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Master and Disciples

May 11, 2011 By:
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In the history of photography, Alfred Stieglitz is a storied name -- as it is in the history of all modern art. He was a great pioneer, both as practitioner and theorist. Beginning in the 1890s, he began taking his bold, distinctive photos, images that, in time, began convincing skeptics that photography could indeed be an art form. He continued capturing such images throughout his long life, always pushing himself, always finding new subject matter for his restless camera lens.

In addition, this son of well-to-do German Jews who was born in Hoboken, N.J., managed the Photo-Secession galleries at 291 Fifth Ave., making it a home where other photographers interested in advancing their craft could show their work. "291," as it was affectionately known, is a name as storied as Stieglitz's. In those modest gallery spaces, some of the most spirited pieces of modern art, whether in photography, painting or sculpture, were first displayed to the world at a time when the whole idea of the "modern" was suspect -- even a subject of ridicule.

Stieglitz also published a magazine Camera Work, which was considered a journal of near biblical proportions by all those concerned with the relatively young but exciting field of photography.

Purists were very sniffy about the whole matter of photos as art, certain that manufactured images, made through the manipulation of a machine of sorts, had no place next to paintings and sculpture. (And remember that the most receptive place after Stieglitz's small space was the Museum of Modern Art, which didn't open officially till 1939.) The more established and imposing Metropolitan Museum of Art was far too conservative in its viewpoint, much less ready to feature, let alone promote, photography. Officials and patrons thought it best to wait and see before passing judgment on such untried terrain. (In fact, that's why it always seemed that MoMA had gotten the jump on the Metropolitan in this particular arena.)

But a new book published by Yale University Press, in cooperation with the Metropolitan, adjusts the overall picture -- if that's not too feeble a pun in this context -- since it seems that Stieglitz was bent on forcing the massive museum on upper Fifth to accept photography, beginning in 1928, with a selection of his own photos. The new book is called Stieglitz Steichen Strand. The latter two names refer to disciples of the Stieglitz philosophy, Edward Steichen and Paul Strand.

The order of the names, I believe, has to do with their ages. But in terms of accomplishment, they should read Stieglitz, Strand, Steichen. The last of these never really had the sustained type of career that the other two had. He was a popular photographer bent on anticipating popular tastes; still, his early photos -- like his atmospheric shot of the Flatiron Building in Manhattan and his close-up portrait of Gloria Swanson -- are exceptionally good. Yet Steichen never went on to push the boundaries of photography like Stieglitz and Strand did.

The latter two are both represented by some of their greatest pieces. For Stieglitz, that means his many and varied portraits of his second wife, painter Georgia O'Keefe, whether of her hands, face or body, and his late cloud series, almost all taken at Lake George, N.Y., where his family had a summer home. These cloud photos eventually became known collectively as the Equivalents.

Strand's great images include, but are not limited to, the close-up of a blind woman and his overhead shots of the elevated trains in Manhattan and of Wall Street.

Each of the three sections offers quick overviews of these three distinctive, intertwined lives and careers, and Yale press has done its best -- which is, as always, superior work -- in order to provide the finest reproductions of the most representative images in all three cases. It's a lovely way to get acquainted with them or to renew your relationship with these master craftsmen who looked to one another for inspiration and guidance.

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