By Alessandra Mauro
This chapter on landmark exhibitions gives an interesting overview of Alfred Stieglitz and I learned things about him I’d not previously known. For example, I didn’t know that he was a gallery owner or promoter of the arts more generally than just photography.
The chapter starts with a brief biography of Stieglitz and shows how he rose to become vice president of the Camera Club of New York by 1897, and how he began to edit its new quarterly journal Camera Notes. The journal was about promoting Pictorial photography in the US. Camera Notes was funded almost entirely by Stieglitz himself and the chapter suggests that the approach was to embrace the European photographic heritage in order to remould it into something truly American in March 1902 Stieglitz staged an exhibition entitled American Pictorial Photography.
Stieglitz built a focal point around the photographic image as art by promoting and organising exhibitions in museums and at international fares and importantly in 1903 publishing Camera Work. It’s interesting to note how every aspect of the journal was carefully considered and designed to promote the photograph as an aesthetic object.
In addition Stieglitz leased rooms at 291 fifth Avenue New York and announced, in issue 12 of Camera Work in 1905, that they would hold fortnightly exhibitions there. The exhibitions weren’t just for American photographers but for those around the world. The gallery opened its doors on the 23 November 1905 and as well as exhibiting the rooms also became the de facto editorial office for Camera Work and people began to refer to it by its number: 291.
291’s first exhibition was held in 1905 and included 39 images. More exhibitions followed and during the first year of its operation over 15,000 people visited 291. The author notes how Stieglitz’s method of displaying the artworks was radically different from American museums at the time – no crowded walls here rather room for space and contemplation. Over the next 10 years Stieglitz organised exhibitions of drawings paintings and sculpture. Interestingly between 1909 and the gallery’s closure in 1917 there were only four exhibitions of photography: Steichen, Meyer, Stieglitz and Paul Strand.
In 1909 it was stated in Camera Work that because photography had been fully recognised as one of the fine arts at 291 the journal would be keeping a close eye on all the arts and artistic expression.
The author discusses the reasons for the closure and suggests it was probably multifaceted. Stieglitz went on to try the experiment again and opened for example. The Intimate Gallery. but we are told that the changing financial circumstances in the US conspired against him and these ultimately failed.
I thought about Stieglitz’s approach to Camera Work and my approach to Paralysis Unseen, and how when creating a photobook there is so much more than the images to think about and design. Image size and placement, relationships between images and sections, how much written material, fonts, supporting graphics and the specifics of the paper and covers all need careful thought. If you don’t believe me compare the first draft of my book with the last!
Of course the chapter also made me think about exhibiting and the final exhibition. His approach to exhibiting photography appears to be to see it as as one of the arts and present it alongside things like paintings and sculpture. My work will be presented in very similar circumstances.
In addition it seemed to me that if we accept Mauro’s assertions then we can deduce that by overly focussing on presenting photography as fine art was both the impetus and undoing of the success of 291. Using exhibition space to promote photography was good but if it only allowed for four such exhibitions in its last 8 years we can see how it lost its focus and reason for being.
So at one end of the spectrum you have people focussed so much on the positioning of photography as art that they lose impetus, while at the other end you have people like Gary Winogrand whose work appears to have been more about process and the shooting rather than the showing of images.
Mauro, A (ed.) Photo Show: Landmark exhibitions that defined the history of photography, published by Thames and Hudson, 2014