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An Eye for the Modern

The World OF Alfred Stieglitz

By Bob Bolin | HUMANITIES, March/April 2001 | Volume 22, Number 2

In the early 1920s Alfred Stieglitz displayed a series of cloud photographs, titled Equivalents. “All of my photographs are equivalents of my basic philosophy of life,” he wrote. “All art is but a picture of certain basic relationships; an equivalent of the artist’s most profound experience of life.” The upcoming documentary, Alfred Stieglitz: The Eloquent Eye, makes plain his impassioned belief. Writer and director Perry Miller Adato describes its theme as “the birth of modern art in America as seen through the lens of the life and work of Alfred Stieglitz.”

The film endeavors to examine the artistic and social milieu in which the varied careers of Alfred Stieglitz developed. Interviews with Georgia O’Keeffe and Edward Steichen, footage of artists John Marin and Auguste Rodin at work, and more than five hundred images of artwork, including nearly all extant photographs of installations displayed athis galleries, convey the impact of Stieglitz’s work as artist, promoter, publisher, sponsor, and critic. His mission was to promote acceptance of modernity in art.

In the first decade of the 1900s, Stieglitz and Steichen began to disseminate the work of these moderns in America through their galleries at 291 Fifth Avenue and the magazine Camera Work. These venues allowed Stieglitz to show the works of his fellow Photo-Secessionists, which was crucial to Stieglitz’s determination that photography be viewed as an art form. At the turn of the twentieth century such a view was met with indifference, if not hostility. While Stieglitz’s claim that “the fight for photography became my life” may sound extreme, producer Susan Lacy points out that Stieglitz regarded himself as on a mission. “It was an incredible victory,” she says, that at the Allbright Gallery in 1910 “a photograph was hung next to a painting.”

In the film, Stieglitz’s experiences at the 291 and later galleries demonstrate the shock of the new in modern art. For instance, Stieglitz’s 1911 exhibition of Picasso’s work received an unfavorable response two years before the New York Armory Show that scandalized America on a grand scale with its display of modern European art. Stieglitz saw the Picasso collection as a demonstration of the artist’s development and urged the Metropolitan Museum of Art to purchase it. The director refused, according to Stieglitz. “He saw nothing in Picasso and was sure that such mad pictures would never mean anything in America.” In the end, Stieglitz succeeded only in selling a drawing that Picasso had completed when he was twelve. Later, Stieglitz would reflect that the collection could have been purchased for two thousand dollars. “I was ashamed for America to return them all.”

Stieglitz’s own appreciation of innovative artwork developed gradually as he curated 291. In his initial viewing of Cezanne’s watercolors in 1908, Stieglitz dismissed them, saying, “there’s nothing here but empty paper with a few splashes of color.” Three years later when the watercolors were to hang in the 291 gallery and Stieglitz uncrated them, he remarked, “I found the first one no more nor less realistic than a photograph. What had happened to me?” Through his exposure to new art, Stieglitz’s vision had changed.

In a clip from a 1980 interview, Georgia O’Keeffe reminisces about a similar experience she had as a student visiting a Rodin exhibition in 1908 at the gallery: “I went in and I looked around and I didn’t see anything like anything I’d been taught. It looked to me like just a lot of scribbles.”

Stieglitz was not deterred from promoting modern work simply because he did not understand it immediately. When he agreed to publish Gertrude Stein’s writings on Picasso, he told her, “I don’t know the meaning of this, but it sounds good to me.” The pieces that appeared in Camera Work were her first publications.

The film highlights the collaborative nature of Stieglitz’s career, particularly in his decision to sponsor and promote American artists John Marin, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, and O’Keeffe, who subsequently became his wife. Elizabeth Turner, curator of the Phillips Collection, says Stieglitz hoped that “if somehow through his efforts, he could allow them to develop in their own way, that they would make a lasting contribution.” Biographer Richard Whelan agrees. “Stieglitz felt it was vital to recognize the very finest artists working and to support them in a very serious way,” he says. “He kept a running fund . . . and used that fund to help artists in any way he could.” He sent Marsden Hartley to Europe, which resulted in a burst of creativity in the younger artist. O’Keeffe describes how he supported them in less tangible ways. “Stieglitz began pushing Marin and taking care of Marin so that Marin could be his own foolish self,” she says.  “I can’t say it any other way. It kept him alive.”

Lacy points out, “He was, in his own way, very selfless, and he liked being a father figure to these artists.” Along with his guidance and the cross-pollination within the artistic circle he assembled, he offered the security of a place to exhibit. He prominently displayed and aggressively promoted their work, and if necessary, defended the artists. At an Arthur Dove exhibition in 1926, he challenged Thomas Hart Benton’s statement that Dove’s work was not great art after Benton had already said that he liked the individual pieces. And Stieglitz once responded to an affluent prospective buyer of Marin’s work who felt that artists should starve, “You don’t look as if you believed in starving for yourself.”

Stieglitz’s closest relationship of the four was, of course, with Georgia O’Keeffe. The film’s treatment of the relationship is enriched by footage of a 1980 interview with O’Keeffe. She speaks with honesty and humor about her experiences as an artist in the Stieglitz circle and as the model for his ambitious composite portrait, which he began in 1917. A letter from that period, in which she excitedly writes, “While I was in New York he photographed me. I was flattered, naturally,” is juxtaposed with her smiling remembrance: “You had to
collaborate or you’d be in trouble. You had to sit there and you had to do what you were told to do.”

The celebrity, if not notoriety, which she received as a result of the 1917 portrait exhibition receives a similarly wry summation. Sarah Greenough, curator of photographs at the National Gallery of Art, explains that “many of the critics, when they responded to her paintings when they saw them in 1923 and 1924, seemed almost as if they were thinking more of Stieglitz’s portraits of O’Keeffe in the nude than as if they were actually looking at O’Keeffe’s paintings.” Stieglitz did little to discourage such a view. According to Barbara Buhler Lynes, curator of the O’Keeffe Museum, “he was . . . very committed to the idea that a woman was expressing a kind of sexual energy in her work . . . and thus interpreted these very innovative abstractions as the sexual expression of Georgia O’Keeffe and began to promote her in that way.” O’Keeffe flatly states that at a certain point she simply decided not to be bothered by it anymore, although she shifted the focus of her painting from abstract to objectivist work.

The sense of mission and paternalism that characterized Stieglitz’s career began to work against him in the 1920s. As the decade progressed, the American public began to pay more attention to American art, and Stieglitz found that his vision was being contested.  “What he really wanted to do,” says Whelan, “was to raise the spiritual life in America above what he saw as crass materialism by refining the sensibility of the American public through the visual arts.” Artists such as his longtime collaborator Edward Steichen saw a potential in more popular art, and the two artists broke with each other. In the 1930s, Paul Strand, a Stieglitz protégé and the featured photographer of the final issue of Camera Work, also broke ties with him, considering Stieglitz’s work apolitical and elitist. As the artists within Stieglitz's larger circle moved away, he often viewed their growing artistic development and independence as desertion.  

Some of his other followers encouraged his missionary zeal, so that, as cultural historian Alan Trachtenberg notes, “He tended to speak prophetically, even to speak in parables . . . clearly he was driven by some idea of fame, and he did have the marks of grandiosity. . . . He felt like he was capable of speaking the Truth. That’s a major conviction.”

Despite his setbacks, he continued to photograph New York City and his family home upstate at Lake George. He put down his camera for good in 1937, but continued until his death in 1946 to work for the artists in his circle, making sure that their work was purchased, exhibited, and discussed. Because he untiringly recognized and nurtured innovative artists, Stieglitz’s true legacy is not necessarily his personal contribution to the art of photography, but rather his
achievement in shaping modern American art.

About the Author

Bob Bolin is a writer in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Funding Information

Thirteen/WNET received $450,740 from the National Endowment for the Humanities to produce Alfred Stieglitz: the Eloquent Eye. It is scheduled to air on PBS on April 16. An exhibition called “Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and his New York Galleries” appears at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., through April 22.