Book review: Taking Pictures, Making Painters

Putting ‘Mr O’Keeffe’ prominently in the picture


Alfred Stieglitz: Taking Pictures, Making Painters By Phyllis Rose
Yale University Press, £16.99


In this engaging study, Phyllis Rose presents a persuasive case for the importance of Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) as a pioneering artistic photographer and a champion of modernism in the visual arts.

Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, Stieglitz was sent to Europe by his wealthy German-Jewish father in order to gain a world-class education.

While reading chemistry at the University of Berlin, he gained a thorough understanding of the science behind the production of photographic images, which provided the basis for a lifelong project: to establish photography as an art form in its own right.

Already a prize-winning photographer, after his move to New York in 1890 he continued to create remarkable images, many of which are reproduced in this book, accompanied with highly informative analyses. At the same time, he organised such institutions as the Camera Club of New York and published the high-end journals Camera Notes and Camera Work dedicated to the encouragement of artistic photography.

Stieglitz’s interest in the aesthetics of the photograph grew into a profound involvement with the visual arts in general, more specifically with modernism.

After 1905, through his gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue (eventually known simply as “291”), he became one of the earliest US promoters of both European and American modernists. Picasso, Matisse, Rodin, Cezanne, and Brancusi, among other Europeans, were all first seen in America at 291.

Meanwhile, Stieglitz mentored several American artists, including the photographer Paul Strand and the painters Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin and, most eminent of all, Georgia O’Keeffe.

Much has been written about Stieglitz’s intense and complicated relationship with O’Keeffe: a professional connection leading to a passionate romantic affair, leading in turn to unconventional but devoted matrimony. Certainly, O’Keeffe inspired Stieglitz to produce some of his greatest work, including a series of intimate nude portraits, often showing Rodin’s influence by focusing on fragments of the body.

Phyllis Rose is sensitive to the impression that O’Keeffe’s achievements have overshadowed Stieglitz’s and is keen to represent the painter as, at least temporarily, the photographer’s collaborator and creative partner. She reads the presentation of O’Keeffe as a new kind of female artist, sexually unrepressed and capable of epic production, as an aspect of Stieglitz’s modernist programme. Overall, Rose will probably seem more convincing on Stieglitz than on O’Keeffe.

Although the book is part of Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series, it has almost zero Jewish content, reflecting the Stieglitzes thorough assimilation into secular American society. Yet, as Rose notes, in the 1930s American nativist critics branded Stieglitz’s modernism as “degenerate”, synonymous in the Nazi lexicon with “Jewish”. Even if Jewishness did not much affect Stieglitz’s mindset, it was still a factor in his reception.


Alun David is a freelance reviewer

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