Stieglitz Organizes the Photo-Secession Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The founding of the Photo-Secession established the preeminent school of American art photography at the beginning of the twentieth century and consolidated Alfred Stieglitz’s power as leader of the pictorial movement.

Summary of Event

Alfred Stieglitz first experimented with photography while he was studying engineering in Berlin during the 1880’s. Stieglitz’s early work was in the “pictorial” style then popular in Europe—pastoral landscapes, rustic genre scenes, figure studies, and portraits of fashionable society types influenced by the popular painters of the day: those of the French Barbizon school, Camille Corot, James McNeill Whistler, and German genre painters such as Max Liebermann. Photography;pictorial By patiently submitting prints to exhibitions and competitions, Stieglitz developed an international reputation as a photographer. Photo-Secession[Photo Secession] Photography;Photo-Secession[Photo Secession] Photographers [kw]Stieglitz Organizes the Photo-Secession (Feb. 17, 1902) [kw]Photo-Secession, Stieglitz Organizes the (Feb. 17, 1902)[Photo Secession, Stieglitz Organizes the (Feb. 17, 1902)] Photo-Secession[Photo Secession] Photography;Photo-Secession[Photo Secession] Photographers [g]United States;Feb. 17, 1902: Stieglitz Organizes the Photo-Secession[00410] [c]Arts;Feb. 17, 1902: Stieglitz Organizes the Photo-Secession[00410] [c]Photography;Feb. 17, 1902: Stieglitz Organizes the Photo-Secession[00410] Stieglitz, Alfred Steichen, Edward Eugene, Frank Käsebier, Gertrude White, Clarence H. Coburn, Alvin Langdon

When Stieglitz returned to the United States in the 1890’s, he took control of the Camera Club of New York and elevated its journal, Camera Notes, Camera Notes (journal) to international prominence as a promoter of pictorial photography. Such moves created tensions within the club, most of whose members practiced the old, technically oriented style of photography, in which correct exposure and sharp focus were the principal criteria for success. The traditionalists called Stieglitz and his fellow pictorialists, most of whom suppressed detail for broad effect, “fuzzyographers.” It was this growing rift within the Camera Club of New York that led Stieglitz to think about forming a new group, one more in keeping with his own sentiments. He envisioned a group of pictorial photographers and their patrons, loosely organized and informal but in large part modeled after the British Linked Ring, Linked Ring (photography group) an organization formed in London in 1892 by pictorialists disillusioned with the photographic establishment of their day.

The Photo-Secession was officially founded on February 17, 1902, and it held its first exhibition at the National Arts Club in New York City from March 5 to 24 of that year. The exhibit included work by some thirty-two photographers, about half of whom never actually became members of the Photo-Secession.

The group was a rather elite body, with only those considered worthy of the honor being elected to membership. Stieglitz had complete jurisdiction; the council of the Photo-Secession simply rubber-stamped his recommendations. The Photo-Secession’s purpose was to advance pictorial photography by bringing together like-minded photographers and their supporters and by holding exhibitions of the highest quality. Membership in the organization was divided into two categories: fellowship, which required acceptance based on the quality of one’s prints, and associateship, which required only a general sympathy with the aims and spirit of the movement.

Among the well-known Photo-Secession fellows were Gertrude Käsebier, a professional photographer from New York known especially for her soft, evocative photographs of women and children; Edward Steichen, a trained painter as well as a photographer; Clarence H. White, a Newark, Ohio, bookkeeper; and Frank Eugene, who had studied painting in Munich. Less familiar today but also among the Photo-Secession’s founding fellows were John G. Bullock, Robert Redfield, Edmund Stirling, Eva Watson Schütze, William B. Dyer, Dallett Fuguet, Joseph T. Keiley, and John F. Strauss. Several of this latter group had been connected with the Photographic Society of Philadelphia, which had organized high-quality exhibits in the 1890’s that had helped to establish pictorialism in the United States.

Although no homogeneous Photo-Secession style was promoted or enforced, several common denominators gradually emerged: emphasis on tonalism, on a blurring or softening of outlines, and on the suppression of details. Some members of the group, including Stieglitz himself, tended toward “straight” photography, whereas others were dedicated manipulators, scratching or drawing on their negatives or using “painterly” photographic techniques such as the gum bichromate process. The range of styles and techniques practiced by Photo-Secessionists thus tended to parallel pictorial photography in general rather than to define a unique group approach.

Stieglitz was dedicated to the cause of establishing photography as a fine art, placing it on an equal footing with other printmaking methods such as etching and lithography. With this in mind, he wrote prolifically about photography and edited the journals Camera Notes (1897-1902) and Camera Work (1903-1917). Camera Work (journal) He also served as the chief impresario for pictorial photography in the United States, organizing exhibitions, under the banner of the Photo-Secession, at important museums across the country. The critical acclaim that accompanied these shows quickly established the organization’s preeminence.

Prior to the Photo-Secession era, photographic exhibitions tended to be organized by categories (such as landscape or portraiture) and often awarded prizes. Stieglitz was instrumental in bringing about shows in which works were included solely on the basis of artistic merit and were aesthetically displayed at eye level in exhibits punctuated by tasteful floral arrangements. He refused to have Photo-Secession photographs exhibited unless they were hung as a group in a setting that met his strict qualifications.

Because it was difficult to enforce these exacting exhibition standards, Stieglitz, at Steichen’s suggestion, opened the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession at 291 Fifth Avenue (later known simply as 291) in New York City in November, 1905. There, in an intimate setting, on burlap-covered walls, Stieglitz exhibited first the work of Photo-Secession members and later, beginning in 1908, the work of avant-garde painters and sculptors as well. These shows, which included works by such important European modernists as Auguste Rodin, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso, provided Americans with an opportunity to see such work five years before the infamous Armory Show of 1913.

In fact, it was Stieglitz’s increasing emphasis on modern painting and sculpture at 291 and in Camera Work that led to the unraveling of the Photo-Secession. Many members felt that Stieglitz was moving away from photography and therefore away from their interests. The last important Photo-Secession show was an exhibition organized by Stieglitz and held at the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, from November 3 to December 1, 1910. The show included 584 prints and filled eight galleries, drawing large crowds and positive press coverage. Stieglitz viewed it as the culmination of his dream to have photography recognized as a valid art medium by an important art museum.

The Buffalo exhibit marked the end of the Photo-Secession’s major activities as a group. Opinionated and autocratic, Stieglitz quarreled with many of the photographer members, including Käsebier, White, and even Steichen. Although a notice calling for dues was sent out to Photo-Secession members in 1911, and no formal dissolution of the group is recorded, many of the members turned to professional photography as a livelihood and drifted away from Stieglitz. With the coming of World War I, the group effort that had been the heart and soul of the Photo-Secession perished.

Stieglitz continued to show new photographic work when he believed it was important, such as the photographs of Paul Strand, which appeared in the final issue of Camera Work in June, 1917. Increasingly, however, Stieglitz took over the promotion of American modernist painters such as Georgia O’Keeffe (his future wife), Arthur Dove, John Marin, and Marsden Hartley. He remained active as a photographer, however, and his work, writings, and exhibitions mark an important step in the evolution of the art of photography.

Significance

Although Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession were not the lone pioneers of pictorial photography in the United States, they quickly became the most influential organization in the field. By the end of the nineteenth century, Stieglitz had already established himself as the leading spokesman for the promotion of photography as an art form. He was a master of the printed word as effective propaganda. Between 1887 and 1911, he published more than two hundred articles about photography; many more were penned by those who dedicated themselves to espousing his ideals. This wide dissemination of Stieglitz’s views established his international reputation.

Stieglitz gained control of all phases of the pictorialist movement by organizing shows, having his friends review them in his own publications, and even controlling to some extent the sale of the work through 291. The impact of the Photo-Secession on art photography was, as a result, pervasive.

During the early years of the organization, many aspiring pictorialists, with varying degrees of talent, signed on with the Photo-Secession. They quickly saw that Stieglitz’s group could promote them in a way no other body could. Also, a certain cachet was attached to belonging to the exclusive society. Stieglitz spoke of his group as the “chosen few” and believed that superior work by a handful of advanced workers could change the course of photography. He was also a tough opponent, with little sympathy for those who did not follow him unquestioningly.

Stieglitz was well connected, both in the United States and abroad. He wielded great influence, for example, with the Linked Ring (of which he was a member) and with similar photographic organizations in France and Germany. He had set out to prove that American pictorialism was on a par with its European counterparts, and in this he fully succeeded.

Stieglitz’s journal Camera Work became hugely influential despite its relatively small circulation. Noteworthy authors of the day, including George Bernard Shaw and Maurice Maeterlinck, contributed essays. The photographers featured in its elegant pages benefited from subsequent scholarship and are among the most well known from the era. Stieglitz and Steichen, in particular, are considered leading figures in American photographic history.

Stieglitz’s own photographic style was constantly evolving, from the soft impressionism of the 1890’s to the realism commonly associated with such famous images as The Steerage of 1907. In 1910, he created a celebrated series of photographs depicting New York City. It was at this time that Stieglitz effectively abandoned pictorial photography and allied himself with the new practitioners of “straight” photography, such as Paul Strand. Later Stieglitz projects included his close-up portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe and his series of cloud studies, Equivalents, executed in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Stieglitz managed 291 until it closed in 1917 and later directed two other galleries, the Intimate Gallery (1925) and An American Place (1929-1946). Both were known for exhibiting avant-garde art.

During World War I, Stieglitz served as chief of aerial photography in the American Expeditionary Forces. Later, between 1923 and 1937, he was a successful fashion and portrait photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair. He was in charge of overseeing all U.S. naval combat photography during World War II, and in 1947 he was appointed director of the Photography Department at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where, in 1955, he curated the celebrated Family of Man exhibition.

White and Käsebier also continued to be active in photographic circles. White lectured on photography at Columbia University from 1907 on and later established the Clarence H. White School of Photography. Many of his students became prominent photographers themselves, including Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, Paul Outerbridge, and Ralph Steiner. In 1916, both White and Käsebier became leading members of the newly formed organization Pictorial Photographers of America. For many disaffected Photo-Secessionists, White took over as leader of the pictorial movement, and Käsebier was his firm ally.

Alvin Langdon Coburn, whom George Bernard Shaw considered to be the world’s greatest photographer, went on to publish several series of portraits of French and English celebrities, including Men of Mark (1913) and More Men of Mark (1922). He also pioneered in abstract photography, making his famous “Vortographs” in 1917. Coburn spent much of his later life living and traveling in Europe, and he became a British subject in 1932. Thus the Photo-Secession’s influence continued to be an important force, both in the United States and abroad.

The most lasting impact of Stieglitz’s Photo-Secession was the growing acceptance of photography as an art form. Most modern museums collect and exhibit photographs on the strength of their aesthetic merits. No longer relegated to the realm of science and technology, photography—in large part because of Stieglitz’s vigorous promotion—is firmly established as a creative art. Photo-Secession[Photo Secession] Photography;Photo-Secession[Photo Secession] Photographers

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doty, Robert. Photo-Secession: Photography as a Fine Art. Rochester, N.Y.: George Eastman House, 1960. The first important study on the Photo-Secession. Reissued as Photo-Secession: Stieglitz and the Fine Art Movement in Photography (New York: Dover, 1978). Contains numerous photographs, notes to the text, a selected bibliography, a chronological list of exhibitions held at 291, and a listing of Photo-Secession members. Numerous photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Green, Jonathan.“Camera Work”: A Critical Anthology. Millerton, N.Y.: Aperture, 1973. Large-format book reproduces selected images and essays from Camera Work. Includes an introductory text, notes, brief biographies, bibliography, and various indexes to Camera Work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Homer, William I. Alfred Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession. 1983. Reprint. New York: Studio, 2002. One of the standard texts on the Photo-Secession. Includes photographs, a list of Photo-Secession members, notes, brief descriptions of processes used by pictorialists, extensive bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Longwell, Dennis. Steichen: The Master Prints. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1978. An elegantly presented text dealing with Steichen’s early years (1895-1914). Includes notes, plates with commentary, a catalog of plates, a brief essay on Steichen’s printing techniques, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lowe, Sue Davidson. Stieglitz: A Memoir/Biography. 1983. Reprint. Boston: MFA Publications, 2002. As the title suggests, this provides somewhat anecdotal coverage of Stieglitz’s life, written by a grandniece. Includes family photographs, a Stieglitz chronology, notes that draw heavily on unpublished correspondence, an extensive bibliography, a compilation of illustrations and articles in Camera Work, a list of exhibitions arranged by Stieglitz from 1902 to 1946, Stieglitz’s family tree, and other useful appendixes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Michaels, Barbara L. Gertrude Käsebier: The Photographer and Her Photographs. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992. An exceptionally well-documented study of Käsebier’s life and work, including much interesting information about her interaction with Stieglitz and other members of the Photo-Secession. Excellent notes, bibliography, and index. Photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stieglitz, Alfred. Alfred Stieglitz: Photographs and Writings. 2d ed. New York: Bulfinch, 1999. This book (the first edition of which was published in 1983, in conjunction with a major Stieglitz retrospective exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.) focuses on Stieglitz’s central vision of photography, which was increasingly about “antiphotographs,” or images that move beyond simple representation. Features seventy-three high-quality plates as well as many excerpts from Stieglitz’s writings. Includes fifty-six letters written by Stieglitz, selected and edited by Sarah Greenough, curator of photographs at the National Gallery of Art; Greenough also contributes an introductory essay.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______.“Camera Work”: A Pictorial Guide. Edited by Marianne Fulton Margolis. New York: Dover, 1978. Includes reproductions of all 559 Camera Work illustrations and plates, bibliography, glossary of terms, and separate indexes of authors, titles, and sitters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weaver, Mike. Alvin Langdon Coburn: Symbolist Photographer. Millerton, N.Y.: Aperture, 1986. One of Aperture’s outstanding monographs, with chronology, notes, and bibliography. High-quality, lavish illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">White, Maynard P. Clarence H. White. Millerton, N.Y.: Aperture, 1979. Another Aperture monograph with brief text, notes, numerous plates, chronology, and selected bibliography.

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