Alfred Stieglitz, was born in January 1st, 1864, in Hoboken, New Jersey, and died in July 13th, 1946, in New York City.
He was passionate advocate of photography as an art and a pioneer in exhibitions of modern art in the United States. In 1902 Stieglitz founded the Photo-Secession Group, as a protest against the conventional photography of the time. Stieglitz’s best work are the series of prints of his wife, the painter Georgia O’Keeffe, and his studies of cloud patterns suggesting emotions.
After his early schooling in New York, he moved, with his family, to Europe in 1881, to further his and his brothers’ education. Stieglitz started his studies in mechanical engineering, at the Berlin Polytechnic, in 1883. A few months later, the purchase of a small camera led him to abandon engineering for photo-chemistry and to begin his photographic career.
While in Berlin, where many of his friends were painters, Stieglitz decided to fight for the recognition of photography as an creative art medium equal to painting. The best way to achieve this, he reasoned, was to become a photographic authority, which he believed could only be granted if he set the highest standards for his own prints and win all possible prizes and medals.
His early work, both in Europe and in the United States, where he returned in 1890, reflect this approach, being characterized by constant innovations which were, at the time, believed impossible to achieve.
For example, he made, before the turn of the century, the first successful photographs of snow, rain and at night, while undertaking the first use of a small hand-held camera. By 1910, these photos had won many important prizes. Realizing that his fame alone could not bring about the recognition of photography as art, Stieglitz decided that, eventually, the work of a group could be more effective than the work of an individual.
The Photo-Secession and the 291.
He therefore created a new group, in 1902, the Photo-Secession, a title adapted from the German Secessionist painters who, at the time, were also revolting against the traditional art world. Stieglitz gathered around him a group of talented American photographers, with whom he shared his ideals.
In 1905, urged by Edward Steichen, the Photo-Secession opened its own space for exhibitions, initially called Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, in NY, but later known by its street number, the “291”.
Stieglitz became so envolved with his work in this gallery that he often signed his personal correspondence “291”. At this time, Stieglitz turned his immense energy and intelligence to the cause of modern art.
The 291’s exhibitions
In 1908, in a country marked by it’s dependence on the academic art in Europe, the “291” had already held shows of works by the sculptor Auguste Rodin and the paiter Henri Matisse; he also held shows by the painters Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Rousseau, Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso.
In 1913, he held the famous Armory Show, often considered to have introduced modern art to the United States.
Stieglitz vigorously promoted, along with the European art, shows of emerging American artists, namely of the sculptors Constantin Brancusi and Elie Nadelman, and the painters Francis Picabia, Gino Severini, Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Georgia O’Keefe, who was to become his wife in 1924.
For the most part these exhibitions were viewed by a hostile and derisive public.
With the closing of “291”, in 1917, and of his own magazine, Camera Work (1903 – 1917), Stieglitz became once more envolved with his own photography, neglected during the years of the gallery.
He then produced the best of his work.
Stieglitz’ preoccupation with his photography did not deter him from continuing to hold shows of American artists, thus helping them to survive and giving them the freedom to work as they wished.
When the artists he promoted became commercially successful, he ceased working for them, for he was not a dealer and never profited financially from his activities for artists.
Stieglitz broke down the barriers against photography in American art museums, his prints being the first photographs accepted as art and received as such by major museums in Boston, New York City and Washington D.C.
In those museums, Stieglitz photos were hung and shown in the same manner as other notable works in the graphic arts.
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