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Tag Archives: ansel adams

Note: I’ve been away from this blog for nearly five months. The reasons behind my absence will be the subject of a future post but had nothing to do with anything sinister like illness or incarceration. Truth be told, I was utterly sick of the internet for reasons entirely political. At any rate, my sabbatical is over and it’s time to get writing again. 

Today is the birthday of one on the most influential people in the history of American Art, a man who established a reputation as one of the world’s foremost photographers, helped drag a reluctant America into Modernism, and launched the careers of some of the 20th Century’s revered painters. He was a study in paradoxes. He was a nurturing tyrant. He worked tirelessly to promote “his” artists, privately relishing the role while claiming to detest it. He was of the leisure class yet feigned poverty. He enjoyed the uncritical admiration of a posse of followers while being passionately despised by his enemies. He spoke engagingly of the spiritual power of love but was a bit of a philandering pig.  His life story is a fascinating mix of privilege,  vision and dedication, situational ethics, and luck.

That man is Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), who was born on New Year’s Day in Hoboken, New Jersey, the first child of German immigrant parents. His father was a successful merchant who provided his children with first-rate European educations. One of his twin brothers went on to become a chemist and educator; the other a physician. Alfred himself abandoned his scientific education (his father wanted him to study engineering) and, on the back of his generous allowance, bummed around Europe for a few years and became a world-class photographer. Between 1887 and 1907, in Europe and, after 1890, in New York, Stieglitz created a body of work that remains as one of the most groundbreaking and enduring in the field of American Art.


Winter- Fifth Avenue (Alfred Stieglitz, 1893)

It was along about this time that Stieglitz began promoting photography as a “Capital A” art, along side painting and sculpture, an idea that the Art Establishment found pretty laughable at the time. Banding together with other influential photographers of the day, he founded a movement, The Photo-Secession, and a gallery similarly named, The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession. The gallery would soon be known by it’s address, 291 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, as simply “291.” That gallery, and the journal published there known as “Camera Work,” were noteworthy in two major respects; they established photography as a fine art in the minds of most (but certainly not all) art cognoscenti of the time and, perhaps more importantly, they served as a beachhead through which European Modernism invaded America.  Stieglitz soon began to exhibit and write about painting and sculpture in addition to photography. By the time 291 closed in 1917, it had exhibited European artists who were quite unknown in the US at the time but are now included among the most beloved artists ever. The exhibit list includes heavyweights like Matisse, Picasso, Cezanne, Rodin, and Duchamp.

A number of American photographers and artists gained much of their early notoriety through 291 and through Stieglitz’s two subsequent galleries The Intimate Gallery and An American Place. Photographers Edward Steichen (with whom Stieglitz founded 291) and Paul Strand can both trace their roots back to 291. In Stieglitz’s later years, An American Place featured the work of the likes of Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, and Edward Weston.

While Stieglitz’s contributions to the development of American Photography were quite impressive, it was his transition to painting that may have left the most lasting imprint on American Art. No, Stieglitz himself did not paint, but he adopted a group of relatively obscure American painters in his 291 days and spent the rest of his life promoting their work, largely at the expense of his own photography. Among the members of the Stieglitz Circle are Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin, and maybe most notably Georgia O’Keeffe.

The Western Flame (Marsden Hartley, 1920)

The Western Flame (Marsden Hartley, 1920)

Morning Sun (Arthur Dove, 1935)

Morning Sun (Arthur Dove, 1935)

O’Keeffe’s relationship to Stieglitz is the stuff of legend, the fodder for several books and major portions of the many biographies of both artists. O’Keeffe was laboring as an art instructor at a tiny Texas college when she came to the attention of Stieglitz through a mutual friend on, oddly enough, January 1st, 1916. The circumstances of this discovery are immortalized in the prologue of the book O’Keeffe & Stieglitz: An American Romance by Benita Eisler and repeated just about everywhere anyone has written about the pair. The mutual friend, Anita Pollitzer, a photographer known more for her role in the Stieglitz – O’Keeffe connection than for anything else, took some drawings O’Keeffe has mailed her to show Stieglitz. As mythology has it, Stieglitz immediately felt an attraction to the unseen artist, uttering the words “Finally, a woman on paper.” Summarizing the progression of events that followed, he exhibited the drawings, met O’Keeffe, fell in love with her (despite being married since 1894) and pursued her relentlessly. Within a year or two, they were living scandalously together and would remain a couple (despite frequent infidelity on both their parts) until Stieglitz’s death in 1946. It’s all there at the core of the history of American Art in the first half of the 20th Century, a fascinating story far richer and more complex than I could ever cover here.

Brooklyn Bridge (John Marin, 1912)

Brooklyn Bridge (John Marin, 1912)

I probably know more about Alfred Stieglitz than about any other figure in American Art. I’ve studied his images and read a number of biographies, watched his American Masters episode on PBS, looked at his work in several museums. It was he who led me from a rather parochial interest in photography to a much broader interest in art and an appreciation of painting. Had I not chanced upon a biography in a used book store and recognized his name, I probably wouldn’t be writing these words today. For better or worse, Stieglitz was and remains one of my inspirations.

Lake George (Georgia O'Keeffe, 1922)

Lake George (Georgia O’Keeffe, 1922)

I’ve developed this annoying habit of using New Year’s Day to look back on the many roads I’ve traveled and think about how it was I got to wherever it is that I find myself. I think the people close to me find it tedious but I find it refreshing and sometimes inspiring. I find it appropriate to celebrate the beginning of 2013 by reflecting on the role Stieglitz had on me on this, the 149th anniversary of his birth. Thank you, Alfred, for all that you have given me. You were deeply flawed, contradictory, and often insufferable. In other words, you were human.

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Edward Weston, one of the true heavyweights in the history of American photography, celebrated his 126th birthday yesterday, where ever he is.

I have always admired Weston’s work and I think I can point to some heavy influences that he’s had on my own creative output. I like his carefully composed landscapes, his selection as subjects such everyday objects as toilets and green peppers, and his commitment to the craft of photography. In my humble opinion, he was a far better photographic artist than his far-more-famous friend and contemporary Ansel Adams, a statement that could earn me a beating if uttered in the wrong company but I’m sticking to it.

White Dunes, Oceana, California (Edward Weston, 1936)

No matter what subject Weston turned his attention to, nudes or portraits or landscapes or still lifes,  his approach was meticulous and precise. He was masterful at isolating fragments of a scene or single objects in ways that expanded their meaning. Weston also has a consciousness of texture and geometry that helped a lot of his images “work.”

I’m still not terribly sure what I think about Weston as a human being or what his photography tells me about his personality. Like Adams, he was a member of a group of photographers known as Group F/64, a group that thought it had photography all figured out and that all other photographers were poseurs (although it was Adams who fought the battle publicly in the photography press). He was an arrogant womanizer who abandoned a series of wives/girlfriends as he moved on to greener pastures. He was supremely confident of his own enormous talents. Maybe I wouldn’t want to hang out with the guy, but his single-minded dedication to self may have been the cornerstone to his accomplishments for all I know.

Artichoke Halved (Edward Weston, 1930

Edward Weston spent the last decade of his life in declining health due to Parkinson’s disease, preparing his photographic legacy for posterity with the help of his sons Cole and Brett. Weston still contributes to the development of the art of photography today, through his own work and that of his children and grandchildren (the latter being still active as we speak). Photographers who don’t study his work are missing some important lessons.

Photographer Paul Strand was born on this day in 1890, during an era when the jury was still out on whether photography was a fine art or not. I think that debate has pretty much been settled now, and Strand had a lot to do with advancing photography to the status is now enjoys.

After learning the basics of photography from Lewis Hine, one of the original social reformers in the arts, Strand was one of a number of modern artists who gravitated toward Alfred Stieglitz just as modernism was beginning to break down the walls of the artistic academy. He helped pioneer a straightforward photographic style that paved the way for such iconic photographers as Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, who in turn influenced a generation of post-war artists. We all owe a debt to Stieglitz and Strand, either for inspiring us or giving us something to rebel against, just as Strand himself ultimately rebelled against his mentor. I suppose it was inevitable after Stieglitz slept with Strand’s wife, but that’s a story for another time.

Wall STreet (Paul Strand - 1915)

Strand was one of a generation of artists who had  a sensitivity to the less fortunate among us. Although he was never a card-carrying communist, Strand consorted with radicals enough to end up on the wrong list during the era of our long, McCarthy-induced paranoia in the beginning years of the Cold War and ended up leaving the country and spending the remainder of his life in Europe being followed around by secret police of various types.

Blind (Paul Strand - 1916)

If Strand were alive today, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him among the Occupy Wall Street crowd or with the demonstrators in Rome or some other European capitol. He was one of those uncommon artists who couldn’t seem to separate his art from his conscience. We could use more of those in these troubled times.



I don’t suppose I need to say much about the illustrious career of Ansel Adams. The iconic photographer would have celebrated  his 109th birthday yesterday were he still among the living. He isn’t, having died in 1984.

If 20th-Century American photography were the Vatican, Adams would be the Pope. His words were treated like the Holy Writ, his Zone System taught like Scripture to thousands of academically trained photographers. His images dominate the high-end photography auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s  and command impressive prices.  His place among the creative giants of the medium is well-deserved, but he was ultimately human like the rest of us.

If you look behind the images, you’ll find a man with flaws and scars and ugliness like you and me. Some would call him  sanctimonious. He believed that his approach to photography was the only approach, an opinion bolstered by other photographic luminaries of his time, Edward Weston among them, and by the art historical establishment. He was vindictive toward rivals both real and imagined.

I was a fan of Adams work from my earliest days with the camera. I marveled at the spectacular scenery he caught on film, a the richness and precision of his images even when reproduced in the form of cheap posters and the pages of books. I wanted to BE Ansel Adams, to travel the High Sierras with an enormous view camera and nothing but time on my hands. It sounded pretty romantic and still does, but I no longer believe that such a life would be as satisfying as I once thought.

My personal aesthetic has expanded beyond the monumentalism that Adams’ work embodied.  I like pretty mountains as much as the next guy, but I often  find his spectacular vistas aloof and unapproachable, preferring instead a more intimate view of the natural world. I find beauty in small things that don’t make it on to magazine covers, or cans of coffee for that matter. I think Adams progressed as an artist only to a certain point and then stopped. He was essentially making the same images in 1980 as he was in 1940, and making a damn good living at it.

I will say, however, that I will always admire Adams for his commitment to craft, something that image-makers of any era could learn a great deal from. I took in an exhibit of his work at the Art Institute of Chicago a few years back and was astounded by the quality of his prints. The images seemed to radiate with their own quiet light and possess an almost unbelievable depth, as if I were looking through a small window at the world outside, not at  a tw0-dimensional picture on a sheet of paper. A. D. Coleman may have been right when he called Adams an “empty virtuoso,” but his images were magical.

This is the time when everyone with a smartphone is a photographer and Facebook Photo Albums pass for bodies of work. Photographs are no longer precious objects but instead merely electrons and pixels and images on a screen. Those of us who find this troubling are tragically unhip at best. I guess I’m guilty as charged on that count, but I will remain unrepentant as I mourn a day when the pace of image-making was slower and quality mattered more.


Moonrise: Gallatin Range (©2003 by Richard X. Moore)