Transforming photography into art —Alfred Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession

The center of the exhibition lays out prints of David Octavius Hill, Julia Margaret Cameron and Robert Adamson, whom Stieglitz reached back to the past and found artistic ancestors for himself. (Chencheng Zhao/MEDILL)

By Chencheng Zhao

Visitors walk through 19th-century photographic history marked by the change of canon to accept photography as art in the exhibit “Alfred Stieglitz and the 19th Century” at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Today, photography graces the walls of art museums, galleries and the pages of fine art magazines.

“This sort of assumption that photography has its place as an art is almost all due to Stieglitz,” said Elizabeth Siegel, associate curator of photography.  “Basically everything he did was to get photography recognized as an art.”

The exhibit draws stunning vintage prints from the permanent collection of the museum to demonstrate how photography became accepted and celebrated as an art in the late 19th century by virtue of Alfred Stieglitz’s tireless effort. His own photographs, the art journals he published and his New York galleries pushed the transition of perspective . He mentored photographers such as Edward Steichen and introduced Americans to photography as an integral part of art through his exhibitions.

“There is a break with the past, but also a reverence for photographers of an earlier generation,” said Siegel. The exhibit presents lyrical portraits by Robert Adamson, Julia Margaret Cameron and David Octavius Hill, inspirations for Stieglitz from his artistic ancestors from 50 years earlier. Their older works resonated for pictorialism, a vision that valued painterly, handcrafted images, embodying the Stieglitz spirit of photography.

The exhibit layout invites comparisons between the earlier  photographers and later Photo-Secession movement, as Stieglitz called the painterly images taken on view cameras loaded with a single negative. Painstaking mastery of the darkroom allowed photographers to create prints with rich tones and textual surfaces.

“The handcrafted nature of a print is one of the strategies to make the print as serious as art,” Siegel said, looking around at the early works taking on a soft and warm tone developed from paper negatives.

Before the digital era, photographers spent hours in the darkroom developing prints, cropping, dodging, burning, filtering, timing and handcrafting details to capture character beyond a simple view of the subjects.

Siegel suggests visitors look carefully at the prints, understand them as individual works of art, see the efforts of the Photo-Secession to get photography taken seriously as an art form, and understand how the Stieglitz circle reinterpreted Hill and Adamson and Cameron as artistic ancestors, changing the history of photography as they did so.

“There is an exaltation for honest work by ordinary people,” said Siegel, pointing to the Stieglitz’s “The Net Mender” (1894), a carbon print emanating a soft glow and drawing–like quality. “I’m sure that Stieglitz sees himself as an equivalent who is doing honest work with his hands and his camera,” she said.

Born to a well-off German industrial family in New York, Stieglitz went to Europe for his aesthetic education, when he bought his first camera and began taking and publishing photographs. He returned to the U.S. in 1890 to find that Kodak cameras had popularized amateur photography across the country. “You press the button, we do the rest,” Kodak advertised.

“With this little gesture, people moved the artistry out of photography and placed it into the hands of bicyclists,” said Siegel, referring to Stieglitz’s opinion of the matter. “For Stieglitz, photography was not a fad. It was an important way to express himself.”

So does digital technology diminish the artistic nature of photography? Siegel said she thinks that digital photography is a tool that helps people make art, however, it is the artist’s vision that actually creates it.

The display of prints shows different photographic processes in the changing history of photography —from salt and albumen prints of the mid-19th century, to carbon prints and photogravures at the turn-of-the-century, to crisp silver gelatin silver prints of the modernist era. “Stieglitz had a 50-year photography career, which was highly influential to all of his peers and which changed overtime,” said Siegel.

An Alfred Stieglitz’s 1903 print “The Flatiron” and a later silver print are juxtaposed, telling the transition of photography history from pictorialism to modernism.
(Chencheng Zhao/MEDILL)

The exhibit finally leads to a separate space and later time when Stiglitz reprinted his prior works, paired with the original ones in comparison.

“The Flatiron” (1903), the original print was enlarged and cropped vertically to echo the shape of the subject, giving a sense of a gray scale with rich mid-tones in a Photogravure, a printing method prized by many members of the Photo-Secession and the medium for the images Stieglitz printed in “Camera Work”.  A silver print from the 1920s or 1930s looks less painterly, — cooler, sharper and with glossier surface.

As Stieglitz revisited his prior work, he reprinted images in a modernist style with a spirit of directness, honesty and unselfconsciousness. He seemed, to embrace the mechanical nature of photography and move away from more painterly characteristics, Siegel said.

“It’s exactly the same negative and the same person printing the negative, but he has now changed, and he has a different idea of what photography could be and what it should be,” said Siegel.

Photo at top: The center of the Stieglitz exhibition features images by photographers David Octavius Hill, Julia Margaret Cameron and Robert Adamson, Steiglitz’s inspiration from his artistic ancestors of 50 years earlier. (Chencheng Zhao/MEDILL)