Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand: Three Masters of 20th Century Photography


With the economic downturn, New York’s major museums are forsaking the expensive blockbusters of yore. Instead, and most wisely, they are rummaging through their vast collections, and coming up with wonderful treasures from their attic, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand, as well as a small complementary photography show, Our Future Is In The Air.

Lucky us. Because though some of us may have seen many of these iconic images from the 1900s to the 1920s, there are still new insights to be gained, new crown jewels to be viewed—such as three versions of the Flatiron Building by Steichen—and new generations to be educated about the history and evolution of photography in America.

The exhibition, organized by Malcolm Daniel (above), Curator of the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of Photographs, is a male story, beginning with Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), the Founding Father, who advocated for photography as an art form through his New York gallery, “291,” and his journal, Camera Work. He subsequently discovered and anointed two disciples, Edward Steichen (1879-1973), and Paul Strand (1890 -1976), men younger than himself who, in turn, influenced generations of photographers well into the 1950s.

One reason it is a male story at the Met is because Stieglitz launched the Museum’s photography collection in 1928 by donating 22 of his own works and, eventually, more than 600 photographs by his contemporaries, including Steichen and Strand. In short, he saw to it that photography would be recognized as an art form on a par with the Impressionists and other avant-garde movements, and made certain that his curatorial tastes would prevail.

The exhibition gives viewers a full sense of these three artists—each of whom gets a room—and how their works and lives were interwoven. It includes some of Stieglitz’s famous—and infamous—portraits of Georgia O’Keefe (1887–1986), who Stieglitz championed as an artist, and eventually married. He made more than 300 images of his muse between 1917 and 1937, and they still retain their originality, tenderness and power.

According to O’Keefe, Stieglitz “never made a trip to photograph.” His enduring subjects were drawn from the life around him. They included New York, from its horse-and-carriage days to its sleek, skyscraper skyline, his artist friends, the women in his life as well as images taken while on vacation in his country home in the Adirondacks, especially his “cloud” images, which he called “equivalents.”

Stieglitz launched the Photo-Secession movement, a phrase meant to “secede” from viewing photographs as mere technical reproductions. Instead, he promoted the painstaking technique of multiple printing, such as Steichen’s three prints of The Flatiron (1904), which attempted to rival the scale, color and individuality of painting. Steichen brushed layers of pigment suspended in light-sensitive gum solution onto a platinum photograph and, though only using one negative, created three images that convey the progression of twilight. The Met’s three prints, donated by Stieglitz in 1933, are the only exhibition prints in existence.

Paul Strand (1890 – 1976), a decade younger than Steichen, pioneered a dramatic shift away from the soft-focus aesthetic of Photo-Secessionists to the graphic power of modernism. Lewis Hine, the social reformer and photographer, introduced young Strand, still in high school at Ethical Culture, to Stieglitz. As a visitor to gallery “291,” the young man received an unrivaled aesthetic education, imbibing the work of such avant-garde European artists as Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse and Brancusi.

Between 1915 ad 1917, Strand, the disciple, transformed the master, Stieglitz, with his revolutionary images, which included abstraction, radical camera angles, close ups and candid street portraits obtained with a hand-held camera which Strand had fitted with a special lens that allowed him to point his camera in one direction while taking the shot at a 90 degree angle. Stieglitz endorsed his disciple’s groundbreaking work, showing it at his gallery and devoting the entire final double issue of Camera Work (1917) to Strand. Blind, one of Strand’s seminal street portraits of a street peddler, a gift to the Met by Stieglitz, is the only exhibition print of this image from that period.

This wonderful exhibition of the Founding Fathers of modern American photography is complemented by, Our Future Is In The Air: Photographs from the 1910s, an eclectic assortment of 53 photographs by 30 artists, chosen by curator Douglas Eklund (photo, below).

Among those represented are a wide range of extraordinary photographers, such as Eugène Atget, E. J. Bellocq, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Eugène Druet, Lewis Hine, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Adolph de Meyer, Christian Schad, Morton Schamberg, Charles Sheeler, and Stanislaw Witkiewicz.

The 1910s ushered in the modern era. It was a decade of enormous change, including: industrialization, assembly line production, skyscrapers, air travel, women’s suffrage, child-labor laws, cubism, futurism, the birth of Hollywood, The Great War, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and the Russian Revolution.

The exhibition begins with photo-postcards of the funeral of Tolstoy, features a wonderful 1918 photograph by an unknown photographer of Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks entertaining a huge crowd at a war bonds rally on Wall Street, as well as six photos by Lewis Hinds, exposing child labor practices, and a rare vintage print of a Storyville prostitute, taken by E.J. Bellocq around 1912.

It’s an impressive little show, all drawn from the museums photography collection. Taken together, both shows are an historical treasure and aesthetic pleasure.

Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand: Three Masters of 20th Century Photography
Metropolitan Museum, November 10 – April 10, 2011
Our Future Is In The Air: Photographs From The 1910s

Museum photos, from top:

Edward Steichen
(American, born Luxembourg, 1879–1973)
Alfred Stieglitz, 1907
23.9 x 18 cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alfred
Stieglitz Collection, 1955 (55.635.10)

Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864–1946)
Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918
Platinum print
11.7 x 9 cm (4 5/8 x 3 9/16 in.)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of
Georgia O’Keeffe, through the generosity of
The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation and
Jennifer and Joseph Duke, 1997

Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864–1946)
Equivalent, 1925
Gelatin silver print
9.3 x 11.9 cm. (3 11/16 x 4 11/16 in.)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alfred
Stieglitz Collection, 1928 (28.128.8)

Edward Steichen
(American, born Luxembourg, 1879–1973)
The Flatiron, 1904
Gum bichromate over platinum print
47.8 x 38.4 cm (18 13/16 x 15 1/8 in.)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alfred
Stieglitz Collection, 1933 (33.43.43)

Paul Strand (American, 1890–1976)
Blind, 1916
Platinum print
34 x 25.7 cm (13 3/8 x 10 1/8 in.)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alfred
Stieglitz Collection, 1933 (33.43.334)

Unknown Artist, American School
[Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks Selling
Liberty Loans during the Third Loan Campaign
at the Sub Treasury Building on Wall Street,
New York City], 1918
Gelatin silver print
19.4 x 24.1 cm. (7 5/8 x 9 1/2 in.)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, The
Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through
Joyce and Robert Menschel, 1996 (1996.246)

Add Comment Register

Leave a Reply

Find out why every womanwants to be a woman around town.

Sign up for our Free E-mails and receive news about upcoming events and promotions