Alfred Stieglitz needs little introduction for most photography-lovers, but in brief: as the founder and publisher of Camera Work, a journal dedicated to photography, and the owner of 291, a gallery based in New York, Stieglitz was a modern visionary who dedicated his life to elevating photography to an art form. In addition, his own artwork is considered groundbreaking in its advancement of both subject matter and medium.
The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is currently running a show that includes a selection of Stieglitz’s revolutionary work. Titled Alfred Stieglitz and Modern America, it reflects on the early 20th century art world and how the photograph fits into that landscape; it also delves into Stieglitz’s intimate and personal relationships (particularly with the renowned artist Georgia O’Keeffe) as conveyed through his imagery.
Senior Curator of Photographs Anne Havinga sat down with associate editor Coralie Kraft to discuss Stieglitz’s impact on photographic subject matter, his collaborative relationship with O’Keeffe, and the digital future of museum collections—
LensCulture: What did you want to focus on with this exhibition?
Anne Havinga: We knew that we wanted to put together some kind of single photographer exhibition, and I’d been itching to do a show on Stieglitz for some time. When I started thinking about how to structure the show, I realized that I have always been particularly drawn to his portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe. I started thinking about how O’Keeffe was such a modern woman, while his first wife, Emmeline Obermeyer, was much more of a Victorian lady…
At the beginning of the 20th century, Stieglitz was around 40 years old. At that point he shed his old life (and his old wife) for O’Keeffe, who was a young and very forward-looking woman. When they got together, O’Keeffe was still in her 20s. For many years, Stieglitz had wanted to make an extended series of photographs of a single person, a “portrait in time” so to speak, and O’Keeffe was a perfect model for that.
His photographs of her, of which there are more than 300 taken between 1917 and 1937, explore her physiognomy and personality, and presented what he considered to be the ideal twentieth-century, modern woman. That idea didn’t end up driving my entire exhibition, but it was in my head as I started out.
I have always been very drawn to the arc in Stieglitz’s portraits of O’Keeffe. You can read so much about the development of their relationship through these images. In the early years, starting around 1917, she seems to be more malleable. In the later years, she becomes more assertive. She confronts the camera, sometimes presenting herself androgynously, as if she were a man.
Away from the portraits, one of my favorite works in the exhibition is the photograph of the lilacs at Lake George, where the Stieglitz family had long had a summer home. This image is groundbreaking in my mind. I remember looking at it many years ago with the former chair of our department, Clifford Ackley, and he said, “You know, this is a picture of nothing.” To think that you could take an image of a slice of lilac bushes—that you’d consider it worth photographing! Most people would have considered it a waste of chemistry, film, and time. But, in its simple way, this image is so beautiful. It’s all about abstraction, about lights and darks, about differences in texture. It’s a picture that was very modern for its day.
So many of the photographs in this exhibition are, as I said, quiet when you first look at them—but they are often so groundbreaking for their time and for their content. This is the beginnings of modernism. I hope that these photographs impact how photographers see and create in their own practice.
LC: Stieglitz is often cited as the “father” of modern photography (and O’Keeffe, not coincidentally, “the Mother of American Modernism”). Many people name him as one of the essential artists that aspiring photographers need to familiarize themselves with. Why do you think that is?
AH: Stieglitz’s pictures are extremely sophisticated. Because they’re often of everyday things, they may look simple, but they are deceptively so. He clearly paid very close attention to his subjects when photographing them. Everything he shoots is something that he’s looked at many times. You can tell that he thought to himself, “I want to photograph that” and then he carefully planned how best to represent it. There’s a deliberateness to his photography that slows you down. I think the professionals who recommend that young photographers take note of Stieglitz’s work are hoping that they’ll take in the care and attention with which his photographs were made.
There is also the fact that Stieglitz had such a broad and astoundingly significant impact on the field as a whole. He was not only a photographer, but also incredibly influential through his journals, especially Camera Work, and through his galleries, especially 291. Taken together, Stieglitz’s impact on the field cannot be overstated.
LC: So, many things we take for granted about modern photography can be traced back to him?
AH: Absolutely. For example, the idea of making a series of photographs of a muse. It was Stieglitz who did that first, and who did it so successfully that it became a theme for photographers after him. Edward Steichen then followed him, as did Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Harry Callahan, and many others. Nick Nixon did it and still is doing it with his photographs of his wife Bebe and her sisters. It goes on and on…
The fact that Stieglitz established the seeds of much of the subject matter for photographers today is very interesting. For example, his abstract, modernist pictures of the sky, shown without any visual reference to the earth, images in which he intended to convey emotional states—that was very novel in his time. He expanded what photographers might think to record with their cameras. People continue to work along many of the tracks that he established.
LC: I wonder what somebody like Stieglitz or Charles Sheeler would say about the excess of imagery that we have today.
AH: I don’t know if Stieglitz or Sheeler would like it. It’s just such a far stretch from how they created their work…though they might, at least, celebrate the fact that photographic imagery has become so pervasive!
LC: Stieglitz impacted photography’s status as fine art. Are new digital technologies challenging that idea? Do you find that people are again starting to disregard a lot of photography because of its pervasiveness?
AH: As we all know, there are photographic images everywhere around us nowadays. But because of that, the great thing is that the public is becoming increasingly familiar with looking at photographic images, and that is exciting. It’s making the field more complicated for curators, scholars, and photographers, and we have to learn how to sift through all this new material. We need to find ways to present screen-based photographic images in gallery settings. It will be interesting to see how we find a balance between print and digital presentations in the years to come!
The International Center of Photography in New York is doing more and more screen-based shows. That’s interesting, and that is one solution. It is a very different experience to look at screen-based photographs in a gallery setting than to look at printed photographs, however. Each category requires a different kind of “looking.”
In the case of our Stieglitz show, which is all print-based, we hope that visitors will slow down, think about the prints, and read the label. So far, this does seems to be working as people do seem to be looking carefully at the works in the show. My hope is that when photographers visit, they might get something from the exhibition that will inform how they make pictures going forward.
LC: How does the digital landscape factor into how a museum like the MFA approaches collections?
AH: We are very interested in adding digitally-produced photographs to our collection and have already begun to do so. When it comes to screen-based work, we haven’t yet acquired much, but we are definitely going to be focusing our attention on this in the future. We’re anxious to figure out what is most important to acquire, and how to present it.
LC: I’ve always wondered about what collections of digital work look like. Do you buy the TV? Do you buy the file? When you present it in an exhibition in 10 years, do you show it on the newest technology, or do you show it the way the artist presented it?
AH: Museums usually collect the digital file. As for presentation—that is a good question. It seems to depend on what the artist wants, whether he or she has specified aspects of the presentation or not. Most artists today seem to be very open-minded, because they realize that technology is constantly changing and that may affect the presentation of their work down the line.
LC: Do you think Instagram will somehow be included in photography collections in the decades to come?
AH: I think it will be. Instagram is such a groundbreaking way of consuming and producing photography, so my instinct is yes. That said, I’m not exactly sure how we would collect or exhibit it!
I follow a ton of photographers on Instagram—Rania Matar, Christiane Feser, Rebecca Norris Webb, Klea McKenna—and it’s telling that I look at their postings all the time. I love looking at them, and I think other curators, scholars, and photographers are very interested in Instagram too. There are so many great photographers who are doing such interesting things with the Instagram format! These days, it is unusual when a photographer is not on Instagram.
LC: Let’s turn back to the Stieglitz exhibition with this new contemporary landscape in mind. As modern viewers, what do you think we take away from these images that is different from people who viewed them in the 20th century?
AH: Looking back through time is always so fascinating. For example, we often look at 19th-century photographs through a modernist lens, appreciating the images that have strong formal qualities, because of history. There are constantly shifting values, shifting trends, shifting technology. How do we view Stieglitz’s early 20th-century images? They’re closer to us in time than 19th-century works of course—and we can therefore easily relate to them stylistically speaking, and in terms of subject matter. Yet, from a historical perspective, it is also important to note that it still took a while for Stieglitz’s work to resonate as valuable commodities. The photography market did not take off until long after Stieglitz’s passing…
LC: In our contemporary time, work can be marked as “important” so soon after it’s created, but that’s a contemporary perspective that we take for granted somewhat.
AH: Yes. Things moved more slowly back then. For example, The Steerage is one of his more famous photographs now, but although it was made in 1907, Stieglitz did not celebrate it until after 1910 and in 1924—when he hand-picked a selection of his “best” work for the MFA—he didn’t include The Steerage in his gift! Later on, when Georgia O’Keeffe disseminated his estate, she included it in her gift to the Museum…So, thank goodness, we have it.
LC: How did the MFA acquire such an incredible (and robust) collection of Stieglitz’s work?
AH: The reason we have such a special collection is because in the 1920s, Stieglitz became friendly with the MFA’s Curator of Indian Art, Ananda Coomaraswamy, who was an amateur photographer himself and who spent a lot of time in New York. Coomaraswamy arranged the gift of Stieglitz’s work to the MFA. The gift came in 1924, and it was a triumph for Stieglitz, who had long worked to advocate for photography to be considered a fine art.
After Stieglitz died in 1946, his widow Georgia O’Keeffe gave us a very carefully-selected complimentary group of his photographs. So what we have now is an extraordinary collection, of about 70 works, that offers a wonderfully concise overview of his photographic career.
The MFA’s acquisition from 1924 is significant because Stieglitz had previously tried to entice the Metropolitan Museum, in New York, to accept a gift—but they always turned him down. A few years after the MFA gift was accepted, the Met came through and accepted a selection also. We have a wonderful letter from Stieglitz to Coomaraswamy, in which he wrote, “My dear Coomaraswamy: The Metropolitan Museum has opened its sacred halls to Photography. 22 of my photographs have performed the miracle! I suppose Boston helped pave the way.”
—Anne Havinga, interviewed by Coralie Kraft
Editors’ note: The exhibition Alfred Stieglitz and Modern America is running at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston until November 5, 2017.