Return to Previous Page

New York City Views

Self-Portrait, c. 1911
Alfred Stieglitz, American
[ More Details ]
Alfred Stieglitz was born on January 1, 1864, in Hoboken, New Jersey, the eldest child of German immigrant parents. The family moved to New York City in 1871, and the young man later studied at the City College of New York. In 1881, Stieglitz's father took the family to Europe for several years, where Alfred continued his studies in Karlsruhe and Berlin, Germany. He bought a camera in 1883 and shifted his academic emphasis from mechanical engineering to photochemistry, conducting independent trials on making photographs with artificial light. His first surviving photographs are from a summer walking tour of the European countryside in 1886. Stieglitz began submitting these images to competitions, and the following year the eminent photographer Peter Henry Emerson awarded one of his Italian pictures first prize in a contest sponsored by The Amateur Photographer, a London magazine. These early photographs of rural and mountainside areas are artistically derivative but have a delightful tone that suggests Stieglitz's youthful personality and his appreciation of the people he met in these regions.

Stieglitz returned to New York in 1890, where he became business partners with his Berlin roommates Louis Schubart and Joseph Obermeyer. In 1893, he acquired a 4 x 5–inch handheld camera and became quickly engaged in photographing the vibrant pace of life in New York City, making his now-celebrated image The Terminal. That year he also married Obermeyer's sister, Emmeline, and after an extended honeymoon trip in Europe and growing international recognition for his work, Stieglitz ended his business career to concentrate on photography. A contrast with his pastoral work of the 1880s, these urban images focus on human dominance of the landscape—railroad tracks that span the continent and skyscrapers that reach for the clouds—but are devoid of people.

I was born in Hoboken. I am an American. Photography is my passion. The search for Truth my obsession. —Alfred Stieglitz, 1921

By the time the above self-portrait was made, Alfred Stieglitz was married and well established in the career for which he is known. After resigning from business in 1895 to concentrate on photography, he became vice-president of the Camera Club of New York and expanded its newsletter into the illustrated quarterly Camera Notes. Within a few years, he had issued a portfolio of his photographs, had a solo exhibition in New York, gained membership in the Royal Photographic Society in London, showed his work internationally, and became a father. In 1903, he began publishing the lavishly printed journal Camera Work and, in 1905, opened his first exhibition space, The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession (later known as 291 for its Fifth Avenue address). The journal and gallery served as pulpits from which to promote photography as a fine art and were later important in introducing European modernist art to North America.

During this time, Stieglitz continued his own work in photography and also organized outside exhibitions, such as the ambitious International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography at the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo in 1910, which showed six hundred photographs by more than sixty artists. The following year, around the time of the above self-portrait, he presented the world's first solo show of work by Pablo Picasso at 291. In this romantic self-portrait, Stieglitz's face emerges dramatically from the depths of an unspecified setting. At age forty-seven, he appears in his prime with a steely gaze aided by spectacles and a vigorous, if graying, moustache. His persona as an oracle and an impresario is bolstered by this soft-focus depiction, in which he seems about to speak.

From the Shelton

In 1925, Alfred Stieglitz opened his second exhibition space, The Intimate Gallery, and moved with Georgia O’Keeffe to the thirtieth floor of the recently completed Shelton Hotel at 48th Street and Lexington Avenue in New York. Their apartment provided an ideal perch from which to gaze at the city below and to witness the spectacular rise of several Art Deco skyscrapers, including the Sherry-Netherland (1927) and the Waldorf-Astoria (1931) luxury hotels. The changing city had been a vital subject in Stieglitz's work since the 1890s, when he used pictorial techniques to viscerally convey the cold bite of winter air or the hot grit of a train yard. He continued to photograph Manhattan throughout his career and, in 1931, began regularly shooting pictures of the construction he could see from the window of his third gallery, An American Space. The north-facing window of his home at the Shelton also offered an extraordinary and dynamic panorama. The view from his apartment changed even more dramatically with the addition of the General Electric Building, completed in October 1931, which dominates these pictures. In one image, Stieglitz gives a full-frame look at this high-rise, showing how completely it dwarfs the surrounding buildings. Subsequent shots throughout the year truncate the structure and reveal a new contender for the skies, the Industrial Mart.

The stillness and contemplative nature of these images are in sharp contrast with the freer, more mobile views Stieglitz created at his Lake George summerhouse around the same time. The Shelton pictures are distinct in Stieglitz's urban work in so starkly emphasizing the verticality of Manhattan's newly constructed modern towers and for the large scale of the prints that echo their powerful mass and thrust. He again shows an unpopulated cityscape and, abandoning the atmospheric techniques of his earlier urban work, conveys mood by photographing the nuanced shifts in light on his subject. The G.E. Building becomes a central feature of Stieglitz's life, and the portrait series he makes of it is not unlike the one of O'Keeffe, documenting the changes in both his internal and external worlds.


Return to Previous Page