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Painters of light: Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand

Stieglitz, Steichen, And Strand defined photography as art.

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An exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art offers a collection of works that helped elevate photography to the realm of art. Left: Alfred Stieglitz's 'Georgia O'Keeffe' – 'Hand and wheel' (1933); at right, Paul Strand's 'Men of Santa Anna' (1933).

Photos courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Malcolm Daniel, curator of photographs, says the title of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition – "Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand" – "goes to the heart of what this show's about: the interwoven stories" of three friends, colleagues, and pioneers. Call them the Three Musketeers, dueling to win acceptance for a new medium as an art equal to painting.

The exhibition of 115 photographs (most from 1900 to 1920) on view until April 10 has an almost narrative flow. It begins with the trio's ringleader, Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), a chief advocate for the Pictorialist masterpieces of his protégé Edward Steichen (1879-1973) and later for the modernist images of acolyte Paul Strand (1890-1976). Stieglitz is best known as editor of the journal Camera Work and for his influential gallery "291," called by painter John Marin "the biggest little room in the world."

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It's hard now to imagine how photography was sniffily dismissed as a mechanical process without artistic merit. When exhibited at expositions it was relegated to the machines section or industrial pavilion. Victorian tastemaker John Ruskin admitted in 1872 that photographs were useful "for geographical and geological pursuits" but pegged their value "for art purposes' worth [at] a good deal less than zero."

When Stieglitz first proposed donating American photographs to the Metropolitan around 1904, the director was aghast, saying, "Why, Mr. Stieglitz, you won't insist that a photograph can possibly be a work of art?" Not until 1928 did Stieglitz cross the hallowed threshold with a gift of 20 of his own prints. He crowed: "The Metropolitan Museum has opened its sacred halls to Photography.... My photographs have performed the miracle!"

Museums today, pressured by the recession, are installing exhibitions like this one from their own collections. Fortunately, thanks to gifts from Stieglitz and his wife, painter Georgia O'Keeffe, the Metropolitan can do it in spades. Three galleries – one for each photographer – display in depth the work of three Old Masters of the medium, offering a rare look at a pivotal period in the history of photography.

In his early career Stieglitz crusaded to raise the status of Pictorialist photography, practiced mainly from 1889 to 1914. These soft-focus, self-consciously aestheticized images were all about Beauty with a capital "B." They imitated paintings and often involved hand manipulation of the negative or print to prove the image was not merely a record of reality but also a unique creation of an artist's vision.

Somewhat oddly since he was its chief promoter, Stieglitz did not shoot his own images in soft focus; nor did he subject the surface of the photographic plate to darkroom tricks. "The Steerage" (1907) is a straightforward study of lines, light, shadow, and geometric forms. (Stieglitz later called it his first "modernist" photograph.) He insisted photographs are not description but metaphor. "Photography is my passion," he said. "The search for Truth is my obsession."

After 1917 Stieglitz pursued aesthetic truth with a passion, literally his passion for O'Keeffe (whom he married in 1924). For the next 20 years he made more than 331 images of her. The portraits chart the ups and downs of their intense relationship, from the soft curves of her nude body during their heady infatuation through her independence after she traveled to New Mexico. "Georgia O'Keeffe – Hand and Wheel" (1933), a close-up of her hand on the shiny wheel of her new Ford V8, suggests her mobility and increasing distance.

When the 21-year-old Steichen came through New York on his way to Paris to study painting, he made a beeline to Stieglitz's domain, the Camera Club of New York, to show his portfolio to the master. Steichen won the seal of approval for his moody landscapes, which Stieglitz exhibited in his gallery and published in magazines. Steichen's landscape "Voulangis" (1900-02), with two tree trunks framing a barely discernible pony, is so blurry, "you feel like it's painted with mist," Mr. Daniel says.

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A consummate printmaker, Steichen went on to experiment with applying gum bichromate to his negatives and prints, an early attempt at color photography. Three unique exhibition prints of his signature image, "The Flatiron" (1904) were probably brushed with Prussian blue pigment by hand to produce successively darker versions of the same negative. Steichen's subtly toned "The Pond – Moonrise" (1904) is a poetic glimpse of the moon peeking over the horizon that resembles dreamy Symbolist paintings.

An admirer of the sculptor Rodin, Steichen made an image of the plaster version of Rodin's statue of Honoré de Balzac in 1908. As the moon flooded it in shafts of light, the sculpture seems to erupt like a geyser of creative force. "You will make the world understand my Balzac through your pictures," Rodin complimented. "Like a mountain come to life" is how Steichen described the sculpture.

Leaving the Steichens for the gallery of Strand's photographs, "You feel a generational shift," Daniel says. Ten years younger than Steichen, Strand also came to Stieglitz for his blessing before embarking on a career as a photographer. Inspired by a high school field trip to Stieglitz's gallery when he was a teenager, in 1914 Strand dared to show his Pictorialist images to the man who became his mentor. Stieglitz, by this time inspired by modernist artists like Picasso and Matisse, had changed his tastes. Pictorialism to him was yesterday, too sweet, too artificial. "Sharpen your focus, young man!" he pronounced, or words to that effect.

Strand took the advice to heart. "From the El" (1915) shows the transformative effect. Gone are "fuzzy graphics" and genteel sentiment. What he shows is raw, direct ("brutal" Stieglitz praised it) – a study of raking shadows cast by elevated train tracks, with a tiny pedestrian the only spot of humanity. The era of "straight" photography had arrived.

Further breakthroughs followed, with possibly the first conscious abstractions in photography. "Bowls" (1916) is a tightly framed slice of formal geometry, its only subject the new visual language of modernism.

Radical as his images were in terms of formal innovation, they were unsatisfying to Strand, lacking human content. An avowed socialist, schooled by the reformer and documentary photographer Lewis Hine at the Ethical Culture School, Strand wished to infuse his images with social concern. He began photographing ordinary people with a concealed lens, the first candid snapshots before there was such a thing. "Blind" (1916) and "Irish Washerwoman" (1916), with their unflinching honesty, are, as Stieglitz said, "devoid of all flimflam ... a direct expression of today."

The show charts how three trailblazers moved from gussied-up, delicate images to stripped-down reductivism, and from stylistically retouching to emotionally touching. Whether blurred atmospheric impressions or blunt humanistic expressions, the battle to assure photography's recognition "for art purposes" was won.

Malcolm Daniel, curator of photographs, says the title of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition – "Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand" – "goes to the heart of what this show's about: the interwoven stories" of three friends, colleagues, and pioneers. Call them the Three Musketeers, dueling to win acceptance for a new medium as an art equal to painting.

The exhibition of 115 photographs (most from 1900 to 1920) on view until April 10 has an almost narrative flow. It begins with the trio's ringleader, Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), a chief advocate for the Pictorialist masterpieces of his protégé Edward Steichen (1879-1973) and later for the modernist images of acolyte Paul Strand (1890-1976). Stieglitz is best known as editor of the journal Camera Work and for his influential gallery "291," called by painter John Marin "the biggest little room in the world."

It's hard now to imagine how photography was sniffily dismissed as a mechanical process without artistic merit. When exhibited at expositions it was relegated to the machines section or industrial pavilion. Victorian tastemaker John Ruskin admitted in 1872 that photographs were useful "for geographical and geological pursuits" but pegged their value "for art purposes' worth [at] a good deal less than zero."

When Stieglitz first proposed donating American photographs to the Metropolitan around 1904, the director was aghast, saying, "Why, Mr. Stieglitz, you won't insist that a photograph can possibly be a work of art?" Not until 1928 did Stieglitz cross the hallowed threshold with a gift of 20 of his own prints. He crowed: "The Metropolitan Museum has opened its sacred halls to Photography.... My photographs have performed the miracle!"

Museums today, pressured by the recession, are installing exhibitions like this one from their own collections. Fortunately, thanks to gifts from Stieglitz and his wife, painter Georgia O'Keeffe, the Metropolitan can do it in spades. Three galleries – one for each photographer – display in depth the work of three Old Masters of the medium, offering a rare look at a pivotal period in the history of photography.

In his early career Stieglitz crusaded to raise the status of Pictorialist photography, practiced mainly from 1889 to 1914. These soft-focus, self-consciously aestheticized images were all about Beauty with a capital "B." They imitated paintings and often involved hand manipulation of the negative or print to prove the image was not merely a record of reality but also a unique creation of an artist's vision.

Somewhat oddly since he was its chief promoter, Stieglitz did not shoot his own images in soft focus; nor did he subject the surface of the photographic plate to darkroom tricks. "The Steerage" (1907) is a straightforward study of lines, light, shadow, and geometric forms. (Stieglitz later called it his first "modernist" photograph.) He insisted photographs are not description but metaphor. "Photography is my passion," he said. "The search for Truth is my obsession."

After 1917 Stieglitz pursued aesthetic truth with a passion, literally his passion for O'Keeffe (whom he married in 1924). For the next 20 years he made more than 331 images of her. The portraits chart the ups and downs of their intense relationship, from the soft curves of her nude body during their heady infatuation through her independence after she traveled to New Mexico. "Georgia O'Keeffe – Hand and Wheel" (1933), a close-up of her hand on the shiny wheel of her new Ford V8, suggests her mobility and increasing distance.

When the 21-year-old Steichen came through New York on his way to Paris to study painting, he made a beeline to Stieglitz's domain, the Camera Club of New York, to show his portfolio to the master. Steichen won the seal of approval for his moody landscapes, which Stieglitz exhibited in his gallery and published in magazines. Steichen's landscape "Voulangis" (1900-02), with two tree trunks framing a barely discernible pony, is so blurry, "you feel like it's painted with mist," Mr. Daniel says.

A consummate printmaker, Steichen went on to experiment with applying gum bichromate to his negatives and prints, an early attempt at color photography. Three unique exhibition prints of his signature image, "The Flatiron" (1904) were probably brushed with Prussian blue pigment by hand to produce successively darker versions of the same negative. Steichen's subtly toned "The Pond – Moonrise" (1904) is a poetic glimpse of the moon peeking over the horizon that resembles dreamy Symbolist paintings.

An admirer of the sculptor Rodin, Steichen made an image of the plaster version of Rodin's statue of Honoré de Balzac in 1908. As the moon flooded it in shafts of light, the sculpture seems to erupt like a geyser of creative force. "You will make the world understand my Balzac through your pictures," Rodin complimented. "Like a mountain come to life" is how Steichen described the sculpture.

Leaving the Steichens for the gallery of Strand's photographs, "You feel a generational shift," Daniel says. Ten years younger than Steichen, Strand also came to Stieglitz for his blessing before embarking on a career as a photographer. Inspired by a high school field trip to Stieglitz's gallery when he was a teenager, in 1914 Strand dared to show his Pictorialist images to the man who became his mentor. Stieglitz, by this time inspired by modernist artists like Picasso and Matisse, had changed his tastes. Pictorialism to him was yesterday, too sweet, too artificial. "Sharpen your focus, young man!" he pronounced, or words to that effect.

Strand took the advice to heart. "From the El" (1915) shows the transformative effect. Gone are "fuzzy graphics" and genteel sentiment. What he shows is raw, direct ("brutal" Stieglitz praised it) – a study of raking shadows cast by elevated train tracks, with a tiny pedestrian the only spot of humanity. The era of "straight" photography had arrived.

Further breakthroughs followed, with possibly the first conscious abstractions in photography. "Bowls" (1916) is a tightly framed slice of formal geometry, its only subject the new visual language of modernism.

Radical as his images were in terms of formal innovation, they were unsatisfying to Strand, lacking human content. An avowed socialist, schooled by the reformer and documentary photographer Lewis Hine at the Ethical Culture School, Strand wished to infuse his images with social concern. He began photographing ordinary people with a concealed lens, the first candid snapshots before there was such a thing. "Blind" (1916) and "Irish Washerwoman" (1916), with their unflinching honesty, are, as Stieglitz said, "devoid of all flimflam ... a direct expression of today."

The show charts how three trailblazers moved from gussied-up, delicate images to stripped-down reductivism, and from stylistically retouching to emotionally touching. Whether blurred atmospheric impressions or blunt humanistic expressions, the battle to assure photography's recognition "for art purposes" was won.

IN PICTURES: Painters of light


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