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The Sterling Handiwork Of a Difficult Genius

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

In taking in the work of photography's early giants – Stieglitz, Edward S. Curtis, Atget, Clarence White, Mathew Brady – a word you might not readily associate with their work is "spontaneity."

There are several reasons for this. The first and most obvious is that the equipment these photographers used – often bulky glass-plate-negative view cameras – made it impossible for anyone to capture any but the slowest of moments. Which, of course, is why so much early photography is landscape, and why the most voluminous Civil War work of Brady and his associates consisted of "still life" battlefield scenes of the newly dead.

Another reason one doesn't associate early photography with caught-on-the-fly realism is that, in its infancy, photography was viewed as simply another type of drawing or painting, not a magical way to freeze time and help us to better see our world. Thus many photographers of the old and little lamented Pictorialist school employed any number of techniques to make their photos look more like images made with oils on canvas: gauzy, blurry, sentimental. In other words, the polar opposite of a shot made by an old New York Daily News photographer, working a grisly midtown crime scene in the 1940's and 50's with a Speed Graphic, a few film holders and a flashgun.

All of which points up the surprising facility with which Alfred Stieglitz, half a century earlier, could capture a moment and create in the viewer a shock of recognition – here is life, here is reality. Here is something whose value is enhanced, not diminished, by its being a photograph.

In walking through the National Gallery's intimate exhibit, "Alfred Stieglitz: Known and Unknown," one is reminded of the photographer's compulsive desire to create an "A1" print -and everything on the walls here, 102 prints in all, was printed and mounted by Stieglitz himself.

Notes Sarah Greenough, the National's curator of photography, "The most technically gifted and aesthetically demanding printmaker of his generation, [Stieglitz] struggled, often over many years, to make an 'A1' print. His letters, especially from the 1920's and 30's, refer again and again to his efforts to reach his goals: 'I finally made a print of one of the negatives made three years ago,' he told the photographer Paul Strand in 1919, 'It is a wonder. I guess I've made 50 prints during the three years, always trying and trying over again."

But equally important about this accessible exhibition is how it also shows off Stieglitz' ability to use the new medium of photography to capture the telling or revelatory moment.

Two examples, one far more famous than the other.

"The Steerage" was made in 1907 and Stieglitz recalled how he was transfixed by the interplay of shadow, shapes and gesture, anchored by one man in one shiny white straw boater near the top center of the frame. As he described it, Stieglitz raced back to his cabin for his camera and was able to nail the shot before the man moved.

Less well know, but remarkable for what it accomplished at the time, is "The Last Joke", a wonderfully spontaneous picture of children at a well-head in northern Italy in 1887. They are laughing at something (maybe it was a joke – Stieglitz' Italian was poor) and the photographer captures a beautifully human image. Given the technical constraints of the time, capturing a moment like this was a small miracle.

Stieglitz was by any measure a genius, but a pompous, self-centered, difficult genius as well. To his credit, he helped introduce modern art to America and was a fierce champion of photography as a fine art. Yet it also is rare to find any serious biography of the man that doesn't also note his consuming passion for himself.

Leaving aside my own reservations about the lengths Stieglitz felt he had to go to create his own version of photographic perfection, the National Gallery show is significant if only for the fact that these 102 images all are drawn from the so-called Key Set of Stieglitz' personal best prints: a priceless 1642-print hand-made archive that Stieglitz' wife Georgia O'Keeffe helped compile after her husbands death, and which she presented to the National Gallery.

Consider: today it is rare for top photographers – mostly the big-ticket magazine, fashion and advertising shooters – even to venture near a darkroom, so valuable is their time, so tightly booked their schedules.

Does Annie Leibovitz even know how to print her wonderful color work? This, I should add, is not a knock. It is exceedingly rare for any bigtime photographer nowadays to print, much less print color, which can be more temperamental and at the same time less satisfying to print than black and white.

When was the last time Richard Avedon was in the darkroom? I bet you'd have to measure that answer in decades, though, in fairness, he is a bear on what he wants his team of technicians to get from his negatives.

Alfred Stieglitz might have been obsessive – even obsessive-compulsive – about his printing, but anyone who has known the joy of watching a print emerge from the developer will appreciate what Stieglitz wrought. And an added benefit of this show is the fact that Stieglitz printed in so many media: silver prints, carbon prints, platinum and palladium prints, that the exhibition becomes a feast not only of content, but of technique.

Alfred Stieglitz: Known and Unknown. National Gallery of Art, West Wing. 4th St. at Constitution NW. Through September 2. Mon-Sat 10a-5p; Sun. 11a-6p. Info.: 202-737-4215 or www.nga.gov

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

© National Gallery of Art/Washington, DC; Alfred Stieglitz Collection. Reproduction prohibited. All rights reserved.
Stieglitz' "The Steerage," is one of his most famous photographs – a study of different angles and shapes. But more than that, I think, it is the work of a photographer who could work on the fly. If that guy in the straw hat moved even slightly, there simply would have been no picture – and Stieglitz knew it as he hurried to set up his bulky camera.

© National Gallery of Art/Washington, DC; Alfred Stieglitz Collection. Reproduction prohibited. All rights reserved.
Far less known, but illustrating the same talent to capture a moment, is "The Last Joke" (aka "The Good Joke") that Stieglitz made in the Italian lake country in 1887 when only in his twenties. Consider: the camera weighed a ton, the film wasn't all that sensitive and his subjects were moving. A remarkable slice of life.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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