Published: February 22, 2011
Three giants of Twentieth Century American photography, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Paul Strand, are being featured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the exhibition “Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand.” The diverse and groundbreaking work of these artists are revealed through a presentation of 115 photographs, drawn entirely from the museum’s collection.
On view through April 10 are many of the Metropolitan’s greatest photographic treasures from the 1900s to 1920s, including Stieglitz’s famous portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe, Steichen’s large colored photographs of the Flatiron building and Strand’s pioneering abstractions.
Stieglitz (1864‱946) was a photographer of supreme accomplishment and a forceful and influential advocate for photography and Modern art through his gallery “291” and his sumptuous journal Camera Work . Stieglitz also laid the foundation for the museum’s collection of photographs, in 1928, donating 22 of his own works to the Metropolitan. These were the first photographs to enter the museum’s collection as works of art. In later decades he gave the museum more than 600 photographs by his contemporaries, including Steichen and Strand.
Among Stieglitz’s works featured in this exhibition are portraits, views of New York City from the beginning and end of his career and the 1920s cloud studies he titled “Equivalents,” through which he sought to arouse in the viewer the emotional equivalent of his own state of mind at the time he made the photograph, and to show that the content of a photograph was different from its subject.
Stieglitz’s protégé and gallery collaborator, Steichen (1879‱973) was the most talented exemplar of the Photo-Secession, the loosely knit group of artists founded by Stieglitz in 1902, seceding, in his words, “from the accepted idea of what constitutes a photograph,” but also from the camera clubs and other institutions dominated by a more retrograde establishment. In works such as “The Pond †Moonrise,” 1904, made using a painstaking technique of multiple printing, Steichen rivaled the scale, color and individuality of painting.
Steichen’s three large variant prints of “The Flatiron,” 1904, are prime examples of the conscious effort of Photo-Secession photographers to assert the artistic potential of their medium. The Metropolitan’s three prints, all donated by Stieglitz in 1933, are the only exhibition prints of Steichen’s iconic image.
Stieglitz’s and Steichen’s younger contemporary, Strand (1890‱976) pioneered a shift from the soft-focus aesthetic and painterly prints of the Photo-Secession to the straight approach and graphic power of an emerging Modernism. Strand was introduced to Stieglitz as a high-schooler by his camera club advisor, Lewis Hine, the social reformer and photographer. He quickly became a regular visitor to “291,” where he was exposed to the latest trends in European art through groundbreaking exhibitions of works by Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse and Brancusi.
Strand incorporated the new language of geometric abstraction into his interest in photographing street life and machine culture. His photographs from 1915 to 1917 treated three principal themes: movement in the city, abstractions and street portraits. In “From the El,” 1915, Strand juxtaposed the ironwork and shadows of the elevated train with the tiny form of a lone pedestrian. In 1916, he experimented with radical camera angles and photographing at close range. Among the astonishingly modern photographs he made that summer is “Abstraction, Twin Lakes, Connecticut,” one of the first photographic abstractions to be made intentionally.
In the same year, Strand made a series of candid street portraits with a handheld camera fitted with a special lens that allowed him to point the camera in one direction while taking the photograph at a 90-degree angle. “Blind,” his seminal image of a street peddler, was published in Camera Work and immediately became an icon of the new American photography, which integrated the humanistic concerns of social documentation with the boldly simplified forms of Modernism. As is true for most of the large platinum prints by Strand in the exhibition, the Metropolitan’s “Blind,” a gift of Stieglitz, is the only exhibition print of this image from the period.
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