Alfred Stieglitz Pictorial Photography Essay

Following the model of other artistic secessions in Europe around the turn of the century—notably that of the Brotherhood of the Linked Ring, an English society of Pictorialist photographers that counted Stieglitz and many in his circle as members—Stieglitz formed the Photo-Secession in 1902. Along with other artists he felt were advancing the artistic acceptance of photography, Stieglitz decided to “secede” from the accepted ideas, promulgated by many camera clubs, of what constituted a successful photograph.


He outlined the terms of the Photo-Secession in a statement published in 1903:


Its aim is loosely to hold together those Americans devoted to pictorial photography in their endeavor to compel its recognition, not as the handmaiden of art, but as a distinctive medium of individual expression. The attitude of its members is one of rebellion against the insincere attitude of the unbeliever, of the Philistine, and largely of exhibition authorities. The Secessionist lays no claim to infallibility, nor does he pin his faith to any creed, but he demands the right to work out his own photographic salvation.[1]


Unlike the amateur camera clubs of the time, the Photo-Secession did not select its members through an official election or board—rather, inclusion relied upon a mutual feeling of belonging and, of course, Stieglitz’s approval. Stieglitz recalled many years later Gertrude Käsebier’s asking if she was a Photo-Secessionist, to which he replied that if she felt she was, “that’s all there is to it.”[2] With the exception of F. Holland Day, who refused the invitation, nearly all of Stieglitz’s photographer colleagues joined the Photo-Secession. Stieglitz published photographs by the group in Camera Work and exhibited works at the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession (later known as 291). He also oversaw the Photo-Secession’s participation in national and international photography salons, submitting the “loan collection of the Photo-Secession”—a representative group of work selected by Stieglitz—for exhibition with the stipulation that all works must be accepted for display.



[1] Alfred Stieglitz, “The Photo-Secession,” in Bausch and Lomb Lens Souvenir (Rochester, New York: Bausch and Lomb Optical, 1903); reprinted in Richard Whelan, ed., Stieglitz on Photography: His Selected Essays and Notes (Aperture, 2000), p. 154.

[2] Alfred Stieglitz, “The Origin of the Photo-Secession and How It Became 291,” Twice a Year 8–9 (1942); reprinted in Whelan, Stieglitz on Photography, p. 120.

"In photography there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality."


A vital force in the development of modern art in America, Alfred Stieglitz's significance lies as much in his work as an art dealer, exhibition organizer, publisher, and editor as it does in his career as a photographer. He is credited with spearheading the rise of modern photography in America in the early years of the twentieth century, publishing the periodical Camera Work (1903-17) and forming the exhibition society, the Photo-Secession. He also ran a series of influential galleries, starting with 291, which he used not only to exhibit photography, but also to introduce European modernist painters and sculptors to America and to foster America's own modernist figures - including his later wife, Georgia O'Keeffe. Insistent that photography warranted a place among the fine arts, Stieglitz's own work showed great technical mastery of tone and texture and reveled in exploring atmospherics. In later years, influenced in part by Cubism and other trends, he became interested in straight photography, favoring more clarity and less lush effects.

Key Ideas

Emerging first in the milieu of Pictorial photography, Stieglitz sought to gain recognition for his medium by producing effects that paralleled those found in other fine arts such as painting. Many of his peers resorted to elaborate re-touching to create an impression of the handmade, but Stieglitz relied more on compositional effects and mastery of tone, often concentrating on natural effects such as snow and steam to create qualities similar to those of the Impressionists.

Stieglitz's early work often balances depictions of soft, ephemeral, natural processes with motifs drawn from American industry. Romantic in spirit, he was troubled yet fascinated by the rise of American power and sought to soften its apparent brutality by cloaking it in nature.

His later work reflects the decline of Pictorial photography and the rise of a new approach that claimed a value for photography as a revealer of truths about the modern world. Turning to more geometric motifs, effects of sharp focus, and high contrast, it celebrates a more mechanized phase of modern life in America.

Most Important Art

Winter, Fifth Avenue (1892)

Winter, Fifth Avenue shows the busy New York street in the midst of a snowstorm. Stieglitz stalked Fifth Avenue for three frigid hours waiting for the perfect moment. He had to wait for the ideal composition - unlike a painter, who could manufacture it. Trails in the snow lead the eye up this vertical composition to its focal point - a dark horse and carriage that is swallowed by the snowy atmosphere. The snow blurs the details of the urban surroundings, lending the photo an Impressionistic appearance. This depiction of man - crudely mechanized - and pitted against the violence of the natural world, shows Stieglitz's inheritance from nineteenth century Romanticism.

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Alfred Stieglitz Artworks in Focus:

Alfred Stieglitz Overview Continues Below



Alfred Stieglitz was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, just before the end of the American Civil War. Born to German-Jewish immigrants, Edward Stieglitz and Hedwig Ann Werner, Alfred was the eldest of six children. In 1881, the Stieglitz family fled the East Coast and moved back to Germany, hopeful that the German school system would challenge young Alfred in the way America's had not. The following year, while enrolled at the Technische Hochschule in Berlin, Stieglitz was exposed to photography for the first time.

Early Training

Although Stieglitz studied to be a mechanical engineer, he purchased his first camera in 1882 and shot vistas of the German countryside. Indulging his newfound appetite for photography, the self-taught artist practiced, researched, and theorized about this instant medium. Throughout the rest of the decade, Stieglitz published articles and photos in the British magazine Amateur Photographer. This earned him a reputation among the elite European photography circles. In 1890, he moved back to America to rejoin his family after the death of his sister Flora. There, he led the Pictorialist movement, which advocated the artistic legitimacy of photography.

Mature Period

After arriving in New York City, Stieglitz became the owner of the fledgling Photochrome Engraving Company. Soon he was made co-editor of The American Amateur Photographer, which solidified his position in the still-niche photography world.

The self-proclaimed champion of American photography, Stieglitz was in search of the best forum to present it to the public. Stieglitz concentrated all of his efforts into launching Camera Work magazine - the voice of the Photo-Secessionist movement. The Secessionists concentrated on the technical skill and creative possibilities of the photographer, rather than just the image itself. Upon the urging of friend and fellow photographer Edward Steichen, he opened an exhibition space called the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession. It was the first of its kind to place paintings and photographs on the same aesthetic plane.

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Alfred Stieglitz Biography Continues

Late Period

291, as the gallery became known, was the exhibition space for the artistic avant-garde. It exhibited Stieglitz's work and the art of other American and European modernists. Friends' work would hang beside pieces by Europe's biggest artistic titans like Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, and Henri Matisse. A show at the gallery exposed artists and their works to influential people who wrote and spoke about contemporary art. Pieces there were seen by writers like William Carlos Williams, collectors like Leo Stein, and members of the social elite like Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowinshield.

Between 1922 and 1935, Stieglitz worked on his Equivalent series. Directing his camera to the sky, Stieglitz took photos of clouds, hoping the abstracted images would reflect his artistic intent. Cropped close, the images are experiments in shape and composition. Later Stieglitz opened the Intimate Gallery (1925-30) and An American Place (1930-46), both following in the footsteps of 291. An exhibition of Stieglitz's own work was hosted by the Cleveland Museum of Art in 1937.

Stieglitz and O'Keeffe

Stieglitz first saw Georgia O'Keeffe's artwork in 1916. Without permission or knowledge of the artist, he displayed her drawings on the walls of his gallery. When she objected, he merely stated, "You don't know what you've done in these pictures." This would be the starting point of their relationship.

The couple married in 1924, but their personal relationship began shortly after their first meeting. Stieglitz used his position as husband, gallery owner, and proponent of modernism to market O'Keeffe as the quintessential female artist of the era. In 1917, Stieglitz began work on the Georgia O'Keeffe - A Portrait series. Forty-five of the total 329 photographs depict O'Keeffe in the nude. In many of the photographs, Stieglitz crops her body, leaving just a naked torso or fetishized body parts. This series was O'Keeffe's unveiling to the public. She became famous for three reasons: her art, her husband's photographs of her, and his insistence that she was the painter of womanhood.

Stieglitz suffered a fatal stroke in the summer of 1946, while O'Keeffe was away on one of her long sojourns to the Southwest.


Alfred Stieglitz led the Pictorialist movement, which advocated the artistic legitimacy of photography in the United States. Without his influence, photographers like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston would never have been able to become household names. His own works defined the greater Pictorialist project and set a firm aesthetic example for his contemporaries, many of whom were exhibited in Camera Work magazine. Prior to his efforts, photographs were seen purely as historical records. He single-handedly popularized the medium and introduced America to European modernism with Gallery 291. Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin, Henri Matisse, and Paul Cézanne all received their American debuts at the gallery. He launched the career of his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe, and lauded her - however unfairly - as the greatest female artist of the twentieth century. He laid the foundation for the current proliferation of digital cameras. While nearly everyone is an amateur photographer today, few were at the fin de siecle, and Stieglitz was the leader of those few.

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