Today, Stieglitz and photography, art and reality.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The person who did most to
bring photography into America's artistic
mainstream was Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz was born
in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1864. But his
businessman father raised him both in Germany and
in New York City. At eighteen, he went to study
mechanical engineering at the Berlin Polytechnic
University, whose faculty included the great
But Stieglitz's intentions derailed a year later
when, on a lark, he bought a primitive box camera.
After that, he became increasingly distracted from
engineering. He finally switched to process
chemistry and dove into the technical side of
Within a few years, Stieglitz had won European
prizes for his pictures, and, in 1890, he returned
to America. By the turn of the century, he emerged
as the center of a New York movement called
"The Photo-Secession." The simple aim of The
Photo-Secession was "to advance photography as applied to pictorial expression."
So the relation of the camera to painting and
sculpture became Steiglitz's central concern. As he
struggled to define a legitimate place for art
photography, he was quite clear on one point:
Painting and photography were two distinct and
Since modern art sought out new realities, he said,
painting would go where photography could not
follow. In fact Stieglitz took that as a
constraint. Once we begin altering photographic
images by hand, he said, the result is no longer
photography. I expect he would've cringed at what
we do with digital images today.
In 1905, Stieglitz and The Photo-Secession opened a
gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue. The 291, as it
was called, became a center and arbiter of art in
general, not just photography. Stieglitz began to
assert his profound understanding of the changing
face of art by exhibiting the major new art
movements at the 291. Between 1908 and 1911 he and
photographer Edward Steichen exhibited Matisse,
Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin, Cézanne, and
Picasso as well as photographs.
Stieglitz's efforts were building toward the most
famous art show of them all, the 1913 Armory Art Show. A group of
young rebels finally organized a huge show and
rented an armory to display it. This was no
piecemeal exhibition. Now America could see the
whole parade of modern art, and, while Stieglitz
had not been the organizing force, he'd certainly
been the soul of the exhibit.
we read about, with his turbulent marriage to
Georgia O'Keeffe, lived later. By then, we'd begun
to see how far reality had been bent by modern
physics -- by quantum mechanics and relativity. It
took the younger Stieglitz, the one who wouldn't
tamper with the eye of his camera, to recognize
that Picasso and Braque were being just as
literal with their paintbrushes. Stieglitz seemed
to realize that what was shifting under our feet in
1903 was not art at all, but reality itself.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Newhall, B., The History of Photography: From 1839
to the Present Day. New York: The Museum of
Modern Art, 1964, Chapters 8 and 9.
Lowe, S. D., Stieglitz: A Memoir/Biography.
New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1983.
Whelan, R., Alfred Stieglitz: A Biography.
New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1995.
America & Alfred Stieglitz: A Collective
Portrait. (Edited by Waldo Frank, Lewis
Mumford, Dorothy Norman, Paul Rosenfeld, and Harold
Rugg) New York: Octagon Books, 1975.
Bry, D., Alfred Stieglitz: Photographer.
Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1965.
Steiglitz's photo of the Flatiron Building,
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2000 by John H.