Alfred Stieglitz: Taking Pictures, Making Painters
by Phyllis Rose
Yale University Press, 272 pp, $26.00
We live in an age when shows of photography are a mainstay of many major museums, and a handful of artists who seriously pursue the medium have even achieved celebrity status (think Sherman, Arbus, Mapplethorpe). So it’s almost mind-boggling to realize that the struggle to get photography considered a “fine art” rather than simply a mechanical craft, at least in this country, is little more than a hundred years old, and that the medium’s meteoric launch into the public consciousness is largely thanks to the efforts of one man: Alfred Steiglitz.
Stieglitz was himself a master photographer whose varied career and accomplishments could stand alone in the annals of art history. But he was also a savvy dealer whose efforts brought to the American public works on paper by Europeans like Matisse, Rodin, and Cézanne. Beginning in 1905, with the famed gallery called, simply, 291 (after its Fifth Avenue address), he also nurtured and developed the painters we have come to think of as founders of American Modernism: Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Arthur Dove, and, of course, Georgia O’Keeffe. His long-running and often tumultuous marriage to O’Keeffe, 23 years his junior and destined for perhaps greater fame, is a story that could stand alone as the subject of a book (its beginnings were memorably told in a 2009 movie with Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen).
Now Phyllis Rose — biographer of Virginia Woolf and Josephine Baker, among other notable books — has ably condensed Stieglitz’s life, photography, friendships, romances, and professional achievements into a lively and readable account of fewer than 300 pages. Generously illustrated, her story traces the maestro’s development as a photographer: from his pictures of street urchins and a smartly composed portrait of his lover in Berlin in the 1880s, through his late, wholly abstract studies of clouds, known as “Equivalents.” Part of the pleasure of Rose’s book is her astute analyses of Steiglitz’s photographs; she is herself a capable photographer and brings to her interpretations both a sharp eye and a thorough knowledge of the medium’s technical challenges.
Born into a prosperous Jewish family in Hoboken, Stieglitz spent his formative years in Europe studying mechanical engineering and chemistry. Photography, at first a novelty, soon became an obsession, and professional recognition came fast. “From buying his first camera in 1883 to gaining international fame as a photographer took Stieglitz only seven years,” Rose writes. “By the time he went home, he was exhibiting in shows, winning prizes, publishing in photo magazines, and serving on photo show juries.”
His father set him up in business with commercial printing companies, but after three years the young Stieglitz wanted out, and, still nominally supported by the family, he turned his attentions to photography, writing reviews and articles for publications like the American Amateur Photographer, and participating in the Society of Amateur Photographers. (As Rose notes, the word “amateur” had different connotations at the time, signaling a serious and informed enthusiasm rather than a part-time hobby.)
In 1893, at the age of 29, Stieglitz married Emmeline Obermeyer, the sister of a good friend and heiress to the family brewing business. When he first met her, Rose reports, “he thought her spoiled and difficult. She was not beautiful. The only thing in her favor was that she would not expect him to support her.” According to the author, the marriage was not consummated for four years, but that gave Stieglitz the time and freedom to indulge his aesthetic side, including taking photos and overseeing the merger of two key organizations into The Camera Club of New York. Its handsome quarterly, Camera Notes, “became the means through which Stieglitz pushed to present photography as an art.” By the turn of the century, Stieglitz “was the leading light of American photography.”
It was through his friendship with Edward Steichen, who abandoned 291 Fifth Avenue for larger quarters next door, that Stieglitz opened his first gallery — a top-floor space about the size of a one-bedroom apartment — with a show of the artists who were part of a movement known at the Photo-Secession (the group lobbied for greater “pictorialism” — manipulating negatives and prints to arrive at more painterly results). The gallery was from the first a rousing success, and within five years Steiglitz was showing both European modern masters and ground-breaking works by young American artists. This was also the period of some of the artist’s most memorable photos, like those of the Flatiron Building and The Steerage, a photo of greater complexity than first meets the eye, as Rose points out in her excellent dissection of its subjects and meaning.
By 1915, Steiglitz was America’s best-known photographer and a powerful force in the New York art world. “He had been famous for a lifetime,” as the author reports, “but he had not yet, at the age of fifty-one, even met the person who brought him new life, inspiring his art and joining him in a partnership that became legendary.” Georgia O’Keeffe had quietly visited 291 while studying in New York but did not come to his attention until a friend showed him the ambitious drawings she had been making at the school where she taught in South Carolina. Stieglitz instructed the friend to tell O’Keeffe that they were the “purest, finest, sincerest things that have entered 291 in a long while.”
When Stieglitz included the drawings in an exhibition at 291 without her permission, or so he claimed later in life, O’Keeffe “came into the gallery that spring , identified herself as the artist, and demanded that the work be taken down.” The great photographer was immediately smitten: “Self-reliant, strong-minded, tart and snappy, she was the free American Girl who had never been to Europe and had no interest in going there.”
After an intense two-year correspondence, during which Stieglitz continued to show her work, he persuaded her to move to New York. The affair that ensued led to a series of highly charged, adventurous, and erotic photographs that break most conventions for portraying the nude, isolating sections of O’Keeffe’s body, hands and torso. “He made love to her with his camera and she made love to him by allowing herself to be seen and photographed naked.”
Forced to make a choice by his outraged wife, Stieglitz moved into O’Keeffe’s small apartment on East 59thStreet, “first with a blanket hung between their beds for propriety.” Astonishingly, given the heat and affection so evident in the photos, the two did not become lovers until months after her arrival. They were married six years later, and although the relationship had already started to cool, they would remain deeply tied to each other for the rest of Stieglitz’s life. O’Keeffe needed space, and her mentor-husband needed flirtations with other women. “Constantly coddling her and trying to protect her, he liked to think of her as frail,” Rose writes. “She proved herself to be in fact a sinewy creature who thrived outdoors and in solitude and didn’t get enough of either in her hothouse life with Stieglitz.”
When O’Keeffe visited New Mexico in 1928 and soon after decided to decamp for the Southwest, the relationship took a turn not many marriages can survive. As Rose observes, a pact evolved between them: “If they could not fulfill each other’s needs, they would allow each other the freedom to fulfill them by other means. Only by defining their marriage as a higher, more abstract partnership could they stay married.” Rose is as astute at plucking apart the strands of this difficult union — financial, familial, and professional — as she is in analyzing Stieglitz’s photography. And as she notes, “Georgia O’Keeffe, American artist, may be his most consequential and unselfish accomplishment.”
Georgia would blossom into the grande dame of the high desert, while Stieglitz found a new and more conventionally compliant partner in Dorothy Norman, also married and more than 40 years younger, who could act as the selfless devotee in a way O’Keeffe could not. Yet O’Keeffe remained in his life to the end, spending part of the year in New Mexico and part with Stieglitz in New York or at his summer home at Lake George.
Stieglitz continued in his career as impresario and gallerist, and in 1931–32 produced striking photographs of both O’Keeffe and Norman. “If the first infatuated pictures of O’Keeffe show a man eager to explore every inch of the body of his new treasure, Stieglitz’s photographs of Dorothy Norman show a man trying to convince himself that the beautiful thing he is lucky enough to have is really there in front of him.”
He continued as “godfather to American photography,” mounting shows of works by Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter, but in 1938 suffered the first of several massive coronaries. Eight years later, following a fatal stroke, he fell into a coma. According to one account, O’Keeffe shooed Norman out of his hospital room so she alone could be with him when he died. Rose reports that she told the other woman to clear out of An American Place, his last gallery, and for the next three years set aside her own work to arrange for the distribution of his photographs and collections.
There are many books on both O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, but few so succinctly and compellingly sum up both the enormous accomplishments of the latter and the remarkable, though difficult, union of the two. Rose’s book is a must read for anyone with an interest in American art of the last century.