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Stieglitz Career Overview: The 291 Years, 1905–1917

Mark Levitch

From 1905 to 1917, Alfred Stieglitz made relatively few photographs. He was busy overseeing a new journal, Camera Work (1903–1917), and consumed first with promoting the art of his handpicked group of photographers, the Photo-Secession, and later with modern European art; he exhibited both at the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession on Fifth Avenue, known (after its street number) as 291 (1905–1917). Though few, Stieglitz’s works from this period mark a significant turn from pictorialism, with its emphasis on atmosphere, to a more modernist-influenced concern for the underlying geometric structure of a composition.

Alfred Stieglitz, The Steerage, 1907, printed 1915, photogravure on thin beige slightly textured laid Japanese paper, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949.3.293
Key Set number 313

Alfred Stieglitz, The City of Ambitions, 1910, printed in or before 1913, photogravure on beige thin slightly textured laid Japanese paper, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949.3.308
Key Set number 342

In 1907 Stieglitz made what he later considered his first modernist photograph: a view of ship passengers in steerage, taken from the first-class deck (Key Set number 313). With its dense, grid-like patterning and compressed pictorial space, the photograph has an almost cubist structure—a connection Stieglitz first highlighted in 1911, when he published it in an issue of Camera Work that also included a cubist drawing by Pablo Picasso.

Stieglitz in 1910 made a series of photographs focusing on the modernity of New York City. The monumental The City of Ambitions—a view of the Manhattan skyline from a ferry—features the soaring Singer Building and plumes of smoke that attest to the city’s bustling activity (Key Set number 342). In his rigorously composed view of the sleek Mauretania, the world’s largest and fastest ocean liner, the shapes on the pier in the foreground are echoed in the ship’s funnels, uniting the city with the triumphs of modern technology (Key Set number 334). Old and New New York, in which the geometric frame of a massive building under construction looms over low-slung brownstones, points to the city’s—and Stieglitz’s—modernist future (Key Set number 344).

Francis Picabia

Alfred Stieglitz, Francis Picabia, 1915, platinum print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949.3.363
Key Set number 403

After 1910, Stieglitz turned his photographic attention to making portraits of his circle of artists and colleagues. He made his gallery, 291, his informal portrait studio, reinforcing its primacy as the epicenter of modern art. The soft focus and brooding lighting of his first portraits (Key Set number 369) gave way to a more direct style by 1913, when he started posing sitters in front of works of art—often, if they were artists, their own (Key Set number 384). In these complex, multilayered portraits, Stieglitz expressed his understanding of a subject’s personality by linking sitter, setting, and formal elements; a portrait of Francis Picabia, for instance, rhymes an archlike shape in the painting with the painter’s brow and hunched shoulders, and the back of the chair on which he sits (Key Set number 403).

In 1915 and 1916, Stieglitz made a series of photographs out of 291’s back window that marked a turning point in his understanding of modernist photography (Key Set number 417). Unlike his earlier vistas of the city’s iconic sites and structures, these humble views lacked any obvious drama. But Stieglitz explored this cityscape not for its subject matter, but to study form—much as Picasso had done with his cubist studies of the Spanish village of Horta. With their compressed space, simplified geometric forms, and stacked and tilted planes, these photographs embody Stieglitz’s conscious translation of cubism to photography.

Alfred Stieglitz, From the Back-Window—291, 1915, platinum print, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949.3.372
Key Set number 417