Excerpted from a newly published biography published on the pioneering photographer, we look at Alfred Stieglitz’s change in perspective towards the end of his career—and the hotly opinionated responses he received from his peers about it.
By Artspace Editors
Credited with helping make photography a credible form of art, Alfred Stieglitz (1864 – 1946) is one of the most important photographers of the 20th century. In addition to redefining the medium over his 50-year career as a photographer, Stieglitz also promoted art, running several galleries in New York in the early part of the century, and was also married to Georgia O’Keeffe, his most common model. Below is an illuminating excerpt from Alfred Stieglitz: Taking Pictures, Making Painters by Phyllis Rose, published this month by Jewish Lives.
There is a tendency, as artists age, to narrow their focus. One is naturally less likely to race around in search of material, but, at a deeper level, one tends, aging, to see more in less. Steichen spent his last years photographing one shad bush in his back yard. Some artists—Monet comes to mind—moved gently towards abstraction. As he got older, Alfred Stieglitz wanted increasingly to de-emphasize the subject and concentrate on the interaction of darkness and light in his prints. That is one among many reasons he turned to photographing clouds.
Although he continued to make portraits, especially of young women, of friends, and, above all, of Georgia O’Keeffe, the major new projects of his later years were the photographs of Lake George, especially the clouds, and photographs taken from windows in New York City. Both depend on the immobility of the photographer and the constant motion of the world beyond. Both show Stieglitz fascinated by change from moment to moment and with the drama of light. The movement of the clouds, the intensity of sunlight behind them, the shadows on the facades of skyscrapers, the rhythm of lit and unlit windows—all condensed visual life to a pleasure that was essentially musical. Every change in momentum between light and shade pleased him in a way that seemed related to his inner states.
The cloud pictures have a hard time living up to the weight of meaning Stieglitz imposed upon them when he presented them as “equivalents of my most profound life experience, my basic philosophy of life.”2 In claiming so romantic a justification for his work, Stieglitz unwittingly threw down a gauntlet to critics and photographers who value photography for its objectivity and consider pompous and ridiculous the pretense of spiritual content in a photograph of clouds.
But that was only one young artist’s reaction. For Arthur Dove and O’Keeffe, the Equivalents were revelatory, showing how even photographic images could be abstract and still have emotional power.
Stieglitz tried to explain to her what each one meant to him. One was the Immaculate Conception, another a prayer, another “death riding high in the sky.” Another was “reaching up beyond the sun, the living point, into darkness, which is also light.” They all had death in them, he said, because he started to do them after he realized that O’Keeffe could not stay with him. This was no help to Nancy Newhall. His “dramatic anecdotes” did not move her.
Then one afternoon he turned her loose with several boxes of Equivalents. She was one of the only people he trusted to handle his prints unsupervised, a privilege he did not accord even to Dorothy Norman. After a couple of hours, she rejoined him in tears and in despair about how to make others feel their power. For her that power had to do with the series as a series, the pieces rearranged to produce different resonances.
“You will have to make your own Equivalents,” Stieglitz said, and Newhall took this as encouragement to arrange photographic sequences, sometimes with text, sometimes without, for exhibitions and for printed books, as she went on to do, with Paul Strand and Ansel Adams. “Behind all of us stands Stieglitz,” Newhall said. “Without the Equivalents and the sequence concept… we might never have done what we have.”5
Read the full story HERE >>>> Source: Artspace “Behind All of Us Stands Stieglitz”: On the Photographer’s Later Obsession with Clouds, the Subject That No One Else Cared For