The Arty Semite

How American Photography Became European Art

By Leigh Kamping-Carder

  • Print
  • Share Share
Photograph of Alfred Stieglitz by Edward Steichen, 1907. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alfred Stieglitz Collection.

In “Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art pulls from its own collection to present the work of three heavyweights of American photography: Alfred Stieglitz, founder of the influential 291 gallery, and two of his protégés, Edward Steichen and Paul Strand. The show, on through April 10, 2011, gives each photographer his own room, accentuating their individual styles and obsessions, while allowing a closer look at the cross-pollination that took place in the early part of the 20th century.

A son of Jewish immigrants, Stieglitz grew up in Manhattan but spent his early adulthood soaking up European culture in Germany, the homeland of his parents. By 1900, Stieglitz was a force in American photography, and the granddaddy of the Photo-Secession, a group of artists who broke with the establishment and sought to fashion photography into an independent art form.

The Met credits Stieglitz with the foundation of its photography collection; in 1928 he donated 22 of his own works to the museum — the first to enter the collection as pieces of art. Stieglitz’s images play with ideas that are now fixtures of modern photography: subjects close at hand, a concentration on light, shadow and form, and a desire to create an emotional reaction in the viewer.

View a slideshow from ‘Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand’:

The exhibition delves into Stieglitz’s pictorial obsessions: a series of nearly abstract cloud studies, views of a changing New York City from his studio window, and portraits of his wife, the artist Georgia O’Keefe. Stieglitz took more than 330 photographs of O’Keefe between 1917 and 1937, concentrating not just on her face but also on her tapered fingers, breasts, and the contours of her neck. The aim was expressive, rather than documentary.

But the preoccupations of the Photo-Secessionists are most evident in the work of Steichen, whose soft-focus shots of nudes or moonlit, stalk-like trees have a dreamy quality altogether different from the stiff portraits of early photography.

A Milwaukee native, Steichen stopped off at Stieglitz’s Manhattan studio on his way to Paris, an encounter that led to a lifetime of collaboration and mutual respect. Steichen also befriended Auguste Rodin, photographing the sculptor’s studio and his plaster of Honore de Balzac. The Balzac photos — imposing, strange and wonderful — show the figure in the open air, rising like an ancient icon from the landscape.

Despite Stieglitz’s historical contribution and Steichen’s purity, however, Strand is the real standout of the show. His work, inspired not by photographic ancestors but by the modern art coming out of Europe, is graphic and geometric, divorced from the meditative quality of his predecessors.

Strand met Stieglitz as a high school student, and his then-mentor counseled him to scrap the soft-focus style and move toward crisp shots of the world around him. Later, he rigged his camera with a dummy lens so he could shoot at a 90-degree angle, fooling his subjects and allowing for candid shots of the characters of the New York City streets. His image of a blind street peddler is unflinching.

So, too, is his later work, which moved toward abstraction. In “Bowls,” the household objects almost morph into sea forms, and in “Wire Wheel,” skyscrapers are reflected in the chrome of a new automobile — the unmistakable harbinger of a new era.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Photography, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo-Secession, Paul Strand, Leigh Kamping-Carder, Met, Honore de Balzac, Georgia O'Keefe, Exhibits, Edward Steichen, Auguste Rudin, Alfred Stieglitz, 291 Gallery

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv?
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • What's a "telegenically dead" Palestinian?
  • 13 Israeli soldiers die in Gaza — the deadliest day for the IDF in decades. So much for 'precision' strikes and easy exit strategies.
  • What do a Southern staple like okra and an Israeli favorite like tahini have in common? New Orleans chef Alon Shaya brings sabra tastes to the Big Easy.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.