As suggested I watched the documentary Alfred Stieglitz: The Eloquent Eye (1999).
It was a highly interesting overview of one of the giants of photography who I am slightly embarrassed to not have known quite enough about until now, and for that I am very grateful for the course notes for pointing out the film. However…
For the life of me I can’t work out why Stieglitz is the first photographer mentioned in a section entitled Social documentary. My impression of Stieglitz, completely borne out (and hugely strengthened) by the film, was always of the leading proponent of photography as art, and in this respect wonder why he was introduced in this section of the course and not the Fine art chapter. It’s almost as if the course author has laid some sort of trap to see if students are paying attention…!?
Two images are included in the notes to characterise Stieglitz as a social documentarian: The Terminal, from 1893, purportedly illustrating the harsh conditions of an impoverished area of New York in the winter, and The Steerage from 1907, showing the lower classes huddled on the deck of a ship, separated from the higher class passengers in the finer parts of the vessel.
However the film and wider reading make clear that in both instances (quoting Stieglitz’s own writings) he was much more concerned with the aesthetics of the image than the social conditions. In the case of The Steerage, his stated eureka moment was to be entranced by the combination of the shapes and the human feelings – he saw formalist art first and social commentary very much second.
In The Photograph (1997) Graham Clarke describes The Steerage thus:
“There is no social or documentary concern. Stieglitz saw a picture of ‘shapes’, not of human figures, and concentrated on an abstract pattern which for him suggested the feeling he had about ‘life’. The abject condition of the figures in steerage is completely ignored.” (Clarke 1997: 168)
The father of modern photography
Setting aside the category error of his inclusion in Social documentary, I found the Stieglitz story to be fascinating. By coincidence I am slowly working my way through Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment (2012) which currently has long sections on Stieglitz, his disciples and his influence. The Eloquent Eye film added enormously to my knowledge of him.
I wasn’t aware until now how influential he was in both promoting photography as art and promoting modern art generally. He was a rebellious, anarchistic and impatient, both as a practitioner and as a talent-spotter. He brought the works of Rodin, Matisse and Picasso to the USA, he published the first of Gertrude Stein’s writing, he started a magazine called Camera Work then infuriated photography fans by filling it with paintings, sculptures and drawings.
By the time his work was done, photography was finally sitting on something like equal terms with art, or at least with modern art. What fascinates me is that he did this not just by pushing the envelope with regards to photography itself, but also by embracing the interplay between photography and other art forms – perceptively identifying and encouraging what styles such as impressionism, cubism and pictorials owed to photography. In On Photography (1979), Susan Sontag expands on the influence that photography had on painting, quoting Stieglitz’s writing in Camera Work in 1909 that “the impressionist painters adhere to a style of composition that is strictly photographic” (Sontag 1979: 92).
He pushed boundaries throughout his life and career, and it seemed that whenever public opinion finally caught up with his tastes, he had got bored and moved onto something else; ever the contrarian, his eye was always seeking ‘the new’ (for some reason he put me in mind of John Peel and his approach to music… must be my age).
I am indebted to this opening part of the course notes for allowing me to fill in a major gap in my photographic historical knowledge! I just still can’t get my head round why they included this in the documentary section (rant over now).
Alfred Stieglitz: The Eloquent Eye, YouTube (accessed 15/12/2015)
Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dyer, G. (2012) The Ongoing Moment. London: Canongate.
Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin.