Alfred Stieglitz: Tak­ing Pic­tures, Mak­ing Painters

  • Review
By – June 3, 2019

Why write anoth­er biog­ra­phy of Alfred Stieglitz? Author Phyl­lis Rose read­i­ly admits that there are already many Stieglitz books: the ador­ing hagiog­ra­phy by his late in life lover, Dorothy Nor­man; Richard Whelan’s biog­ra­phy, so author­i­ta­tive that Rose her­self relied on it com­plete­ly and nev­er found a fault; an inti­mate biog­ra­phy from his grand­niece. There’s a vol­ume and more of his let­ters, a com­plete com­pendi­um of his pho­tographs, and not to men­tion sev­er­al group biogra­phies. Is it sig­nif­i­cant that Yale’s Jew­ish Lives series com­mis­sioned this lat­est work? Not real­ly. Rose (appro­pri­ate­ly) has as lit­tle inter­est in Stieglitz’s Jew­ish iden­ti­ty as Stieglitz him­self had. Still, she offers a brief clue to this biography’s rai­son d’etre at the close of the pro­logue: that she wants oth­ers to appre­ci­ate Stieglitz’s ver­sa­til­i­ty,” his abil­i­ty both to make art and to nur­ture oth­er artists.

What fol­lows is a straight­for­ward account of Stieglitz’s upbring­ing in a bour­geois, cul­tured, Ger­man Jew­ish Amer­i­can fam­i­ly in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. Alfred was in his ear­ly twen­ties when the tech­niques of mak­ing pho­tographs advanced rapid­ly. Sud­den­ly, pho­tog­ra­phers could pro­duce nuanced grey tones, cam­eras became more portable, and even col­or pho­tographs were pos­si­ble. Stieglitz found all these tech­ni­cal devel­op­ments excit­ing, and between his Euro­pean sen­si­bil­i­ties and the advice of his artis­tic friends, he quick­ly honed a sense of what was con­sid­ered aes­thet­i­cal­ly good” and why.

Stieglitz estab­lished him­self in New York City as the go-to per­son in pho­tog­ra­phy, open­ing gal­leries, pub­lish­ing mag­a­zines, and send­ing work to shows. He set high prices for every­thing he exhib­it­ed — not only to sup­port the pho­tog­ra­phers he pro­mot­ed, but also to estab­lish the high val­ue of this new medi­um. Along the way, he mar­ried a woman who could sup­port his lifestyle and even fathered a daugh­ter. How­ev­er, Stieglitz’s real pas­sion, his real life part­ner, was pho­tog­ra­phy. It almost seems inevitable that when he final­ly fell in love, it would be with some­one, Geor­gia O’Keefe, who allowed his cam­era full access to her body. Rose wise­ly refrains from wal­low­ing in the well-known aspects of their romance — her selec­tion of his pho­tos of O’Keefe’s body says it all.

It also becomes clear that Stieglitz was a high­ly demand­ing part­ner; Dorothy Nor­man even­tu­al­ly replaces O’Keefe as his mod­el and muse.

Rose fol­lows Stieglitz’s sto­ry through his declin­ing health and his death, deft­ly select­ing images from his oeu­vre and dis­cussing their impor­tance. (Alas, the pho­tographs in the glossy inset are supe­ri­or to the ones set into the text.) At the end, how­ev­er, one must return to Rose’s basic premise: that Stieglitz was a mas­ter pho­tog­ra­ph­er and a great men­tor to oth­er artists. While the his­to­ry of Stieglitz’s gal­leries and mag­a­zines cer­tain­ly lends this cre­dence, one won­ders about the pho­tog­ra­phers Stieglitz refused to spon­sor and admit to his inner cir­cle. One may also won­der why O’Keefe had to move halfway across the coun­try to free her­self of him. Per­haps Stieglitz’s sup­port was not uncon­di­tion­al and was more than a lit­tle self-serv­ing — a crit­i­cal point of view that is large­ly absent here.

That said, this is a love­ly vol­ume — well-illus­trat­ed, grace­ful­ly writ­ten, and just the right length for the gen­er­al reader.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

Discussion Questions