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Stieglitz Career Overview: Early New York, 1890–1904

Mark Levitch

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Alfred Stieglitz, Winter, Fifth Avenue, 1893, printed 1894, carbon print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949.3.93
Key Set number 82

When Alfred Stieglitz returned to the United States from Germany in 1890, he made New York City his central subject. He walked the streets with a handheld camera, which allowed for more spontaneity than a large camera mounted on a tripod. He concentrated, as he had in Europe, mainly on working-class scenes of daily life, albeit now conveyed with a greater immediacy (Key Set number 77).

Stieglitz soon realized that technical challenges other photographers largely shied away from, such as rain, snow, and low light, could be a boon to his picture-making. Although such conditions were difficult to work in, they helped unify compositions, softened the unruly city, and tied it to nature. In 1893 he made his first “snow picture” of a stagecoach driving down Fifth Avenue in a blizzard (Key Set number 82). The next day, he came upon a streetcar driver washing down his horses; the steam rising from their overheated backs resembles mist over a lake (Key Set number 92). In his quiet night pictures of 1897–1898, the city, invariably robed in rain or snow, feels nearly empty, with the compositions dominated by trees and the halation of distant lights (Key Set number 257).

Alfred Stieglitz, The Hand of Man, 1902, printed 1910, photogravure on beige thin slightly textured laid Japanese paper, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949.3.269
Key Set number 278

Alfred Stieglitz, The Flatiron, 1903, printed in or before 1910, photogravure on beige thin slightly textured laid Japanese paper, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949.3.272
Key Set number 288

After the turn of the century, Stieglitz brought a similar pictorial sensibility to hallmarks of New York’s modernity. His 1902 photograph of a steaming locomotive in a Queens train yard transforms a soot-filled scene of industrial power into one of atmospheric beauty (Key Set number 278); its symbolic title, The Hand of Man, alludes to both the modern reshaping of the landscape and the mechanical process of photography itself. The next year Stieglitz trained his lens on New York’s audacious new skyscraper, the Flatiron Building, but he muted its uncompromising modernity by framing it with snow-dappled trees (Key Set number 288).

Unlike his early European photographs, which he later mostly disavowed, Stieglitz embraced his early New York photographs as marking the start of his modernist trajectory.

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