Prints, Drawings, and Photographs
The SteerageMade in United States, North and Central America
1907 (negative); c. 1913 (photogravure)
Alfred Stieglitz, American, 1864 - 1946
Currently not on view
1949-18-50The Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949
LabelThe Steerage has for decades been considered a photographic masterpiece. Looking at a few choice elements a straw hat gleaming in the sun, a ship's funnel, a gangway, a pair of white suspenders Alfred Stieglitz intuited a pattern that seemed formally and existentially sublime: "I saw a picture of shapes and underlying that the feeling I had about life." This is an exemplary explanation of photography as the art of reality transformed a view turned into a vision. The result is compelling, not because it explains reality but because it indicates real ambiguity. Is this a "picture of shapes" in which humans merely fill in a composition whose most prominent elements are a gangway and a funnel? Or is it, on the contrary, a sympathetic record of travel conditions in steerage class, whose cramped quarters seem especially unbreathable in a composition that has practically no empty space? Perhaps most importantly, is the long passage overseas just beginning, or is it drawing to a close? To judge by the image, there is no way to know.