Archive for Camera Work

Paul Strand and the Birth of Modernism in Photography

Posted in Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , on November 9, 2008 by Liz Hager

Note: this is the second in a two-part series that begins with “The Possibilities of Expression”: Photographic Pictorialism

By LIZ HAGER

“The work is brutally direct. Devoid of all flim-flam; devoid of trickery and of any ‘ism’; devoid of any attempt to mystify an ignorant public, including the photographers themselves. These photographs are a direct expression of today. We have reproduced them in all their brutality.”

—Alfred Stieglitz, Camera Work, number 49/50, June 1917

Paul Strand—New York, 1917Paul Strand, New York,  published in Camera Work 1917, photogravure.

Alfred Stieglitz began publication of his second journal, Camera Work, in 1903. The first issue launched the Photo-Secession group. In the years between 1903 and 1910, Camera Work was the pre-eminent showcase for “pictorial” photographers, Photo-Secession members and other photographers who work emulated painting style. Beginning in 1910, Stieglitz devoted an increasing percentage of pages in the magazine to contemporary art.  The August, 1912 issue, for example,  was devoted solely to the painted and sculptural work of Matisse and Picasso.

Strand had been introduced to photography in high school; his first teacher was documentarian Lewis Hine and his mentor’s commitment to social improvement through photography can be felt in all of Strand’s work.  In 1907, the school’s camera club took a field trip to Stieglitz’s “291” gallery, where Strand fell decidedly under the spell of Photo Secession members Gertrude Käsebier, Edward Steichen, Clarence H. White, and Frederick H. Evans.

After 1913, Stieglitz published six final issues of Camera Work. He saw the potential of a young Paul Strand (1890-1976), but early on ironically criticized him for his soft focus, pictorialist approach. By 1915, Strand had had a break-through;  with New York City as his subject he created sharp-focus semi-abstractions and journalistic portraits of street people.  Rightfully impressed, Stieglitz devoted the final two issues (numbers 49/50) of Camera Work to this body of work. In Strand, he remarked that he had seen the photographic equivalent of Picasso’s abstraction.

Fascinated by the Cubists, Strand had experimented with greater abstraction in his compositions, gradually abandoning arecognizable picture plane and comprehensible subject matter.

Paul Strand, Abstraction, Twin Lakes, Connecticut, silver gelatin print 1916, 12 15/16 x 9 5/8 in (photo ©1997 Aperture Foundation /Paul Strand Archive)

Photographs Strand made in the summer of 1916 are thought to be the first significant abstractions intentionally made with a camera. In the most abstract (above) the picture plane has been reduced to a series of flat interlocking shapes. Thus, forms alone, unattached to any pictorial reality, have become the photograph’s subject. Thus did photography take a step into the era of modernism.

A version of “Abstraction” apparently appeared in the last issue of Camera Work. (Unfortunately I can find no pictorial record of it.) Regardless, the Strand issues of Camera Work nailed the pictorialism coffin forever shut. Printed with a harsh strength on thicker paper and a more resonant ink, they were far removed from the delicate and ethereal reproductions of the earlier issues. The issue was Stieglitz’s treatise on future of photography.

Stieglitz rediscovered photography through Strand and, over the next few years, devoted himself again to his own work. The influence of Strand’s uncompromisingly direct style can be plainly seen this later work of Stieglitz. Although he occasionally thought of publishing further issues of Camera Work, it never happened.

Wider Connections

Photography Now—Paul Strand

Aperture—Paul Strand

Abstraction, Twin Lakes (alternate version)

Georgia on His Mind: Alfred Stieglitz & Georgia O’Keefe

“The Possibilities of Expression”—Stieglitz and the Birth of Photographic Pictorialism

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , , on November 8, 2008 by Liz Hager

Note: This is the first in a two-part series, which continues with Paul Strand and the Birth of Modernism.

By LIZ HAGER

The arts equally have distinct departments, and unless photography has its own possibilities of expression, separate from those of the other arts, it is merely a process, not an art.

—Alfred Stieglitz

stieglitz-gossip-1905

Alfred Stieglitz, Gossip—Katwyk, 1894 (published in Camera Work 1905)
half-tone reproduction, approximately 5 x 8.”

Photographs are widely viewed as a veritable record of reality, if only a brief moment of reality. This view conveniently dismisses the contradiction inherent in the photographic act: that an agent with editorial inclinations operates a mechanical instrument without editing aptitude.  Thus, at the most basic level, a photographer composes the reality a viewer sees.  Beyond that, technical manipulation has existed since the photographic medium was invented.  And yet, photographic doctoring, when outed, is still denounced as deceit. In any other medium, it would be accepted as artistic license.

There was a time when photographers eschewed objective or “straight” photography and actively sought artistic expression. The “pictorialism” movement came into vogue beginning around 1885 following the widespread introduction of the dry-plate process. It reached its apogee in the early years of the 20th century under Alfred Stieglitz and his colleagues in the Photo-Secession movement.

No one person was more instrumental in establishing photography as a medium of fine art than Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946).  His body of photographic work might have accomplished this on its own, but Stieglitz also tirelessly promoted the artistic attributes of the photographic medium through a range of activities, including gallery exhibitions and two journals. Curiously, the eventual acceptance of photography as a fine art medium played a large part in pushing painting beyond its representational boundaries.

steichen-portrait-1903

Edward Steichen,Portrait, published in Camera Work 1903,
half-tone reproduction, approximately  6 2/3 x 5 1/5″

Breaking away from the established New York Camera Club in 1902,  Alfred Stieglitz organized the exhibition, “American Photography arranged by the Photo-Secession,”  which brought together like-minded photographers, including Eduard (later Edward) Steichen, Gertrude Käsebier, Clarence H. White. They would soon formally establish the Photo-Secession movement. With an objective to free their medium from its status as the “handmaiden of science and commerce,”   it’s not a surprise that they turned to emulation of the painting and print-making styles of the day—primarily the Impressionists.  The “painterly” photograph was achieved through several means—laborious hand coating of papers with metals and chemicals to enhance the gauzy and stipple effects, as well as by manipulation of the negative or print through double exposure, softening of the focus, and over drawing. The Photo-Secessionists chose to work within the thematic categories already staked out by painters—portraits, landscapes, nudes, mythical/historical scenes, and everyday activities.

In 1903 Stieglitz launched his journal Camera Work, the vehicle through which he showcased the work of the Photo-Secessionists (including new members like Alvin Langdon Condon), as well as European colleagues, such as Baron Adolf de Meyer (both of whom formally joined the group later).  From the body of work that was presented on the pages of the magazine, the photographers’ debt to painting is well-illustrated. How closely Stieglitz’s “Gossip” above resembles certain Impressionists in composition and theme. Steichen’s portrait below bears a striking similarity to Matisse and Degas portraits.

Incredible as it seems, Camera Work, published quarterly from 1903-1917, was the first photographic journal to be visual in focus; it featured multiple reproductions per page, although the scale of the originals was obliterated by the identical sizing of the reproductions.  Stieglitz was a renowned perfectionist and the magazine was printed according to exacting standards—wherever possible photographs were reproduced from negatives using the photogravure technique (an intaglio process used to reproduce photographs); the photogravures were printed on fragile, translucent Japanese tissue, then mounted on high-quality art paper in a shade complimentary to the tonal variations of the images.

de-meyer-still-life-19081

Baron Adolf de Meyer, Still Life, 1908,
photogravure, approximately 6.45 x 8.8″

Stieglitz would continue to publish Camera Work until 1917. The final issue featured the thoroughly modernist work of photographer Paul Strand.

Wider Connections

Camera Work

The Art of the Photogravure

Baron de Meyer / Portrait Gallery

Stieglitz at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set Collection

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