In his poem, On the Manner of Addressing Clouds, Wallace Stevens describes those billowing masses as “gloomy grammarians in golden gowns”. Passing through the skies, clouds elicit high-minded tributes from poets and artists, yet drift on indifferently. Clouds are ephemeral, yet monumental. The work of art aspires to permanence and monumentality, yet it too is often no more than the sensation of a moment.
I thought of this poem when looking at the photographs in the exhibition, Alfred Stieglitz: the Lake George years, at the Art Gallery of NSW. It was first published in 1921, the year before Stieglitz turned his attention to the clouds that drifted over his family property in up-state New York.
By 1922 Stieglitz was already 58 years old. He would give up photography in 1937, but live for another nine years. For the last thirty years of his life he would never leave his familiar corner of the United States, finding many of his subjects in the day-to-day routine of the property – the landscapes, the changing of the seasons, the people and animals around him. In 1931-32 he made a memorable series of photographs of the skyscrapers of New York, viewed from the window of a hotel room, or from his final gallery, An American Place.
Stieglitz was fond of musical metaphors and these late skyscraper studies are like Modernist symphonies with their contrasts of bright sunlight and deep black shadows, offset by the severe geometry of the buildings. The work he did at Lake George is completely different – it is elegiac, filled with intimations of mortality and decay. In motifs such as a dead chestnut tree and an old, castrated horse, Stieglitz saw a mirror of his own disintegration.
This first-ever show of Alfred Stieglitz’s work in an Australian museum is a melancholy affair, but it would be downright depressing if it were limited to only the late images. Instead, the show also contains a small but significant selection of his earlier photos, including the striking study, Paula, Berlin (1889); his famous picture of an oncoming train, The Hand of Man (1902), and the most celebrated of all his photos, The Steerage (1907).
The American critic, Alfred Kazin, imagined that he could see his own mother in this photo of a group of poor migrants arriving at the doorstep of the United States. The only problem with this poetic idea was that the ship was actually heading east, towards the old world. This is oddly reminiscent of David Moore’s classic photo, European migrants arriving in Sydney (1966), where the figures on board the ship were from Lebanon and Egypt, or Australians returning home. The “European” bit transformed an interesting image into an historical document.
Regardless of what it really represented, The Steerage has played a similar role in American cultural history. It is an icon of the immigrant experience, with the well-dressed middle classes looking down on the poor workers and refugees on the lower levels. In formal terms, it is the kind of miraculous composition that would make even Cartier-Bresson envious. The ‘decisive moment’ for Stieglitz arrived when a man with a straw hat bent forward, offering a tilted disc that makes a visual rhyme with the end of a pipe in the bottom left corner. A large column leans to the left, a ladder leans to the right, the gangway and a horizontal beam at the top of the photo create a zig-zag effect. The picture matches extraordinary tonal contrasts with the contrasting classes of humanity clustered on upper and lower decks.
Stieglitz was well aware of the social implications of this image, but he desperately wanted audiences to appreciate the artistic side of his work. More than any other photographer, he fought a long campaign – as practitioner, critic, publisher, gallerist and entrepreneur – to have the medium accepted as an art form. Like many of his peers in a group called the Photo-Secession, he initially believed that photography’s artistic aspirations were best served by making images that closely resembled paintings. This doctrine, known as Pictorialism, enjoyed a world-wide vogue in the years preceding the First World War. Stieglitz’s journal, Camera Work, which ran from 1903-17, was one of its leading promoters.
However, as early as 1910, Stieglitz was becoming disenchanted with the soft focus, quasi-Impressionist style of pictorial photography. Under the influence of his friend, Paul Strand, he pursued a more ‘truthful’, sharply focused approach. This reflected his growing interest in Modernism, which he championed at his legendary New York gallery, 291, where painters and photographers were shown on equal terms.
Stieglitz’s favourite photographers were friends such as Strand, Edward Steichen, Clarence H. White, and Gertrude Kasebier, but his list of exhibitors was a virtual who’s who of modern art. European masters such as Rodin, Brancusi, Picasso, Picabia, Matisse and Duchamp, were shown alongside emerging local talents such as Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and Stieglitz’s lover and muse, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986).
From the moment he laid eyes on her drawings Stieglitz was fascinated by O’Keeffe. He exhibited her work even before he had met the artist or informed her of his intentions. On first acquaintance Stieglitz’s powerful attraction was not reciprocated, but over the next two years the couple would become one of the most famous partnerships in art history. Stieglitz was obsessed with O’Keeffe, both sexually and aesthetically. He photographed her many hundreds of times, nude and clothed. Her photographed her in fragments, making numerous studies of her elegant hands and far-from-elegant feet. His aim was to create a complete portrait of an individual over time, as a kind of “photographic diary”, to use O’Keeffe’s term.
This show includes a large number of Stieglitz’s photos of O’Keeffe, many of them from the passionate early days of their relationship. One of the most revealing shots was taken in 1918, showing O’Keeffe with long hair and open kimono, cupping one breast like the Madonna about to suckle baby Jesus. At this time she was lover, mother and goddess to Stieglitz, who never had any difficulty viewing himself as the Messiah.
The couple married in 1924, after Stieglitz finally managed to terminate his first marriage, but their over-heated relationship cooled when O’Keeffe left for an extended stay in New Mexico in 1928. Stieglitz took a new lover, in Dorothy Norman, forty-two years his junior, but he and O’Keeffe maintained an intense, lifelong bond.
And so, when Stieglitz began photographing clouds in 1922, it did not represent a withdrawal from active life. From 1929 until his death he ran An American Place, where he gave shows to emerging photographers such as Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter; and to painters such as O’Keeffe, Hartley, Marin, and Arthur Dove. As an artist, some of his greatest pictures were taken in these last years.
Stieglitz turned to clouds with polemical intentions. “I wanted to photograph clouds to find out what I had earned in forty years about photography,” he wrote. “Through clouds to put down my philosophy of life – to show that my photographs were not due to subject matter.” In addressing the clouds he was not making Romantic effusions, but aiming to clear up a misunderstanding about his work – and photography in general – which was too often viewed as merely a record of appearances.
Concentrating on what Stevens called “that drifting waste,” he hoped to jolt his audience out of their complacent habits of mind. The power of a photograph did not reside in its subject, he argued, but in the abstract qualities of composition, the framing and cropping of an image, the manipulation of tone. Together, the images added up to an extended portrait of the sky, just as his photographs of O’Keeffe provided a comprehensive overview of a human being. As no single picture could be seen as definitive, the subject was less important than the formal qualities of individual images.
While Stieglitz obviously knew that it is almost impossible to separate form and content in a photograph, his objective was to undermine the pre-Modernist mentality that saw works of art as painted stories rather than visual events. His photographs were anything but cold and analytical as his passion for O’Keeffe reveals itself in one picture after another. By perfecting his forms he gave the finest articulation to his feelings.
Alfred Stieglitz: the Lake George years, Art Gallery of NSW June17 – September 5, 2010
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 24, 2010