The Light of Alfred Stieglitz: Books on the great photographer and pioneer of modern art
We take a look at books that examine the life and work of an extraordinary figure in 20th century photography and art: Alfred Stieglitz.
Without Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946), one could argue that the role of photography in the art world would be very different today. Married to Georgia O’Keeffe, Stieglitz was an enormously influential figure in the early 20th century New York art scene, and was integral to the introduction of avant-garde European art to the US. He was also instrumental in making photography the accepted art form it is today.
Many will recognise the iconic work of Alfred Stieglitz, particularly the famous Steerage and his later Portrait of Georgia O’Keefe. However little is made of the great photographer’s formative years and his early work. Although born in New Jersey, Stieglitz’s ancestry lay in Germany where he spent some of his high-school and university years. His photography from this time in Europe is rarely seen, which is odd considering Stieglitz is known for introducing European art to the US.
Stieglitz: A Beginning Light by Katherine Hoffman is the first book to look closely at the photographer’s formative years and photographic works before 1917. Hoffman traces the lasting influences of European culture on his work as well as the impact of American democratic traditions. The book also recounts his tireless and often lonely efforts as a young photographer, editor, writer and gallery director to gain recognition for the Modernist cause and for photography as a fine art. Stieglitz: A Beginning Light weaves together biographical, historical and artistic strands to present a colourful tapestry of the early life and work of the great photographer. Generously illustrated, Hoffman’s book includes rarely seen photographs Stieglitz took in Europe, his first works in the United States and Katherine Hoffman’s new photographs of important sites in young Stieglitz’s life.
The next – and certainly most well-known – stage of Stieglitz’s life and career is covered in Stieglitz: A Legacy of Light, also by Katherine Hoffman. Focusing on Stieglitz’s time in New York, Hoffman’s book aims to separate the photographer’s true personality from the myths surrounding him and highlights his lasting legacy. Hoffman offers a compelling portrait of his life and his art from 1915 to 1946, focusing on his American works, issues of identity, and the rise of modernism in America.
Stieglitz’s roles as photographer, editor, writer and gallery director often intersected with his personal life – including his famous marriage to artist Georgia O’Keeffe. There are few couples in the history of 20th-century American art and culture more prominent than O’Keeffe and Stieglitz. Between 1915, when they first began to write to each other, and 1946, when Stieglitz died, O’Keeffe and Stieglitz exchanged over 5,000 letters (more than 25,000 pages) that describe their daily lives in profoundly rich detail.
My faraway one v. 1; 1915-1939 features some 650 of these letters, carefully selected and annotated by leading photography scholar Sarah Greenough. In O’Keeffe’s sparse and vibrant style and Stieglitz’s fervent and lyrical manner, the letters describe how they met and fell in love in the 1910s; how they carved out a life together in the 1920s; how their relationship nearly collapsed during the early years of the Depression; and how it was reconstructed in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
At the same time, the correspondence reveals the creative evolution of their art and ideas; their friendships with many of the most influential figures in early American modernism (Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and Paul Strand, to name a few); and their relationships and conversations with an exceptionally wide range of key figures in American and European art and culture (including Duncan Phillips, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Marcel Duchamp). Furthermore, their often poignant prose reveals insights into the impact of larger cultural forces – World War I and II; the booming economy of the 1920s; and the Depression of the 1930s – on two articulate, creative individuals.
These books are available to buy from Yale University Press and all good art bookshops.