The Art Institute has one of the world’s finest holdings of photographs by Stieglitz and his circle—a gift from his wife Georgia O’Keeffe no less—and little excuse is needed to bring them out from time to time. The current exhibition, which includes in addition to Stieglitz, works by Gertrude Käsebier, Edward Steichen and Alvin Langdon Coburn, is thus unsurprisingly beautiful. Go see it. But contemporary curators being what they are, an ambitious thesis is also offered: that Stieglitz was traditional before he was modern, and that his early, “pictorialist” works (before 1915) belong more to the epoch of the old masters of photography, David Octavius Hill and Julia Margaret Cameron (also exhibited here), than they do to the age of Paul Strand, Edward Weston and modern, sharp-focused “straight photography.”
While it’s true that Stieglitz exhibited and admired Cameron and Hill, he did so with an appreciation of their modernity. In essay after essay from Stieglitz’s journal “Camera Work,” they are seen as being far in advance of their time—modern artists when their contemporaries were Victorian sentimentalists. J.C. Annan admired the “masses of light and shadow” in Hill’s photographs of the fisher-folk of Newhaven, and Robert Demachy extolled the “breadth and force” of Cameron’s portraits of Herschel and Tennyson. In 1915, Coburn described Hill and Cameron as “astonishingly modern in tendency.”
Stieglitz wrote of his own “Flatiron Building” (1903), that it was “like the bow of a monster ocean liner, a picture of the new America in the making.” Of his “The Steerage” (1907)—the archetypal image of immigration—he said: “I saw shapes related to each other…and underlying that the feeling I had about life.” Even in his portraits, like that of the painter John Marin (1910)—slumped in a chair, hat pulled over brow, incongruously framed by a brass gong—the formalism of Picasso’s “Portrait of Gertrude Stein” is unmistakable. Before it is anything else, Demachy wrote in “American Photography” in 1907, a photograph is a “deposit…built up by the action of light, under the shadow of another image, transparent, and also due to light action.” (Stephen F. Eisenman)
Through March 27, 2016 at the Art Institute, 111 South Michigan.