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Alfred Stieglitz
(American, 1864-1946)
The Steerage, 1907 (published in 291, 1915)
Vintage photogravure, 13 1/8” x 10 1/2”
Gift of the Frank and Margaret Sullivan Fund (97.056)

Alfred Stieglitz was America’s foremost promoter of photography as a fine art.  After studying the nascent Pictorialist movement in Europe during the 1880s, he returned to the United States and began to spread its tenets.  By the early twentieth century, however, Stieglitz had begun to turn away from the painterly manipulation that was at the heart of Pictorial Photography.  The Steerage, taken in 1907, is regarded as Stieglitz’s first essay in what came to be known as Straight Photography, or the unmediated use of the camera to record subjects “as they are.”  Made while on a trip to Europe aboard the German liner, Kaiser Wilhelm II, The Steerage depicts a group of immigrants on the ship’s lower-class deck, or steerage.  A scene of modern life recorded with a wealth of detail only possible through the camera lens, The Steerage exemplified the new role of photography as Stieglitz envisioned it. 

Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, Stieglitz grew up in an atmosphere of affluence and cultural refinement.  He attended college in New York and Berlin, and while in Europe, he began to exhibit his photographs to critical acclaim.  On returning to the U.S. in 1890, Stieglitz became involved in New York photographic circles; some years later, in 1902, he founded the avant-garde group known as the Photo-Secession.  He commenced publishing the journal, Camera Work, and by 1905 he had opened an art gallery.  Known by its street address on Fifth Avenue, “291” was the first of several over the course of many years, and featured both photography and modern painting.  Through Stieglitz, important American artists such as Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and Georgia O’Keeffe, first came to public notice.  Acquiring a reputation as an impresario and polemicist of modern art, Stieglitz nevertheless continued to pursue photography.  A series of abstract cloud studies made during the 1920s and 1930s brought new attention to his work, and toward the end of his career, Stieglitz began to earn belated recognition for his contributions to American photography.  The artist died in 1946.