Alfred Stieglitz typically photographed only the people who were most important to him. The birth of his daughter Katherine, known as Kitty, in 1898 stimulated the idea of creating a photographic journal of her life, and he revisited the idea of serial portraiture several times throughout his career. Stieglitz exhibited and published many pictures of his daughter, confirming that he considered them works of art. The photographer's second family was the group of artists—known as "The Stieglitz Circle"—and writers who congregated at his galleries, men who shared his passion for modernism and American art. Stieglitz was an early and long-term advocate of artists John Marin (1870–1953) and Marsden Hartley (1877–1946), exhibited paintings by Philadelphia painter and teacher Arthur Carles (1882–1952), and added painter Arthur Dove to his group. Another artist associated with his galleries was Georgia O'Keeffe. While his initial portraits of her echo the frontal, bust-length format he used with other artists, their romantic involvement quickly led to a more varied and extensive series of images, also on view in this gallery. Authors and critics, such as Sherwood Anderson (1876–1941), were also part of his circle, their writing on American themes paralleling the artists’ depictions of indigenous subject matter.
Stieglitz devised a consistent format for his portraits of artists, showing the sitters crisply and solidly filling the picture while looking toward the camera. He often posed his subjects in front of paintings at his gallery, carefully selecting these backgrounds for their special significance. The solid, monumental presentation of these artists reflects Stieglitz's profound conviction in their visionary work. In addition to conveying his esteem, the portraits were meant to shape public perceptions of these artists in exhibitions and publications. Other portraits, while still tightly composed, have a more active feel to them, such as the images of Emil Zoler, a Stieglitz gallery assistant, and Richard Menshausen, the caretaker of the Stieglitz family's property at Lake George, New York.
Two views from early in the portrait series show O'Keeffe in front of her charcoal drawing No. 15 Special of 1916–17. Enamored of her expressive hands and eager for her touch, he poses her toying with a button and then isolates her fingers against a dark background to focus on their shape. In 1924, Stieglitz divorced his wife and married O'Keeffe. Their complex liaison shifted dramatically in 1929, when O'Keeffe began spending summers in New Mexico while Stieglitz remained, by choice, in New York. The trip was as much a tonic for her as she had been for Stieglitz, but it also represented a geographical and emotional gulf between them. His first portraits on her return from New Mexico show O'Keeffe with a new symbol of independence, the Model T Ford, and later with the animal bones she had brought back from the desert. Still later images from the series were made after Stieglitz became emotionally engaged with a young woman named Dorothy Norman, whom he began photographing extensively. There is more distance in these images of his wife, and in one she appears as a headless nude.
Dorothy Norman (1905–1997) was an adventurous young woman from Philadelphia who moved to New York as a newlywed in 1925. Her twin passions of social activism and the fine arts eventually brought her to Stieglitz's second exhibition space, The Intimate Gallery. Stieglitz began photographing Norman in 1930, when she was twenty-five years old and pregnant with her second child. His early portraits of her are stark, restrained, and elegant, emphasizing her youthful face and smoldering dark eyes. Slightly later images have a somewhat looser quality and show Norman with a more frank gaze, but the portraits remain largely formal despite Stieglitz's use of the versatile handheld Graflex camera. Stieglitz's familiarity with modern art is apparent in some of the portraits in which the white oval of Norman's face seems to float, echoing artist Constantin Brancusi's (1876–1957) sculpted heads and the photographs of visually disembodied heads by the artist Man Ray (1890–1976), the photographer Lee Miller (1907–1977), and others in the late 1920s. His preoccupation with photographing hands, seen in the O'Keeffe series, is continued here.
When The Intimate Gallery was forced to close in 1929, Dorothy Norman became a driving force in making arrangements for a new exhibition space, An American Place. She quickly became indispensable to Stieglitz as a confidant, and, for a time, as a lover. Norman was also increasingly engaged with photography and by 1931 was actively making pictures, developing and printing her work in the gallery's darkroom with Stieglitz. The Museum is the major repository for many of these photographs. Profoundly affected by his death in 1946, Norman worked to preserve his legacy, writing a book about him in 1960 and founding the Alfred Stieglitz Center at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1968. Many of the photographs in this exhibition come from her impressive collection of Stieglitz images. Though Norman sometimes purchased works of art from her mentor, he gave her numerous photographs, many with inscriptions and private communications, as seen in the case in this gallery.
Many works by the Stieglitz Circle, including Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, and Georgia O’Keeffe, are on view in gallery 172 in the Museum's main building.