August 2, 2002

The Evolution of a Perfectionist


WASHINGTON — In the last decades of his life, Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) spent many hours destroying and reprinting his old photographs. In 1929 he told the painter Arthur Dove that he was "burning up books and papers — negatives and prints," especially snapshots, manipulated prints and photographs taken before 1900. In the early 1930's he told his wife and muse, Georgia O'Keeffe, that this editing was "self-torture."

What was the self-torture about? Stieglitz was struggling to make his own works "reflect and embody his new and lately won understanding of photography as a modern art," writes Sarah Greenough, the photography curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

But maybe there was a deeper source of anxiety, a conflict at the heart of his project. Although Stieglitz wanted to be seen as a full-fledged Modernist, to have his photographs stand unadorned, on their own, he never seemed happy with photographs as photographs. He always pressed them to mean something beyond themselves.

Now you can see the self-torturer at work.

"Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set," elegantly put together by Ms. Greenough, is a two-volume boxed book representing the 1,642 prints that Stieglitz considered the cream of his work at the end of his life and that O'Keeffe spent three years organizing before donating it to the National Gallery in 1949. Published by the National Gallery of Art and Harry N. Abrams ($150), it represents the most comprehensive stash of Stieglitz anywhere. Because "The Key Set" includes multiple prints of each of Stieglitz's chosen images (albeit small ones), it tracks his compulsion. And it is fascinating.

But if you prefer to see Stieglitz without the self-torture, there is also "Alfred Stieglitz: Known and Unknown," an exhibition of 100 photographs culled from the key set, on view at the National Gallery until Sept. 2. Since the exhibition includes only one version of each image, it traces the clean sweep of his brilliant career.

The show begins with Stieglitz the Pictorialist photographer. In his early years, he wanted his photographs to look like paintings. He copied genre scenes and worried over his surfaces like a painter. He made pictures of Dutch gossips and Italian street urchins cutting up.

Following Whistler's evocations of fog, water and evening light, he matched the surface of the print to the weather being depicted. For an 1896 picture of a canoe in glass-smooth water, Stieglitz made a velvet-smooth platinum print. For "A Wet Day on the Boulevard, Paris" (1893), he made a carbon print on textured watercolor paper that actually looks rippled by the rain. For "An Icy Night" (1898), he made a carbon print that seems made of the sootiness of the moody blue crepuscule.

These effects did not come easily. Consider "Winter — Fifth Avenue" (1893). In the exhibition's print, the lone carriage driver and his horses are all that one can see clearly in the driving storm. The snow is as thick as cotton, and pinkish rather than white. This print was not merely a result of what Stieglitz described as "a three hours' stand during a fierce snow storm on Feb. 22, 1893, awaiting the proper moment." No. "The Key Set" shows that Stieglitz kept cropping, touching up and reprinting until he got it right.

For starters, the snow scene shown in "Winter — Fifth Avenue" is not the only one Stieglitz took that day in 1893. Other images in the book, some printed many years later, when Stieglitz was thoroughly modern, reveal that his lens also caught the back of the carriage after it passed. Nor did he use the whole shot of the chosen image. In the full frame, which he printed late in life, you can see elements that would have detracted from the mood of the classic print: men shoveling snow on both the right and left sides of the frame and three dark vertical bands, wooden railroad ties, on the left.

At the turn of the century, Stieglitz's prints became smoother and his titles grander. Many of the photographer's war horses are from this period, including "The Steerage" (1907), a picture of huddled masses in two tiers, and "The Hand of Man" (1902), a symbolic shot of a black train roaring into town on shiny white rails.

By comparing the exhibition's version of "The Hand of Man" with other versions in the book, you can see Stieglitz working for the iconic image. He made sure to print the rails, which are quite dull and gray in some versions, shiny white. He polished up the symbolism so that no one could miss it.

Even when Stieglitz became a Modernist, around 1910, many of his images seemed to stand for something beyond themselves. For example, in 1915 Stieglitz took many shots of the skyline out the window of his first gallery, 291, where he showed the works of Cιzanne, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Brancusi, John Marin and Marsden Hartley. Though these pictures look like un-self-conscious cityscapes, they were, Ms. Greenough suggests in "The Key Set," attempts at Cubism.

Inside the gallery Stieglitz took a number of portraits that rhymed the faces of his sitters with the shapes on the walls. His portrait of his daughter, Kitty, at 291 with a fuzzy hat on, rhymes with Picasso's "Head of a Woman" just behind her. The floppy-handed, floppy-hatted painter John Marin, who looks just like Dopey from "Snow White," is wreathed in a round background. The portraits look like meditations on Art and Life.

Even the 20-year-long portrait of O'Keeffe, which Stieglitz started in 1918 with what O'Keeffe described as "a kind of heat and excitement," had a motive beyond admiration and lust. Stieglitz intended it as a portrait of Woman. In the book you can see that late in life Stieglitz — by switching from the hot, purplish palladium and warm platinum prints to the cooler gelatin silver — changed his mind about the correct temperature of Woman. Of course, this may also indicate the dropping temperature of their relationship over time. By the 1930's, when O'Keeffe appears defensively wrapped in an Indian blanket, you wonder how on earth Stieglitz managed to coax her out of those blankets for a few headless nudes.

After a roomful of Woman, Stieglitz's looser female portraits of the 1920's are a relief. They show off his less lofty predilections. He liked to take pictures of women from beneath, featuring flaring nostrils, and he liked them to squeeze their breasts together. Stieglitz also liked to catch his subjects dripping from swimming in Lake George, where he had a summer house. Paul Strand's wife, Rebecca, is especially appealing. Her beaming face blows Georgia's solemn one out of the water.

Thank goodness also for Stieglitz's snapshots: his houseguests chomping viciously on ears of corn and playfully pushing one another under the water, his plain pictures of the house and barn at Lake George. A lone picture shows a stout woman named Katherine, hands on hips, head and legs cut out of the frame. Stieglitz noted: "Irish cook with her more-than Rubenesque figure — an abdomen as I had been waiting to photograph for ages — the abdomen in this case was in a bathing suit." Yes, even the cook he wanted not for herself but for her art-historical torso.

In the early 1920's Stieglitz began to turn his camera heavenward. A huge segment of "The Key Set" — some 200 images — is devoted to Stieglitz's pictures of sky and clouds, which he often mounted upside down or sideways. He had high hopes for these abstractions, as you can tell from his titles. At first he called them "Songs of the Sky." Then he settled on "Equivalents," a name straight from Symbolist poetry. He said, "I have a vision of life and I try to find equivalents for it in the form of photographs." He once said he was photographing God.

Toward the end of his life Stieglitz finally determined to take pictures "of what I have seen, not of what it means to me." He took visual stock of the poplars and hills near Lake George. And in New York he took pictures of the view outside the window of his new gallery, An American Place (which opened in 1929), to chronicle the construction of new skyscrapers.

Yet even in these, it seems, the old Pictorialist photographer never reformed, never stopped mimicking paintings. What changed were the paintings he was emulating. One picture of the Sherry-Netherland Hotel under construction, taken in 1927, was framed with a diamond-shaped matte, a blatant attempt to mix it up with Mondrian's diamond-shaped canvases.

Except for brief moments, Stieglitz always pressed his pictures to represent something beyond themselves — to be evocations of Painting, symbols of Progress, portraits of Woman, equivalents of Feelings, snapshots of God. Even the bonfire of pictures he made in 1929 couldn't consume that.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company