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The Key Set

Sarah Greenough

Nearly right is child’s play.

Alfred Stieglitz, 1919

Alfred Stieglitz, Self-Portrait, probably 1911, platinum print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949.3.303
Key Set number 365

During the course of his long career, Alfred Stieglitz amassed a large collection of paintings, drawings, photographs, and sculpture by some of the most celebrated artists of the twentieth-century, as well as more than 2,500 of his own mounted photographs. After his death in 1946, his wife, the painter Georgia O’Keeffe, set aside her own work for three years to organize the collection and plan its dispersal. She paid particular attention to the disposition of his photographs, deeming them to be its most important component.[1] Knowing that Stieglitz believed an artist’s evolution should be preserved, she formed what she called “the key set” of his work, including at least one print of every mounted photograph in his possession at the time of his death.[2] Keenly aware of the importance of presentation for Stieglitz, O’Keeffe determined that, with the exception of albums and Autochromes, a photograph must be mounted to be included in the Key Set because Stieglitz did not consider a work finished until he completed this step.[3] Committed to assembling the finest collection of his photographs and with her eye honed from years of living and working with him, she selected the best example of each print for the Key Set.[4] In addition, because she understood the conceptual evolution of his art and working methods, she recognized that different crops or different kinds of prints made from the same negative, or even different orientations of a print on the mount board, represented different interpretations, and she included examples of each in the Key Set. With advice from Daniel Catton Rich, a friend and the director of The Art Institute of Chicago, and Duncan Phillips, head of the Phillips Memorial Gallery, among others, she placed the Key Set at the National Gallery of Art in 1949, donating most of the photographs that year with the remainder—more than 325 portraits of her—given in 1980.[5] 

Including 1,642 photographs, the Key Set is the largest, most complete, cohesive, and systematic collection of Stieglitz’s work, and the only one in existence. O’Keeffe gave smaller collections of duplicate prints to twelve other museums, but none contains more than 180 works (see Notes to the Reader). The Key Set ranges from juvenilia made on an 1886 trip to a resort near Berlin, through Stieglitz’s mature art of the 1920s and 1930s, to the last photographs he took in the summer of 1937, when poor health forced him to stop working. It also displays the diversity of subject matter he explored—genre studies, portraits, landscapes, cityscapes, and a few copies of other works of art and installation photographs—and the variety of printing techniques he employed—platinum, carbon, photogravure, Autochrome, palladium, Satista, and gelatin silver. While more than 470 photographs in the Key Set were made before 1917, Stieglitz’s fully mature work, including 331 portraits of O’Keeffe made between 1917 and 1937, 337 photographs of clouds from 1922 to 1934, and eighty studies of New York from 1927 to 1937, is represented with the greatest strength. Along with the range and variety of the work, the Key Set also reveals, as no other collection does, what the critic Elizabeth McCausland in 1934 called the “appalling logic and consistency” of Stieglitz’s art.[6] Resemblances of form and meaning are readily apparent between the quiet, simple dignity of the Italian Mason, Bellagio, 1887, and the forthright study of Cary Ross, 1932, for example, or the poetic rendition of nature in Mittenwald, 1886, and the more highly charged, but nevertheless equally evocative Lake George, 1922, and the light-filled architectural studies of A Street in Sterzing, The Tyrol, 1890, and New York from the Shelton, 1935 (Key Set numbers 38, 21, 1476, 808, 72, and 1566).

Neither the ratio of early to late work nor the connections that can be seen and felt between the two is accidental, nor did O’Keeffe decide them.[7] While she named the Key Set and selected the prints that comprise it, Stieglitz determined its contents. Throughout his career he repeatedly scrutinized the meaning and import of his entire collection of his photographs, editing and deleting, revising and reprinting as his ideas and perspectives changed. With a modest—if fluctuating—personal income that freed him from the need to sell his work to clients, journals, or newspapers, Stieglitz, unlike many other artists of the twentieth century, could have preserved a much larger number of his own photographs.[8] But he was scrupulous about what he chose to save, unsentimental in selecting which negatives to print and which to put aside or destroy, and relentless in weeding out his least successful work. Sometimes he gave proofs (hastily made prints not properly washed or fixed) to people who posed for him with the promise that finished photographs would be forthcoming. Often, though the works were never sent because they did not meet his exacting standards. “Nearly right is child’s play,” he told one photographer, “But I try and try and try until I get what I want. . . . I reject all others—but what I am after is the A.1.—One from each negative.”[9] The most technically gifted and aesthetically demanding printmaker of his generation, he struggled, often over many years, to create “A.1.” prints. His letters, especially from the 1920s and 1930s, refer again and again to his efforts to reach his goals: “I finally made a print of one of the negatives made 3 years ago,” he told the photographer Paul Strand in 1919, “It is a wonder. I guess I’ve made 50 prints during the 3 years, always trying and trying over again.”[10] 

To that end, from the late 1910s through the early 1940s, he repeatedly, as he reported to the painter Arthur Dove, went through his photographs—“and that’s some job”—freely and frequently editing both negatives and prints.[11] Certainly he lost work and destroyed prints that had been damaged, but his culling extended far beyond such simple accidents of time or housecleaning.[12] In 1924 he told the critic Henry McBride: “There is once more a moving ahead for me, and I am beginning to tear up prints—tore up over 400 a day or so ago.”[13] In 1929 he confessed to Dove that during an anxious summer while O’Keeffe was away in New Mexico, he spent “several weeks burning up books & papers—negatives & prints.”[14] And again in 1932 he wrote O’Keeffe that he was “tearing up useless negatives” and destroying “a bunch of prints that were of no earthly use.”[15] Often his acts of destruction coincided with his and O’Keeffe’s moves from one apartment to another, or the closing—or threat of closure—of one of his galleries. Yet, in addition to wanting simply to get rid of the physical weight of accumulated possessions, he may also have felt a deeper need to shed himself of the past, to make room “for the new,” as he told Sherwood Anderson, and even to create order for those who would outlive him.[16] 

At its core, though, Stieglitz’s editing of his photographs was carefully and sometimes agonizingly deliberate. He matured in a period of dramatic transformation in the arts and he was never taught how to be an artist, much less an artistic photographer, and certainly not a modernist. While he made many critically acclaimed photographs before 1910, many of them were analytical, often didactic, and even reactive, created in response to the ideas and art—especially the paintings—of others. He did not fully clarify what the art of photography entailed and what its relationship to the other arts was until the 1910s, and only then did he become a modern artist—more synthetic, at times intuitive and often highly original. When he began to edit his collection after that, he wanted it to reflect and embody his new and lately won understanding of photography as a modern art. The process was “self-torture,” he told O’Keeffe in the early 1930s, noting that he had filled one room of his gallery, An American Place, with boxes of his photographs and was “looking at every print. It’s an awful order—so few are really complete.”[17] “So many should be torn up, but it is difficult to draw a line.”[18] Yet he persisted and wrote to O’Keeffe, “Some day when I’m thro [sic] you can go through all of them and see what you think of my job.”[19] 

We do not know exactly what O’Keeffe thought of his job when, after his death, she went through all of his photographs to select those for the Key Set. But she was definitely not presented with a random assortment of odds and ends, as is the case with so many artists’ estates. Nor was she left examples of every negative he had made, every image he had ever printed, or every work he had ever considered worthy of exhibition or reproduction. Many photographs made before 1900, known primarily through reproductions or as lantern slides, are not in the Key Set.[20] None of the more manipulated works he made in the 1890s, such as the glycerine-developed platinum prints he created with Joseph Keiley or gum bichromate prints—processes he used in the late 1890s but came to abhor after 1910—are included in the Key Set. Neither are numerous snapshots, usually 4 × 5 inches or smaller, of the extended Stieglitz family and friends made during their summer vacations at Lake George, New York.[21] And many of the vintage prints of the photographs he took between 1886 and 1895 exist in the Key Set only in bound volumes and not in exhibition format.[22] Yet, with few exceptions, the Key Set does include almost every known major 8 × 10-inch photograph Stieglitz made after 1915. Thus, it is, as Stieglitz wanted it to be, his statement of who he was as a modernist photographer.

The following catalogue presents the photographs in the Key Set in a chronological order that establishes for the first time a picture of the evolution of his art. The construction of this chronology presented many problems. With the exception of the photographs he made on his 1894 trip to Europe and those taken in New York in 1910, the dates assigned to Stieglitz’s works are often arbitrary at best.[23] Despite the vast number of documents he accumulated during his lifetime, no daybooks or diaries exist, and, surprisingly, few installation photographs of his exhibitions are known.[24] Like many artists, Stieglitz, particularly in his later years, often inscribed, exhibited, and published works with incorrect dates. This makes questions of influence especially vexing. In 1921, when he first exhibited the views made out of the back window of his gallery 291, for instance, he dated all of them as 1915. But is this correct? Were they really made before he saw Paul Strand’s photographs of the city or were they actually taken at the same time or later? Were they even made in response to Strand’s photographs at all or was another impetus at work?

Further compounding our understanding of Stieglitz’s evolution, he viewed his negatives as a rich and deep reservoir that he could repeatedly revisit, and throughout his life he frequently rethought and reinterpreted his art. He had no interest in merely repeating what he had already done, but always wanted “a new problem . . . to vary—add.”[25] In the 1890s and at the turn of the century he often reprinted his work as he mastered a new process. But especially after he made the leap from pictorialism to modernism in the early 1910s, he fully explored and exploited the almost unparalleled opportunity photography gave him to return to his negatives made ten, twenty, or even more than forty years earlier and reinterpret them, often significantly. When he reprinted his early negatives in the 1920s or 1930s, he used gelatin silver paper with a crisp, often cool tonal range that was quite different from the softer and more colorful effects of the carbon, platinum, and gum bichromate papers he used in the 1890s. And, whereas in the 1890s and early 1900s he insisted that uncropped prints had “little value,” by the 1920s he presented most, if not all, of the negative.[26] When he reprinted Scurrying Home in the 1920s or 1930s, for example, he was no longer eager to create a study of the supposed simplicity of rural life and included, instead, a large, fashionable house or hotel to the left of the old church, testifying to his new-found fascination with change and conflict as fundamental aspects of contemporary life (Key Set numbers 218–222). By reformulating his imagery and its syntax, Stieglitz reinterpreted this and other earlier photographs in light of his newer understanding of modern American art and culture, and conferred on them the motivations of his later work.

In some cases, he recropped and reprinted earlier photographs that he had previously printed, but in other instances he printed work that he had hardly considered before. By studying the prints themselves and their exhibition and publication histories we can see that Stieglitz did not include Sun Rays—Paula, Berlin, which has come to be thought of as prescient, in either of his one-person shows at the Camera Club of New York in 1899 or his gallery, 291, in 1913, but, most likely, first presented it in his 1921 exhibition at the Anderson Galleries (Key Set numbers 60 and 61). And, although he wrote in the 1920s that The Terminal, 1893, “stood the test of upwards of thirty years”—and is now one of his most celebrated works from the 1890s—in fact he only exhibited it twice before 1910 and did not reproduce it until 1911 (Key Set numbers 92–96).[27] These are but a few examples, yet they suggest the importance of understanding his working habits and of examining the histories of the photographs themselves. Only then can we begin to ask the more compelling questions of when and why he resurrected older work. And, only then will we begin to recognize how Stieglitz, by including later prints of earlier negatives in publications and exhibitions from the 1910s through the 1940s, folded them into his canon and thereby significantly altered and reread his artistic evolution.

The following essay does not retell the story of Stieglitz’s life or his work to promote photography and modern art. Instead, it analyzes what is and is not in the Key Set in order to clarify the evolution of Stieglitz’s understanding of modernist photography and suggest new insights into his sources, working methods, development, and objectives.

Next: 1884–1901

Originally published 2002; minor adaptations have been made for the presentation of this text online.


  1.  O’Keeffe, in O’Keeffe, “Stieglitz: His Pictures Collected Him,” The New York Times Magazine (11 December 1949), 30.

  2. O’Keeffe first used the term “the key set” in O’Keeffe, “Stieglitz: His Pictures Collected Him,” The New York Times Magazine (11 December 1949), 30. Doris Bry, in conversation with the author, 18 July 2001, has kindly confirmed that O’Keeffe coined the term.

  3. Stieglitz’s letters contain numerous references to his belief that mounting a print was “sometimes the toughest part of picture making.” See Stieglitz to Sherwood Anderson, 7 August 1924 (Newberry Library, Chicago, and Alfred Stieglitz/Georgia O’Keeffe Archive, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven). O’Keeffe considered Stieglitz’s mounting and presentation so central to his art that she withdrew her offer to give the Key Set to The Metropolitan Museum of Art when she learned that the curator in charge of photographs intended to trim Stieglitz’s mount boards to fit the sizes of their storage boxes. As she frequently recounted later in her life, when she learned that the Metropolitan did this with all their prints, even their Rembrandts, she replied, “Well, Mrs. Rembrandt wasn’t around to complain” (O’Keeffe in conversation with the author, 13 February 1980). See also Malcolm Daniel, “Photography at the Metropolitan: William M. Ivins and A. Hyatt Mayor,” History of Photography 21:2 (Summer 1997), 110–116.

  4. Doris Bry in Alfred Stieglitz: Photographer [exh. cat., National Gallery of Art] (Washington, 1958), 7, note 2, stated that “the key set consists of the best single original mounted print from every negative made by Stieglitz of which he had kept mounted prints until the time of his death.” More recently, in a letter to the author, 10 September 2001, she explained, “While in general the best print from each negative was selected for the key set, this could not be 100 per cent true in every instance. When variants of interest existed from the same negative—either different photographic papers or variations of one sort or another, almost without exception these were placed in the key set in order that a student of Stieglitz’s photographs might have the greatest possible opportunity to understand the way he worked. There were also a few occasions when O’Keeffe could only carry out her intentions by using prints that were not in the key set, such as her gift of a cloud set to the Phillips Memorial Gallery.” The set of cloud photographs, Equivalents L1–4, also titled Equivalents N1–4, donated by O’Keeffe to the Phillips Collection, contains one photograph, L3 or N3, not in the Key Set. She continued, “In addition, there were occasional instances during the formation of the key set where we deliberately gave the best print to The Metropolitan Museum of Art and/or Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts to honor their role in Stieglitz’s history, rather than to the National Gallery of Art.”

  5. In 1949 O’Keeffe donated 1,269 photographs, along with 50 issues of Camera Work, including 42 photogravures by Stieglitz, and placed 329 portraits of herself on long-term loan. She subsequently gave those in 1980, and in 1990 The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation gave two remaining portraits of O’Keeffe that were to be included in the Key Set but had been misplaced. O’Keeffe noted that Stieglitz never decided what should be done with his own work or with his collection of paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, and sculptures by American and European modernists (O’Keeffe, “Stieglitz: His Pictures Collected Him,” The New York Times Magazine [11 December 1949], 29). Duncan Phillips suggested she give the photographs to the newly founded National Gallery of Art. She did so because, as she wrote Rich on 18 December 1948, “the institution seems like a peak—something finished—standing alone.” She continued, “Stieglitz worked for the recognition of Photography as a Fine Art—The National Gallery means something in relation to that” (Georgia O’Keeffe letter to Daniel Catton Rich, Ryerson and Burnham Libraries, The Art Institute of Chicago).

  6. Elizabeth McCausland, “Photographs by Stieglitz Now at An American Place,” The Springfield Sunday Union and Republican (16 December 1934), section E, 6.

  7. There is no evidence that O’Keeffe destroyed any of Stieglitz’s mounted photographs. During his lifetime she found his destruction of prints so disturbing that she rescued many from the trash. She donated this “Waste Basket Collection” to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. A large holding of unmounted photographs, now in a private collection, suggests that she also preserved many “unfinished” works.

  8. Stieglitz rarely sold his photographs. During the 1890s and early 1900s he put prices on some of his work when it was exhibited (see, for example, catalogues for the 1895 London Salon, the 1896 exhibition in Hamburg, and the 1898 exhibition at the National Academy of Design, New York). He sold few examples, however. In 1895 the director of the Belgian Museum of Fine Arts purchased a group of photographs from the “Cercle Artistique et Litteraire, Salon Photographie,” held in Brussels, including Stieglitz’s Scurrying Home (see “A Triumph for Pictorial Photography,” The American Amateur Photographer 8 [January 1896], 26). In 1910 the Albright Art Gallery bought several photographs from its large “International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography,” including Stieglitz’s The Street, Fifth Avenue (see “The International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography of 1910,” in William Innes Homer, Alfred Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession [Boston, 1983], 144–147). Stieglitz gave snapshots to friends and family, and occasionally presented individuals who helped support his galleries with more important works. See, for example, a print of Georgia O’Keeffe—Hands and Thimble, 1919 (Key Set number 566), which was given to Aline Meyer Liebman, and is now in a private collection (Christie’s, New York, auction catalogue, 8 October 1993, lot 80). However, he did so with care: when asked by David Liebovitz if a casual acquaintance had some of his photographs, Stieglitz replied, “No, I have picked out my people with some discretion” (19 July 1929, Alfred Stieglitz/Georgia O’Keeffe Archive, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven).

  9. Stieglitz to R. Child Bayley, 9 October 1919 (Alfred Stieglitz/Georgia O’Keeffe Archive, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven).

  10. Stieglitz to Paul Strand, 11 August 1919 (Alfred Stieglitz/Georgia O’Keeffe Archive, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, and Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona, Tucson).

  11. Stieglitz to Arthur Dove, 24 June 1939, as quoted in Ann Lee Morgan, ed., Dear Stieglitz, Dear Dove (Newark, Delaware, 1988), 422. Stieglitz’s niece Georgia Engelhard also commented that he was a “perfectionist, satisfied only with the best from himself and others. . . . He has torn up many hundreds of his own prints, discarded thousands of negatives which did not come up to his own standards” in “Alfred Stieglitz: Master Photographer,” American Photography 39 (April 1945), 9.

  12. Stieglitz told Nancy Newhall that he stored his glass plates under a sink at his gallery 291: “When we had to vacate the place, the sink had leaked and 94% had become wet and stuck together. They were thrown away . . . my negatives made in Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland and the Tyrol, negatives in New York of New York—4 × 5 and 8 × 10—even the original prints from most of the negatives no longer extant. They had been either lost or destroyed” (as quoted by Nancy Newhall, unpublished manuscript, 24, copy in NGA files). The losses were certainly exaggerated. As Newhall notes, Stieglitz stored both negatives and prints in several locations and he made many prints in the 1920s and 1930s from negatives made before 1917 when 291 closed.

  13. Stieglitz to Henry McBride, “Correspondence,” New York Herald (10 February 1924), section 7, 13.

  14. Stieglitz to Arthur Dove, 9 September 1929 (Ann Lee Morgan, ed., Dear Stieglitz, Dear Dove [Newark, Delaware, 1988], 178).

  15. Stieglitz to O’Keeffe, 12 June 1932 and 19 May 1932 (Alfred Stieglitz/Georgia O’Keeffe Archive, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven). Marmaduke Humphrey in “Triumphs in Amateur Photography, I—Alfred Stieglitz,” Godey’s Magazine 135 (December 1897), 584, reported that Stieglitz had made “twenty thousand negatives, and has smashed about eighteen thousand of these in his annual house-cleanings.” Elizabeth McCausland, “Photographs by Stieglitz Now at An American Place,” The Springfield Sunday Union and Republican (16 December 1934), section E, 6, noted that Stieglitz had made four thousand negatives.

  16. Stieglitz to Sherwood Anderson, 30 November 1925 (Newberry Library, Chicago, and Alfred Stieglitz/Georgia O’Keeffe Archive, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven). In the early 1940s Stieglitz made tentative plans to have his photographs catalogued by Nancy Newhall. On 6 July 1942 she wrote in her journal, “Stieglitz agreed immediately that his work should be catalogued and photographed for identification purposes. Had always intended to do it himself, using postage stamp size so works in folders, etc., could be identified from the outside. Was not worried about the Place upset by equipment or loss of quality or anything else. Did not even stick at the publication of the catalogue. Was, in fact, all for the idea.” Little progress was made on the project (see Nancy Newhall, unpublished manuscript, 1, copy in NGA files).

  17. Stieglitz to O’Keeffe, 18 May 1932 (Alfred Stieglitz/Georgia O’Keeffe Archive, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven).

  18. Stieglitz to O’Keeffe, 17 May 1932 (Alfred Stieglitz/Georgia O’Keeffe Archive, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven).

  19. Stieglitz to O’Keeffe, 22 May 1932 (Alfred Stieglitz/Georgia O’Keeffe Archive, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven).

  20. The Key Set includes prints from 169 negatives made before 1900. More than 150 additional works are known through reproduction, as lantern slides, or exist in public and private collections. In recent years some vintage prints of previously unknown works have been discovered. See prints in the Herbert Small Collection, Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona, Tucson (reproduced in Center for Creative Photography 6 [Alfred Stieglitz: Photographs from the Herbert Small Collection] [April 1978]), and photographs exhibited in “Alfred Stieglitz: Early Work,” at the George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film, February–May 1975 (copy prints in George Eastman Museum files). Stieglitz saved many lantern slides, but O’Keeffe did not include them in the Key Set, probably because they were not mounted prints and therefore, in his opinion, not finished works of art.

  21. For reproductions of some of these snapshots, see Sue Davidson Lowe, Stieglitz: A Memoir/Biography (New York, 1983), pls. 6–10, 12–14, and 19–20.

  22. Most of these photographs are bound into four albums that Stieglitz titled Sun Prints. Two additional albums are titled A Souvenir of Summer, 1886, and Freienwalde a.O.

  23. Although Stieglitz’s photographs have been extensively discussed in recent years, their titles, dates, and exhibition histories have rarely been systematically examined. One notable exception is Joel Smith, “New York Modernism and the Cityscapes of Alfred Stieglitz, 1927–1937” (Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 2001).

  24. Although Stieglitz amassed an extensive archive now preserved at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, it does not include systematic lists made by Stieglitz of his photographs. Only two of Stieglitz’s negatives, now in a private collection, are known to the author, and neither is currently housed in sleeves that might have contained inscriptions.

  25. Stieglitz, “A Statement,” in Exhibition of Stieglitz Photographs [exh. cat., The Anderson Galleries] (New York, 1921), unpaginated.

  26. “The Hand Camera—Its Present Importance,” The American Journal of Photography and Photographic Times Almanac for 1897 (New York, 1896), 27.

  27. Stieglitz to J. Dudley Johnston, 3 April 1925 (Royal Photographic Society, Bath, England).