatin-silver prints of exquisite precision and sharp tonal contrast and to explore the artistic and spiritual potential of his everyday surroundings.

Between 1925 and 1934, Stieglitz took a series of photographs of clouds. The Equivalents, as he came to call them, are some of the first intentionally abstract photographic works of art and have been hailed as his most important contribution to photography.

Stieglitz's aim was not to distill the essence of clouds but to transform them into an abstract language of form expressive of his feelings. By removing any reference points and allowing the photographs to be viewed in any orientation, Stieglitz "was destabilising your (the viewer's) relationship with nature in order to have you think less about nature, not to deny that it's a photograph of a cloud, but to think more about the feeling that the cloud formation evokes."

In later years Stieglitz focused his attention on running exhibitions, in venues such as the Intimate Gallery and An American Place. He put together sixteen shows of works by Marin, Dove, Hartley, O'Keeffe and Strand, along with individual exhibits by Gaston Lachaise, Oscar Bluemnerand and Francis Picabia.

Alfred Stieglitz died July 13, 1946, aged 82, in New York, following a fatal stroke. Stieglitz produced more than 2,500 mounted photographs over his career. After his death, O'Keeffe assembled a set of what she considered the best of his photographs that he had personally mounted. In some cases she included slightly different versions of the same image, and these series are invaluable for their insights about Stieglitz's aesthetic composition. In 1949, she donated the first part of what she called the "key set" of 1,317 Stieglitz photographs to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. In 1980, she added to the set another 325 photographs taken by Stieglitz of her. Now numbering 1,642 photographs, it is the largest, most complete collection of Stieglitz's work anywhere in the world.



Reading Recommendations & Content Considerations

Sarah Greenough & Juan Hamilton The Complete Photographs


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