Stieglitz, Steichen & Weston — how photography became a modern art form

Stieglitz, Steichen & Weston — how photography became a modern art form

Nine visionary works offered in our Modern Visions sales on 17-18 February at Christie's New York

The first decades of the 20th century were among the most fruitful periods of artistic production of the modern era, especially for the still-fledgling art of photography. In New York, just after the turn of the century, a small circle of photographic visionaries revolved around the magnetic figure of Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), whose influence as artist, patron and gallerist galvanised this tight-knit community.

As a gallerist, Stieglitz was the first to show the European avant-garde in America: Matisse, Rodin, Picasso and Brancusi were all exhibited at his Gallery 291, and the ripples of their artistic energy spread throughout the continent.

Stieglitz was also a central figure for both the Photo-Secession — a movement in the early 1900s that was known for works in a pictorialist style — and later, in the development of photographic art along Modernist lines.

The photographers and artists who were influenced by Stieglitz in the early days will be familiar to any student of the period: Edward Steichen, Gertrude Käsebier, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin, and Arthur Dove.

Here Darius Himes, International Head of Photographs for Christie’s, highlights key images by the artists who defined, straddled and shaped photography’s transition from Pictorialism into Modernism — all of which are offered in the Modern Visions: Exceptional Photographs auctions on 17 and 18 February at Christie’s New York.

 

Pictorialist


Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) The Steerage, 1907. Photogravure on Japan tissue, printed 1911. Image: 12 3/4 x 10 1/8 in. (32.4 x 25.7 cm.) Sheet: 16 x 11 in. (40.7 x 28 cm.) Estimate: $20,000-30,000. This work is to be sold on behalf of the U.S. Government and is offered in Modern Visions: Exceptional Photographs, 17-18 February at Christie’s in New York

Stieglitz advocated photography’s recognition as an art form and not merely a documentary tool. Through his pioneering publication, 291, he had promoted the use of painterly devices that blurred the lines between photography and fine art. The Steerage, however, became a pivot in Stieglitz’s photographic career and subsequently shaped his approach to the medium.

Gone were the foundations of Pictorialism: a central subject, a clear horizon, staged compositions, soft focus and feathery printing. The Steerage instead offers a series of sharp diagonals energetically slicing through the seemingly chaotic scene and converging into a striking congregation of lines of shapes.

A century on from its creation, The Steerage remains an icon of Modernist photography. Taken while on a trip with his wife Emmeline in 1907, it represents a crucial departure point in Stieglitz’s work.


Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), Georgia O'Keeffe with African Statuary, circa 1919. Waxed palladium contact print, mounted on board. Image/sheet: 9 1/2 x 7 1/2 in. (24.1 x 19 cm.) Mount: 20 3/8 x 15 5/8 in. (51.8 x 39.6 cm.) Estimate: $250-350,000. This work is to be sold on behalf of the U.S. Government and is offered in Modern Visions: Exceptional Photographs, 17-18 February at Christie’s in New York

Stieglitz’s lover, his muse, and a substantial artist in her own right, Georgia O’Keeffe was the subject of a considerable number of his portraits. These studies constitute a telling account of the multiple facets of their relationship.

A central theme is the erotic dimension of this relationship, evidenced in images through which we share the photographer’s seduction by O’Keeffe’s self-assured physicality. This image suggests an enigmatic narrative. Backlit against a window in a soft ‘pictorialist’ light, O’Keeffe holds up a carved spoon that is a clue to a determinedly Modernist aspect of Stieglitz’s activity, not as an artist, but as a broader champion of the avant-garde. The ritual spoon is an artifact of the Baulé tribe from the Ivory Coast, and had featured in the landmark exhibition devoted to sculpture and ritual objects of Africa staged by Stieglitz in 1914 at his 291 gallery.

Put in context, in the year following the historic 1913 Armory Show that had so dramatically introduced the ideas of the European avant-garde to an American audience, Stieglitz presented to this same audience the first exhibition of African sculpture to focus on its aesthetic rather than ethnographic interest. The influence of such artifacts on a generation of artists from both sides of the Atlantic was considerable at a time when they were determined to break with Western pictorial and sculptural conventions.


Edward Steichen (1879-1973), The Pool — Evening: A Symphony to a Race and to a Soul, 1899. Platinum print with hand-applied ink border, mounted on original grey paper, mounted on large sheet of original buff paper. Grey paper mount: 8 7/8 x 7 in. (22.7 x 17.9 cm.) Tertiary mount: 22 1/4 x 15 1/2 in. (57.5 x 39.4 cm.) Estimate: $150,000-250,000. This work is to be sold on behalf of the U.S. Government and is offered in Modern Visions: Exceptional Photographs, 17-18 February at Christie’s in New York

Edward Steichen (1879-1973) was a brilliant young artist from the Midwest. Fifteen years Stieglitz’s junior, he first met the gallerist when he was just 20 years old. At that meeting, in New York in 1900, Stieglitz purchased three works by the young photographer, including a platinum print of Steichen’s The Pool — Evening: A Symphony to a Race and to a Soul, acknowledged as one of Steichen’s earliest significant works.

The print of this image purchased by Stieglitz was eventually gifted by Georgia O’Keeffe to the Art Institute of Chicago, and bears the inscription ‘Steichen’s first “Masterpiece”’ on the reverse in Stieglitz’s own hand. Steichen and Stieglitz defined early American art photography, shaping the field unlike any other artists.


Edward Steichen (1879-1973), In Memoriam, 1901. Coated platinum print, flush-mounted on original board, printed 1904/1905 signed and dated in roman numerals twice. Image/sheet/flush mount: 18 1/2 x 15 1/8 in. (47.1 x 38.5 cm.). Estimate: $400,000-600,000. This work is to be sold on behalf of the U.S. Government and is offered in Modern Visions: Exceptional Photographs, 17-18 February at Christie’s in New York

Edward Steichen most likely captured this arresting image in 1901 during his formative trip to Paris while enrolled at the Académie Julian. Steichen was an idealistic and ambitious young man, with a reverence for the romantic and a newly cemented devotion to the medium of photography.

Exemplified by In Memoriam, Steichen’s explorations of Pictorialism during this time, notably with portraiture and nudes, are some of the artist’s most beautifully raw objects – their palpable texture and mood often heightened by the use of the gum bichromate or multiple processes.

For this particular print, the photographer has coated the platinum print with a consistent layer of soft wax, gum, or natural resin in order to create the rich, painterly surface characteristic of Pictorialist works.


Edward Weston (1886-1958) Maud Allan with Century Plant, 1916. Gelatin silver print signed by Dody Weston Thompson in pencil (verso). Image/sheet: 6 ½ x 4 ½ in. (16.5 x 11.3 cm.) Estimate: $6,000-8,000. This work is to be sold on behalf of the U.S. Government and is offered in Modern Visions: Exceptional Photographs, 17-18 February at Christie’s in New York

Edward Weston (1886-1958) began his artistic career producing work in the Pictorialist vein, before becoming a leading light of Modernist principles. A mutual admiration developed between Weston and Stieglitz, who was some 24 years older than the Michigan-born photographer.

 

Modernist


Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), New York, from the Shelton, 1935. Gelatin silver print, flush-mounted on board, mounted on board. Image/sheet/flush mount: 9 1/2 x 7 1/2 in. (24 x 19 cm.) Mount: 19 5/8 x 14 7/8 in. (49.8 x 37.8 cm.) Estimate: $50,000-70,000. This work is to be sold on behalf of the U.S. Government and is offered in Modern Visions: Exceptional Photographs, 17-18 February at Christie’s in New York

‘My New York is the New York of transition,’ Stieglitz stated in a letter to Hamilton Easter Field in 1920. ‘The Old gradually passing into the New...’ His earlier depictions of the city dating back to 1902 were taken from his window and are noted for their soft, Pictorialist compositions.

Later images, first from his 291 gallery, which was open from 1905 to 1917, and then from the gallery that followed, An American Place, which ran from 1929 to 1946, embody the Modernist tenets that Stieglitz would later herald: crisp lines and a near abstraction in form.


Edward Steichen (1879-1973), The May Pole (The Empire State Building), 1932. Gelatin silver print photographer's and Condé Nast copyright credit stamps and number '1345-21' in pencil (verso). Image/sheet: 9 1/2 x 7 1/2 in. (24.2 x 19.1 cm.) Estimate: $50,000-70,000. This work is to be sold on behalf of the U.S. Government and is offered in Modern Visions: Exceptional Photographs, 17-18 February at Christie’s in New York

By the end of the First World War, Edward Steichen was a celebrated Pictorialist photographer whose early experimentations with the medium helped redefine the strength and appeal of photography. It was then that he began adopting a more Modernist style.

Photographs from the mid-late 1910s to the early 1920s — ranging from close-ups of flowers to abstracted still lives — reveal a fondness for clarity and linearity, features that had been previously absent from his earlier works. The liberating effects of abstraction are evident in this photograph of the Empire State Building taken a year after its construction.

The photograph was the result of a commission from Vanity Fair. Steichen’s crisp elegance had been a defining factor in the magazine’s vision since 1923 (a tenure that would last until 1937), with Vanity Fair’s editor Frank Crowninshield describing him as among the ‘world’s greatest living portrait photographers’.

The challenge with photographing the Empire State, the artist recognised, was translating the awe-inspiring monumentality of the building onto the flat surface of a photograph. Ingeniously, Steichen chose to layer two separate negatives into a single frame, thereby imbuing the resulting image with a powerful sense of three-dimensionality and vitality. ‘I conceived of the building as a Maypole and made the double exposure to suggest the swirl of a Maypole dance,’ he later explained.


Edward Weston (1886-1958), Shell, 1927. Gelatin silver print, mounted on board. Image/sheet: 9 1/2 x 7 1/4 in. (24 x 18.4 cm.) mount: 17 x 13 in. (42.3 x 33 cm.) Estimate: $250,000-350,000. This work is to be sold on behalf of the U.S. Government and is offered in Modern Visions: Exceptional Photographs, 17-18 February at Christie’s in New York

Representing a pinnacle of American photography between the World Wars, Edward Weston’s Shell from 1927 perfectly embodies the principles of Modernism. Following a brief if productive Pictorialist phase, Weston began building on the foundations laid by Alfred Stieglitz and his New York circle during his three-year stay in Mexico.

By the time Weston returned to California at the end of 1926, his style — inspired and informed by Cubism, Dada and Mexican Social Realism — was emphatically modern, displaying a crispness in line, abstraction in form and wide-ranging tonality.

In March of 1927 Weston began photographing shells. His inspiration was likely derived from a variety of sources, including the paintings of his friend Henrietta Shore.

In an essay about the Shell, Edward Weston said: ‘I am not blind to the sensuous quality in shells, with which they combine the deepest spiritual significance. Indeed it is this very combination of the physical and the spiritual in a shell like the Chambered Nautilus, which makes it such an important abstract of life.’


Edward Weston (1886-1958), Dunes, Oceano, 1936. Gelatin silver print. Image/sheet: 7 1/2 x 9 1/2 in. (19.2 x 24.2 cm.) Mount: 14 1/8 x 15 1/2 in. (38 x 39.5 cm.). Estimate: $70,000-90,000. This work is to be sold on behalf of the U.S. Government and is offered in Modern Visions: Exceptional Photographs, 17-18 February at Christie’s in New York

During the 1930s, the coastal sand dunes of Oceano, California, were home to artists, writers, and assorted misfits, mystics, and nudists who were collectively known as the ‘Dunites.’ They published a magazine, the Dune Forum, whose first issue, in late 1933, featured a cover photograph by Edward Weston’s son Chandler.

At the urging of Chandler and his brother Brett, Edward Weston himself made five Oceano studies in 1934 (numbered in the ‘SO’ series, short for ‘Soil’) and nearly 50 more in 1936. They mark his greatest achievement in landscape photography.


Edward Weston (1886-1958), Dunes, Oceano, 1936. Gelatin silver print. Image/sheet: 7 1/2 x 9 1/2 in. (19.2 x 24.2 cm.) Mount: 14 1/8 x 15 1/2 in. (38 x 39.5 cm.). Estimate: $100,000-150,000. This work is to be sold on behalf of the U.S. Government and is offered in Modern Visions: Exceptional Photographs, 17-18 February at Christie’s in New York

Of these, the two in the present collection, 37SO and 45SO, commonly known as ‘Black Dunes’ and ‘White Dunes’, respectively, were selected by photo-historians Beaumont and Nancy Newhall for inclusion in their seminal 1958 book Masters of Photography, and ever since have been the two most celebrated and reproduced dunes in the series.

 


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