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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Stieglitz and New York – A Town to
Match His Ego

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Revered though he is as a giant of photography – brilliant practitioner, master printer, fierce defender of the medium as a fine art – Alfred Stieglitz was, by most accounts, an unlikable SOB.

Born to great wealth in 1864 in Hoboken, N.J., and doomed to spend his life without really ever having to support himself, Stieglitz was, in the words of biographer Benita Eisler, an artist who continually balanced the need to singly pursue his vision with the need of "the narcissist who does not exist without others."

Alfred Stieglitz, Eisler says, "could not bear to be alone." He needed an audience to bully and, cajole – just as he needed an audience to praise him

He also was an awful businessman.

Set up in a photoengraving plant by his rich father, Stieglitz managed the neat trick of mixing contempt for his workers with "patronizing paternalism," at one point suggesting that his employees – proud craftsmen of considerable skill – accept reduced wages in slow times in exchange for future profit sharing. All this while Stieglitz himself was living at home on a generous allowance.

His subsequent relationship with the painter Georgia O'Keeffe, another strong-willed and not especially warm-spirited person, was troubled at best. Much younger than Stieglitz, O'Keeffe was keen to seek his support as an arbiter of modern artistic taste, even as she pursued other relationships, with both men and women, after she married the aging photographer, himself a philanderer.

In short, not the kind of people I tend to have over for dinner.

And yet, we owe a tremendous debt to Stieglitz, and to a lesser extent O'Keeffe, for their fierce devotion to their own art and to that of other modern artists. It is not too far off the mark to say that the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, single-handedly and with blazing perception, introduced Modern Art to America. He was, in the words of Sarah Greenough, curator of photographs at the National Gallery, "the single most important figure in American art in the first half of the twentieth century."

So the current show at the National Gallery, "Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries," demonstrates: in paintings, drawings, photographs and sculpture by artists like Picasso, Brancusi, Braque and Matisse – many of whose works were exhibited in this country for the first time by Stieglitz in his hole-in-the-wall gallery spaces in Manhattan over several decades.

"When Stieglitz opened the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession at 291 Fifth Avenue in New York in 1905," Greenough notes, "he had the audacious belief that America, as the most modern nation in the world, could and should be the world's preeminent cultural force. And he was certain that New York, the city of ambition, the place where the hand of man – and the hand of modern man – was writ large, should be its center."

This is a show that invites leisurely perusal, in part because its display in the West Wing of the National Gallery is so engagingly spread out. The nearly 200 works of the exhibit are shown not only in smaller galleries, but also in the long wide galleries that usually serve simply to get you from point A to point B. Thus, the larger canvases of artists like O'Keeffe, John Marin and Marsden Hartley have space to breathe – and to be viewed from afar. At the same time, much smaller works on paper – including the seminal early drawings of Rodin, Matisse and Cezanne – are shown in much smaller surroundings that mimic the intimate spaces of the galleries Stieglitz created. (These early works were small for a reason: they were small enough for Stieglitz and his agents to pack them carefully in trunks and, in effect, hand-carry them from overseas in their luggage.)

Charles Brock, co-organizer of the exhibition along with Greenough, notes that Stieglitz, who became enthralled by photography while studying in Germany in his youth, was "unique in his vision of the role that photography would play in modernism."

By photography's very nature – a totally new, "scientific" and, therefore, modern art form – it was fitting that it be tied to all other contemporary art that embraced the new or the unusual. "It is hard to image the shock" generated by some of the work Stieglitz exhibited, Brock noted as he walked through the exhibit, especially the delicate tiny nudes that adorned the walls at 291. At the same time, Stieglitz knew that these small provocative works, by their very nature and size, made for "a more coherent dialogue with [the] photography" that hung in juxtaposition with it. Looking at the abstract work of Picasso, or the cubist works of Braque, or the totem-like sculpture of Brancusi, one can understand the cross-fertilization one sees in the more abstract work of Paul Strand or in the photograms and other work of Man Ray.

The onset of World War I also helped America – and therefore, Stieglitz – assert dominance in the modern art world. From 1914 until the end of hostilities several years later, art, especially avante garde art in western Europe, was all but forgotten as a generation of young men died in the killing fields of Ypres and Verdun. After the war, and until his death in 1946 at the age of 82, Stieglitz continued to champion modernism, especially American modernism.

His place in the pantheon of American artists would have been assured merely by his genius as a photographer. (Go to this show if only to marvel at the stunning black and white prints he made.)

That he also helped birth an entire new art movement merely adds to his legend.

"Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries." National Gallery of Art, West Wing, through April 22. Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Free. Tel: 202-737-4215.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

Paul Strand, New York (Wall Street), 1915. ©Aperture Foundation, Inc., Paul Strand Archive
Though best known as a photographer, Alfred Stieglitz helped introduce modern art to America by promoting then-unknown European artists like Matisse and Picasso, as well as Americans Marsden Hartley, Georgia O'Keeffe, John Marin and others.

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Traveling Light(er)

Phabulous Photographers: The Gift of Time and Teaching

Digital Downsides

My Great Digital Leap Forward

Death (and Love) in Venice

Venetian Formula: Go Slow, Stay Sane

"Photographers of the Chesapeake"

The Edward Carter Gallery at Lewes, Del., is presenting a huge show of photography documenting this historic and picturesque region, starting April 14 and running through May 20. As author of Faces of the Eastern Shore, I am proud to be a part of this show and to be in the company of such storied shooters as A. Aubrey Bodine, H. Robins Hollyday and Steve Szabo. Proud also to share the stage with such contemporaries – and friends – as David Harp, Marion Warren, Barbara Southworth and Kevin Fleming.

Join us Easter weekend at the opening, Saturday evening, April 14, from 4 to 7 p.m.

Special guest at the opening will be Washington photography dealer Kathleen Ewing, who will sign her book, A. Aubrey Bodine, Baltimore Pictorialist. In addition, Kevin Fleming, Dave Harp, Marion Warren and I will be available to sign our books and discuss our work in this most beautiful corner of the planet. – FVR

"Photographers of the Chesapeake." Edward Carter Gallery, 122 Market Street at the Inn at Canal Square, Lewes, Del., Thursday through Monday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tel: 302-644-7513. www.edwardcartergallery.com

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