#6 The fog in the background, the shadow on the basis and the flow confusion of the sky on the top are smuggling the offensive absence of human movement. These images are “in the same time realistic because of the precision with which the clouds are described, and abstract because they are cut out from the reference to the given landscape”11F. As Hoffman remarked, “in The City of Ambition industrial smoke-stacks, with their billowing smoke, rise in white splendour in contrast to the dark buildings, up into the cloudy sky, joining nature and industry.”12F Szarkowski suggested: “it is difficult to recall a more lavishly romantic vision of a modern metropolis than the City of Ambition – New York seen beyond a ribbon of sparkling water, the back-lighting converting every puff of steam and smoke into a feather plume, and every counting house into a castle”13F. In this image everything seems vast; everything contains its secret dynamics and signification. It is not only a naturalistic photography: the flag on the top of the Singer building simulates the freedom and the victory of the new machine craft arrival.
Stieglitz passion for buildings may express his spasmodic character of artistic production. However, it may also signalize the eternal nostalgia of solid home-place or fixed place as well as the tormented spirit in motion in some abstract space marked by the Einstein’s theory of relativity. We have time, Einstein said, but we do not have space. Stieglitz tented to grasp at once time and space cutting the ephemeris reference of the history. Similar to the Bergson philosophy, the time and the space in Stieglitz photographs are circular: elsewhere or even anywhere but not here!
#7 In Spring Showers, the content of image is more than ever, straight. The quality of the touch seems very important in the evolving of the big cities poetics. The Oriental illusion appears in the silky fragility of the softening and vague light. The sentimental vagueness endemic to the art photography becomes deafening symphony of the urban winter silence. Stieglitz “(…)seized parables out of the immediate day and hour (…) sometimes treating facts allegorically”14F. Szarkowski underlined as well – and it is important to say – that Stieglitz was “(…) an artist of massive self-absorption and his deeply ahistorical definition of the world can be chilling”15F. This photograph taken on Madison Avenue and 23rd street reverse into a vertical shape the traditional horizontal landscape format. Hoffman says that it could be seen as a cityscape and in the same time as a landscape: it has the background of the crowded street and the foggy building, but also the loneliness of the street cleaner and the fragile tree. From the New York cycle of photographs, this one has the intimate sense of human existence in the city: its figure though is socially marginal figure. Unlike the tree, the street cleaner curved against the cold isolation immanent to the metropolis is so small and invisible. If we give a short look to the A wet day on the Boulevard we will see that in this photography the perception has to be focused on the human presence. Still, Paris is seen differently then New York is: this wet boulevard keeps the silent dimension of the cityscape and the urban speed, but it is mostly focalised on the mysterious human existence: one man walks on the rain without an umbrella. Thus, there is a very small possibility to read this image as an abstract image while Spring Showers remains however mystic and poetic. Even though half street is empty and vague, the real wasteland remains immanent to the subliminal message of the Spring Showers photograph.
This image has a Japanese composition where nature and its representation – fog, clouds, body, tree – is indicating the loneliness of the shape. The building is surrounded by mist and flow shadows; the street cleaner is shrouded in the vagueness of the avenue; “(…) the lone tree is (…) dwarfing a street cleaner”16F. We may ask each other, which should be, actually the melting point or the point of the focalisation in this photograph: the street cleaner, the tree or the building in the back? Which element is lonelier than another? If there would not be the figure of the street cleaner, the tree in the foreground would lack its sharp definition. This Japanese delicate definition, basically balanced with the fluent grey colour of the buildings in the background, gives this photo its rough fragility. Stieglitz let the weather keep the photo’s background slightly out of focus, and left the street area in low contrast and evenly toned with the sky clouds and the body of the street cleaner who is not the subject but an object that provides a visual sensation of weight and heaviness. His figure, though, even if it is in the off-centre, is essential because if he would have been omitted, then the tree blew off by the wind and curb’s diagonal line on the right side of the image, would throw the photo – stamp out of its harmony. We can hardly recognize the nature of the vehicles in the second plan, but we can almost hear some of the Debussy piano sonata or even perceive some Cézanne impressionist landscape in the prolongation and in the deployment of the shadow of the human body and of the almost broken tree on the wet asphalt of the vague avenue.
Stieglitz saw the photography as a process of artistic discourse and not anymore, as it used to be considered before, as a perfect medium for documenting the reality and only the reality or everything that was photographable. Thus, his language is not the language of the reality neither a language of understanding the naturalism of the reality: even in his extreme and total realistic representation of urban sights, his discourse remains fully unrealistic and abstract. He showed that a different manner of photographing had to occur. Given that, the picture was art and the photography was used often as an scientific tool, with the Modernism in the United States a clear message was emitted: the shape could conquest the total autonomy of the image and the reality should not be identified with the eye perception. The photography is a lightreading and a light-discourse. The light changes the perspective and the naturalistic dimension of the evidence. If we take one sequence of words or images and try to show them in a way different from the conventional perception in order to express a hardly effable reality, in spite of its contradiction, we may see a surge of completely logical meaning. That’s what Stieglitz did.
The New York group called Photo-Secession opened a new interpretative field and conceived the “(…) image not as a composition that tends to obtain the internal aesthetic harmony, but as a place of confrontation, as well as of conflict, of powers and of forms that from their contrast and non-harmonious relation are suggesting new links between the form and the object (…)”17F. The photography will stop documenting the human figure but will cut the human body in to peaces in order to obtain an authentic form of understanding the image. It is what the European avant-garde artists, in particularly the cubist Picasso and Braque, are trying to do in Europe: inventing a new artistic pictorial language by decomposing and deconstructing the form, or more precisely the body. The perspective had to be left in order to gain the spasmodic time and space dimension of the shape. The futuristic movement has introduced as well the machine, the factory aesthetic, #8 the city speed and the total abolition of the grammar as a revolutionary act against the traditional conception of art as a celebration of the beauty and has published the Futurist Manifest in Paris in the Figaro in 1909. While the photography context in the United States pointed out an urgent need of self-definition. The name of Alfred Stieglitz is, actually linked to turning point from Pictorialism to Modernism mostly because of the consequences that the exhibition Armory Show in 1913 will bring to America. Until that event, the American photographic context had a parallel idea of itself regarding the European avant-garde, but after that moment, American art had to become pro- or contra- the new movement or to invent a new art inter-action.
One of the first photograph with which Stieglitz will break through the modernity, is the Steerage: although this image and its representation of an socially inferior mass of people that are crowding the bridges of a boat, has very few references to what has been defined as avant-garde, it still remains a photographic innovation.
The distinct but vague game between human figures and objects, the darkness and light are written, the superior and the inferior layer, the horizontal dimension and the triangular cut of the image composed of shy and immense but real elements from the human outwear and the confusion of the shape are giving the sense of geometrical vision. The modernity of this image consisted in the elimination of the subject and in the research of the flow distinction of the object. Stieglitz spoiled the photograph art from any categorization and gave it the brutal power of registration of the reality and in the same time of the purely metaphysical allusions.
The photography wanted to be far away from the concept of the documentation of the reality. In the modernist image, the integral figure of the body or of one structure must not to be seen, but a part of it, the fragment of its total mass (New York from Shelton, Rebecca Salsbury Strand). In the geometrical images, we should try to see the form differently and not conventionally. His photographs remained naturalistic not because they mirror the reality, but because they brought the idea of the human eye perception inside the photograph frame, where some details had escaped from the focus. The focus in Stieglitz photography is confused because of the soft-light effects that he obtained in the process composed by several printing of the negative in order to control the expansion of light in the final smooth product.
11. «Elles sont à la fois réalistes par la précision avec laquelle sont décrits ces nuages, et abstraites car coupées de toute référence à un paysage donné»in HEILBRUN, Françoise, Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), 5 Continents / Musée d’Orsay, Milan-Paris 2004, p. 13.
12. HOFFMAN, Kaherine, Stieglitz: a beginning light, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2004, p. 247.
13. SZARKOWSKI, John, Alfred Stieglitz at lake George, The Museum of Modern Art, New York 1996, p. 13.
14. Idem, p. 14.
15. Idem, p. 17.
16. HOFFMAN, Kaherine, Stieglitz: a beginning light, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2004, p. 197.
17. “(…) l’immagine non piѝ come una composizione che mira ad un’armonia estetica intrena, ma come il luogo di un confronto, quando non di un conflitto, di forze e di forme che proprio dal loro contrasto e rapporto non armonico suggeriscono rapporti nuovi tra le forme e le cose (…)” in GRAZIOLI, Elio, Il Modernismo negli Stati Uniti in Corpo e Figura umana nella fotografia, Mondadori, Milano 200, p. 99-100.