Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), photographer, editor and gallery owner, was the key figure in America’s acceptance of photography as a serious form of artistic expression. He was also a passionate promoter of modernist art, both European and American. Stieglitz forms a living bridge between the era of self-consciously “aesthetic” Pictorialist photography with its soft-focus lenses, and the new “straight” photography of the ’20s and ’30s with its greater precision of description.
The Museum of Fine Arts was one of the first art museums to collect photography as fine art, and it has an outstanding collection of Stieglitz’s work. In 1924, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, the Museum’s extraordinary keeper of Indian art, persuaded the trustees to accept a gift of twenty-seven photographs by his friend the New York photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz. In 1950, this initial group was complemented by forty-two gifts and loans from Stieglitz’s widow, painter Georgia O’Keeffe. This exhibition celebrated acquisition of the seven Stieglitz portraits of O’Keeffe, by partial purchase and partial gift of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation.
The Museum’s entire collection of Stieglitz photographs were exhibited, along with Stieglitz letters and copies of his pioneering magazine of photography and the arts, Camera Work, published from 1903 to 1917. The complete Stieglitz collection had not been on view since the publication of the catalogue of the Museum’s Stieglitz photographs in 1965. That catalogue was reprinted for the special occasion.
The Museum’s Stieglitz collection covers his entire career as a photographer, from the 1880s to the 1930s. The imagery ranges from early atmospheric “Impressionist” views of city streets to harder-edged views of high-rise New York under construction in the ’30s. Some of Stieglitz’s finest portraits, with their extraordinary psychological penetration, were featured, in particular seventeen from his multi-faceted portrait in time of Georgia O’Keeffe made from 1917 until 1937. Stieglitz’s sensitive nature studies were also shown, including a number of the symbolic and abstract cloud studies that he made in later years at his family home in Lake George.
In addition to Stieglitz’s own work, a generous selection of photographers he promoted were included in order to give a sense of Stieglitz’s role as a passionate advocate of the art of photography. Among the photographers were Alvin Langdon Coburn, Frederick Evans, Gertrude Ksebier, Heinrich Kuehn, George Seeley, Edward Steichen, Clarence White, Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, and Eliot Porter. These works, like Stieglitz’s own body of photographs, chart the development of artistic photography from the turn of the century to the 1930s, from a soft-focus painterly vision to the new sharp-focus precision of “straight” photography.
Alfred Stieglitz was not only a great creative photographer—often considered America’s greatest— but through his galleries: 291, The Intimate Gallery, and An American Place, he was also one of the champions of modernism in America. The MFA’s installation alluded to this central aspect of Stieglitz’s career by including paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, John Marin, and Marsden Hartley, as well as a sculpture of John Marin by Gaston Lachaise.