– Alfred Stieglitz’s photography: from the realistic New York cityscape to an abstract impressionism –
#1 Alfred Stieglitz (1864 -1946) was raised in a brownstone on Manhattan’s Upper East Side of New York City; even as an American photograph with German origins, he lived fully the inter-cultural imprinting of his European artistic background and of his artistic evolution in New York. His family moved in to Berlin where Stieglitz studied mechanical engineering but soon, impressed by the landscapes of the Dutch seacoast and Germans forest he started shooting photographs. That is how his return to New York was truly fertile: he became publisher and editor of some important revues such as American Amateur Photographer and the Camera Club of New York, known as an art periodical called simply Camera Work (1903), which will incorporate various art articles, photographs, reproductions of American and European photographers and essays. “Camera Work was the most luxurious and expensive photographic journal of its days (…) it was the most advanced American periodical devoted to the arts”.1F Homer says as well that thanks to the Camera Work review the mysteries of modern art for the American elite audience were unraveled. In fact, we will see later on, Stieglitz is important in the history of photography and art history has revalued photography by giving its enormous and unlimited freedom of picturesque expansion. He had redefined the photography through the revelation of its intrinsic relationship with other visual art. Whelan in the biography of Stieglitz explains, actually why the Steiglitz photograph discourse was particular. He said that “the camera naturally surpassed even the most talented painter in the accurate depiction of form” and that it is practically pointless for painters to try to do what photography does better – and that on the other hand it was pointless that the photography tries to repeat the “(…) second-rate illustration”2F. Stieglitz’s scientific method consisted in confusing artistic gender in a photographical insight and in giving the idea of mix between an impressionistic overview and perhaps some sort of Japanese – occidental reproduction of the landscape.
#2 His early photographs were an inter-text of the European picturesque style, while his late work was focalized in depth on a few subjects, including the urban sights of the New York City. His other production, such as the cloud cycle, that he called Equivalents, was an explicit challenge of the metaphysical representation of the immaculate possibilities of the light-condensation. The cycle of portrait series of his wife, the controversial painter Georgia O’Keeffe and the cycle of nude as a courageous artistic perception of the photography, opened a new chapter in the free representation of female body and sexual desire in the photographs in America. Moreover, we may say that his photographs made between 1910 and 1911 in New York “speak of transit, arrivals and departures to and from New York – and of new buildings, in short, man-made elements forming an architectural stage with backdrops of water and sky. In contrast to the cold geometry of his later photographs of New York City buildings, many of these still contain the suggestion of a human presence and a sense of developing modern city”3F. The serial of nudes and portraits of George O’Keeffe and Rebecca Salsbury Strand had become a clear prove that the body, according to the Modernistic standards, has to be cut and decomposed into pieces so that it could expand its multiple meanings and multiple significations. Perhaps these photographs could witness the sexual desire and an intimate representation of art, but for sure, they will remain a link between the image of naked and decomposed body of the Modernity and the simulacrum of the Otherness. In these photographs, the Victorian shyness and body inhibition remains hermetically closed in the past. Naked bodies of pin-up girls had already started invading the publicity. The cubist fragmentary composition of the body had taken its turn in the avant-garde artistic movement in Europe. Thus, the American news in the Stieglitz nude photographs had completely turned over the meaning of the body representation and the female freedom of expression. In this sense, it is important to underline some names of American female artists who worked in New York in the dawn of the 20th Century: Georgia O’Keeffe, Imogen Cunningham, Margrethe Mather, Pamela Colman Smith, Emma Goldman who, for example, transformed the Greenwich Village into authentic intellectual and feminist centre. In fact, with the rise of the American modernism and in the European avant-garde art, in the photography, or on the canvas, the body and its representation have lost the head as well as the hands and the legs. Moved into another perspective, in its asymmetrical shape, the body alludes to some other meaning diffused beyond sexuality. The abstract body is been cut and this cut is a sublimate and essential act in Modernism because it puts the touch as well as the indication of the smooth surface of the skin is in the foreground: the shadows in the water are provoking the explosion of the female body.
New York City reveals its signs of a giant cosmopolitan metropolis. The group called Photo Secession created at the beginning of the XXth Century and composed by other photographers among whom Edward Steichen, Gertrude Kasebier, Clarence White and Alvin Langdon Coburn. The modernism of this movement tended to make the artistic world to see photography as a distinctive medium of an authentic artistic expression and as a fine art which was, however, different from the first well known fine art medium – the picture, the oil on canvas. Often, the new revolutionary and dissent spirit was related to Stigelitz avant-garde company because they gave some new directions and experimental revalorisation to the whole quality of New York life in the early twentieth century and they refused each pro- or contra- European classification. The Camera work and the proto-dada review, 291, were inspired by the Paris evenings of Apollinaire and the French modernist, moreover poetic movement but also by the Dada-anarchist movement. According to the Dada theory and definition, Art does not exist, actually nothing exist and all the past has to be abolished. Stieglitz was not an anarchist in the real sense of the term, but he changed the rules of art craft in the photography creation. He might show banal or incident scenes of the turbulent New York life, but his mind-blowing photo discourse disarranged the inner geometry of the composition. In these reviews, he will expose also black art, the abstract paintings of Picabia about New York city and later on the Duchamps fontain which will scanadalize all (…)”4F, and other avant-garde mostly European artists such as Picasso, Braque, Brancusi, Matisse. Hoffman notes: “Camera work and all pictures, essays, exhibitions, and book works that it spawned, were predicated on the supposition that the image itself was a potent “site” for exploration – that the metaphorical meanings of the world were “immanent” within photographs of the most commonplace subjects”5F.
The courageous American intellectual context and the myth of the incoming new world is the basis of the challenging change from Pictorialism to Modernism. In America, the photographs were mostly concerned with the European Modernism, while in Europe the painters stimulated photographs to a larger use of the new techniques and to the openness and the expressionist possibilities imminent to the global reorganization of the world. Afterwards, artists close to the Dada movement, such us Egon Schiele, Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Höch made a cycle of various experiments. The cubist and the futurist movement did not have any parallel form in the modern American art, while the Dada movement, born first in Switzerland and developed in the middle European countries, in particularly in Germany, had fast echoed in the United States of America. The great artist and photographer Man Ray, who published his first Dadaphoto in the review Dada, New York (1921) has revealed some ironical aspects in the representation of the female – dolly body.
1. HOMER, William Innes, Alfred Stieglitz and the American Avant-Garde, Boston New York Graphic Society 1977, p. 38.
2. WHELAN, Richard, Alfred Stieglitz: a biography, Little, Brown and Company Canada Limited 1995, p. 277.
3. HOFFMAN, Kaherine, Stieglitz: a beginning light, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2004, p. 245.
4. «Camera notes et revue proto-dada, 291, inspirée par les Soirées de Paris d’Apollinaire. Il expose aussi l’art nègre, les récentes peintures abstraites de Picabia sur la ville de New York et en peu plus tard la fontaine de Duchamp (un urinal) qui avait fait scandal» in HEILBRUN, Françoise, Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), 5 Continents / Musée d’Orsay, Milan-Paris 2004, p. 11.
5. HOFFMAN, Katherine, Stieglitz: a beginning light, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2004. P. 213