AH 331 History of Photography Spring 2021 Compendium

The Rise of Straight Photography: Alfred Stieglitz

By Dylan Lavigne

During the early 1900’s, photography was beginning to be understood and appreciated as an art form following innovations in technology and production techniques used by photographers. Pictorialist photography was the first photographic style that was considered to be an art form by the public and critiques, due to its intended similarities to popular painting techniques of the time. Following the Pictorialism era of photography, a new style named Pure or Straight Photography was created which paved the road for the future of artistic photography to this day. One of the most prominent and well known photographers of this era is the wealthy American Photographer, Alfred Stieglitz (1964-1946). [1] Throughout his life, Stieglitz was able to create innovative photographic processes and styles within his photography, while also contributing to the Pictorialist and Straight Photography movements. [2] This paper will analyse the transition from the pictorialist era of photography to straight photography and compare two of Alfred Stieglitz’s photographs, Winter on Fifth Ave, 1893 and The Steerage, 1907 in order to establish how these two forms of artistic photography became the foundations for modern photographic style.

Stieglitz’s photograph, The Steerage, was a new style of photograph that changed the way that photographic art was considered. Following a critique from Sadakichi Hartmann’s regarding the legitimacy of Pictorialist photography as a form of art, Stieglitz worked to conceptualize new styles of artistic photography that could effectively utilize the rapidly innovating technology as the camera. 
  “I at once ask myself: What sort of photography is it? How is it made? Why does this part look like a hand painted monotype, and that one like an etching or a charcoal drawing? Is it still photography, or is it merely an imitation of something else? And if it is the latter, what is its aesthetic value?” [3]

Stieglitz’s creative process conceptualizing The Steerage did not aim to create a “painter-ly” image that was meant to portray fantasy of the naturally sublime, like expected from a Pictorialist photographer at the time. Instead, Stieglitz experimented with a new approach to photography that focused on capturing direct imagery of the real world and storytelling through form and content. The photo generates aesthetic form and meaningful content through its clarity, geometric characteristics, and attention to form and mise-en-scene.  

Alfred Stielgitz was developing a new vision for creating art through photography by creating a photo that blended creativity of form and message about the world. Stieglitz described this new form of work as Straight Photography, and noted that his new work was “intensely direct… Not a trace of hand work on either negative or prints. No diffused focus. Just the straight goods… everything simplified in spite of endless detail.” [4] Straight Photography techniques meant photographers only used unedited unaltered exposures or filters in their processes to vividly capture aesthetic real-world objects and experiences in a manner that highlights the form, style, emotional value, or aesthetics. [5

Straight Photography and Pictorialism are photographic styles that have intended to change the way that people view photography as an art form. Although these two styles had a common goal, they used different techniques in order to do so. “Pictorialism is a movement in photography that embraces aesthetics, composition, and tonality. It is an artistic rather than a documentary approach to photography. Within the movement, some photographers disdained manipulation of the images, such as layering several negatives to create one photo.” [6] Pictorialism was able to help photography be embraced as a new art form because of the style’s nature which mimicked beauty and forms present in Impressionism and Tonalism. The effects seen in Pictorialist photos are achieved by the photographers using methods such as scratching or smudging negatives, treating the exposures, using light filters, etc. during the photographic process. While Pictorialists use techniques to create photographs that resemble modern paintings, Straight Photographers capture aesthetic and profound moments by excellence of their framing, composition, and subject matter.  

Although Straight Photography became the dominant form of creative photography following the work of Alfred Stieglitz, Pictorialism was able to garner a considerable amount or respect and recognition as photography as an art form before it died out. With the invention of the Kodak brownie camera in the late 1800’s, photography was seen as something that anybody could partake in and a technology that didn’t have much value due to its lack of capability for creativity. [7] During this time, Pictorialist photographers made a case for photography as an art form as a result of their radical approach to editing and styling that created photographs that were never made in ways that were never considered. Many times these techniques were used on photographs of landscapes, women, and objects representing the beautiful and sublime. [8] Stieglitz, along with several other Pictorialist photographers were able to create a name for themselves through their images and contributions to photography as a form of art. By achieving this as well as influencing a new style of photography within art, Pictorialist photography made a lasting effect on art history. 

When Pictorialist photography was coming to an end, photographers expanded the Pictorialists argument through Straight Photography. While Straight Photography moved away from Pictorialism in terms of technique, it expanded on Pictorialism in terms of their work recognizing and continuing the argument of photography as art. Straight Photographers worked to garner attention and appreciation of photography by the artistic community and critics by capturing our surrounding world through photography ‘purely’. Straight photographic techniques focused on creating a highly detailed and technical image to highlight real world images of that exemplify form, life and aesthetics. 

Alfred Stieglitz took Winter on Fifth Avenue while he sat on the side of the street in New York City on a snowy winter afternoon “waiting for the art to happen” [9] so that he could capture it for a photograph. In the photo that he took, there is a man in a horse-drawn wagon going down the street to deliver ice. The photo has an impressionistic appearance due to the heavy snowfall, the mysteriously lit background and the blurred snow tracks. The image has been cropped in a fashion that emphasizes the geometric lines of the street as well as the positioning of the man in the wagon. Along with it’s technical characteristics, the photograph offers an interesting view on the ice man selling his ice blocks. It is likely that he is not having a lot of luck finding people to purchase ice considering the cold, snowy weather. The photograph became a famous example of pictorialist photography due to the way that Stieglitz was able to intentionally capture beauty and creative form in a unique fashion. [10]

Alfred Stieglitz’s photograph, The Steerage, 1907 is recognized as Stieglitz’s most recognized work as well as one of the first and best examples of the straight photograph. It’s considered so highly because this photograph marked the first time a photographer was strategically taking photos that aimed to accurately capture a moment in time in a way that exemplifies artful form while also serving as a topic for commentary and contextual background. This photo was taken by Stieglitz while he was aboard a ship to Europe. [11] It has several technical attributes that contribute towards the photo’s ability to engage the viewer, particularly the way that the boat and the bridge are rendered within the frame as well as the way that the photo highlights certain individuals split onto the two decks. The bridge running off of the left side of the photograph creates a geometric structure that helps to separate different parts of the image and highlight the other geometric features of this photograph. The two crowds which have a staircase and a bridge between them in the photograph are separated by their economic class.

Although Alfred Stieglitz was the artist of both of these photographs, there are few similarities between their content and their style. Both images were produced with the objective of being seen as photographic art, yet their means of doing so vary greatly. Compared to The Steerage, Winter on Fifth Avenue has considerably less technical detail and content as well as context considering the subject. Winter on Fifth Avenue offers a keyhole view into a slightly ironic yet beautiful moment found on the streets of New York City, while being beautifully presented in a manner that resembles a modern Impressionist painting. Even though Winter on Fifth Avenue has less to work with in terms of subject matter when compared to The Steerage, it shows mastery of form and tonal beauty. 

There are many different approaches that contemporary viewers take when understanding The Steerage. The intriguing position that the passengers are put in is a complex and foreign idea, and the image makes the viewer see what it would be like to be aboard that boat. While there are many attributes of this photograph that can be dissected and assigned meaning, Stieglitz took the photograph solely to capture the intriguing perspective viewing the individuals who seem to be contained within this harsh geometric metal structure. [12] With Straight Photography, the artist is giving the viewer a moment in time that has not been altered. Therefore, it is up to the viewer to assign meaning to the photograph in terms of its subject matter as well as its composition and styling. By having events in a photo like the man with the sun lit hat in The Steerage, the viewer is able to find the artful moments and consider more about the context of the photograph, making it an aesthetic and personal artistic experience. 

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