Alfred Stieglitz – pioneer of modern photography

Alfred Stieglitz (1864 – 1946) was an advocate for the Modernist movement in the arts, and, arguably, the most important photographer of his time. A photographer, publisher, writer and gallery owner, he played a key role in the promotion and exploration of photography as an art form.

"Photography fascinated me, first as a toy, then as a passion, then as an obsession."

Alfred Stieglitz

Stieglitz was a student in Germany when he bought his first camera, an 8 × 10 plate film camera that required a tripod. Despite its bulk, Stieglitz travelled throughout Europe, taking photographs of landscapes and labourers in Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. In 1892, Stieglitz bought his first hand-held camera, a Folmer and Schwing 4 × 5 plate film camera, which he used to take two of his best known images, Winter, Fifth Avenue and The Terminal.

'Street scene with snow, Fifth Avenue, New York', photograph by Alfred Stieglitz, 1893. Museum no. RPS.1290-2018. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
'The Terminal', photograph by Alfred Stieglitz, 1892, New York. Museum no. RPS.2352-2017. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Stieglitz collected books on photography and photographers in Europe and the US and wrote articles on the technical and aesthetic aspects of photography. Through his self-study, Stieglitz developed and refined his vision of photography as an art form.

Photo-Secession and 'Camera Work'

In 1902, Stieglitz founded Photo-Secession, a radical and controversial movement that was influential in promoting photography as a fine art. For this group, photography was viewed not just as a documenting tool, but as a new way of expression and creation, whereby an image could be manipulated to achieve a subjective vision.

The ideas of Photo-Secession, and the establishment of photography as a fine art, were promoted through Stieglitz's Camera Work, a quarterly photographic journal published from 1903 to 1917. The first issue was printed in December 1902, and like all of the subsequent issues it contained beautiful hand-pulled photogravures (a process that uses gelatin to transfer the image from a black and white negative to a copper printing plate), critical writings on photography, and commentaries on photographers and exhibitions.

In the introduction to the first issue, Stieglitz wrote:

"Only examples of such works as gives evidence of individuality and artistic worth, regardless of school, or contains some exceptional feature of technical merit, or such as exemplifies some treatment worthy of consideration, will find recognition in these pages. Nevertheless, the Pictorial will be the dominating feature of the magazine."

(Left to right:) 'Camera Work', photographic journal, published and edited by Alfred Stieglitz, issue 48, October 1916 (Set 1), front cover and internal spread. Museum no. RPS.1256-2018. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1905 Stieglitz opened the "little galleries of the Photo-Secession" in New York at 291 Fifth Avenue, which later became known as gallery '291'. The effect of the First World War and the changes in the New York arts scene meant that in 1917 Stieglitz could no longer afford to publish Camera Work or to run the gallery.

Influenced by the large abstract drawings of the American artist Georgia O'Keeffe (1887 – 1986) and the work of American photographer Paul Strand (1890 – 1976), Stieglitz adopted an arguably more Modernist approach in the 1920s and 1930s. He started to make small gelatin-silver prints of exquisite precision and sharp tonal contrast and to explore the artistic and spiritual potential of his everyday surroundings.

(Left to right:) 'Poplars, Lake George', photographs by Alfred Stieglitz, 1932, US. Museum nos. E.899-2003 & E.900-2003. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London;

Between 1925 and 1934, Stieglitz took a series of photographs of clouds. The Equivalents, as he came to call them, are some of the first intentionally abstract photographic works of art and have been hailed as his most important contribution to photography.

Stieglitz's aim was not to distill the essence of clouds but to transform them into an abstract language of form expressive of his feelings. By removing any reference points and allowing the photographs to be viewed in any orientation, Stieglitz "was destabilising your [the viewer's] relationship with nature in order to have you think less about nature, not to deny that it's a photograph of a cloud, but to think more about the feeling that the cloud formation evokes." (Sarah Greenough, 1995)

(Left to right:) 'Equivalent', photographs by Alfred Stieglitz, 1926. Museum nos. PH.366-1982 & PH.368-1982. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

These images had a huge impact at the time, especially considering photography had only been recognised as a distinct art form for about fifteen years, and that within this short time no tradition of abstraction had existed.

Georgia O'Keeffe

In 1916 Stieglitz first saw the work of the American artist Georgia O'Keeffe (1887 – 1986) and was impressed by the expressive power of her large abstract drawings.

The following year he hosted her first solo exhibition at his gallery '291' in New York. He also started to photograph O'Keeffe, posing her in front of her work and finding ways to fuse her body with the compositions. This was the start of an extraordinary collaboration that lasted over 20 years and resulted in over 300 photographs. Stieglitz and O'Keeffe's artistic dialogue extended to a profound influence on each other's work. They became lovers and married in 1924.

Georgia O'Keeffe, photograph by Alfred Stieglitz, 1918. Museum no. E.887-2003. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Stieglitz saw his photographs of O'Keeffe as a composite portrait. Seen together, they explore themes of multiplicity, fragmentation, time and change, as well as O'Keeffe's personality, beauty and creativity. We might also read the portraits as a record of Stieglitz and O'Keeffe's love affair and of their remarkable creative synergy.

The portraits of O'Keeffe shown here were taken between 1918 and 1937. The early, sensuous images were taken in the studio and printed on platinum and palladium paper, giving a fine tonal range. Later, there is a move away from symbolically charged images to an increasingly frank record of an individual.