Philadelphia Museum of Art - Exhibitions - Alfred Stieglitz and the Philadelphia Museum of Art
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Lake George

Rainbow, 1920
Alfred Stieglitz, American
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Returning from an extended family stay in Europe in 1886, Stieglitz's father purchased a property at Lake George, north of New York City. It remained in the family after his death, and, as the eldest son, Alfred dominated the schedule at this retreat in the Adirondacks, inviting colleagues, friends, and lovers to join the extended family during the summer. Stieglitz photographed many aspects of life at Lake George, from its vegetation to its outbuildings to its visitors. A small structure known as "The Little House" served as his darkroom and as a regular photographic subject. Houses, barns, and sheds around the estate also found their way into his pictures, echoing an interest in architecture and geometry that dates back to some of his early work in Italy and coincides with his growing commitment to American themes in art.

After his youthful travels in Europe, Stieglitz spent his time only in New York City or Lake George. The country estate was his kingdom and his home, a place where he was surrounded by those who knew him best and loved him anyway. In this accepting atmosphere, away from art world concerns, the artist relaxed and slowed his pace, often creating particularly exploratory and adventurous photographs. His series of cloud pictures known as the Equivalents is one of the finest examples, but just as Stieglitz turned his camera to the sky, so, too, did he point it at the earth. Several close-up images of grasses from 1933 were made during an especially productive summer at Lake George and represent a departure in his work. Another subject he pursued was that of dying chestnut and poplar trees, which, once leafless, revealed their fascinating shapes to his lens.


Music - A Sequence of Ten Cloud Photographs, No. I
Music - A Sequence of Ten Cloud Photographs, No. I, 1922
Alfred Stieglitz, American
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During the summer of 1922, Alfred Stieglitz began work at his Lake George retreat on the famous Equivalents, a photographic series of clouds. His first efforts join the landscape and sky into moody visual passages that the artist initially equated with music. Confident in this new direction, Stieglitz exhibited this group a few months later at the Anderson Galleries in New York. The following year, he put away his 8 x 10–inch view camera on a tripod and used a 4 x 5–inch handheld Graflex camera to photograph the clouds alone, resulting in smaller images that he named Equivalents in 1925. The Graflex could be pointed directly at the sky, freeing the image from earthly constraint. The weather at Lake George was often mercurial and dramatic, providing endless variations in subject. The ephemeral nature of his subject offered an additional challenge, and Stieglitz had to work quickly to capture a cloud configuration he liked before it shifted, never to be seen again except in his prints. Once the prints were made, he wasn't strict about maintaining their original orientation, moving them from horizontal to vertical to suit his purposes, sometimes leaving stray foliage stranded in midair.

This series offers a photographic parallel to the abstract paintings of John Marin, Georgia O'Keeffe, and others Stieglitz promoted at his galleries, in which an element of the everyday world is used to evoke a sensation or mood not directly tied to its meaning as an object. While depicting a specific grouping of clouds, Stieglitz also wanted to create a visual work of art that could be experienced in a less linear fashion, conjuring feelings and impressions. Several of the pictures here, dating from 1930–32, were made when O'Keeffe was spending summers in New Mexico and Stieglitz was intensely involved with Dorothy Norman; some of these later views were inspired by Norman and given to her as gifts.


One of the distinctive features of the Stieglitz family property at Lake George was its towering poplar trees, some of which were planted by Alfred Stieglitz's father. Among the largest deciduous trees in North America, poplars are somewhat delicate and thus generally not long lived. Their genus name populus (Latin for "people" or "nation"), upright stature, and limited lifespan make them an apt symbol for human existence. Stieglitz had grown up with these poplars during his many seasons at Lake George, and their decline was perhaps a reminder of his own lessening vitality in his late sixties.

Stieglitz first turned his attention to the trees in 1932, a time when he was avidly photographing outdoors, and the series can be seen in connection with concurrent views made at Lake George, including the Equivalents. The failing health of the trees, however, revealed the elaborate circulatory system of branches that truly engaged Stieglitz. The stand of poplars, which he returned to on his visits to Lake George, is shown from a variety of distances and under different conditions. On at least one occasion, the impulse for renewal appears as a leafy center among the bare branches, but the fate of the tree is unmistakable. The noble stateliness of the poplar also provides a natural counterpoint to the images of the General Electric Building that Stieglitz had recently photographed from his apartment at the Shelton Hotel. In both bodies of work, Stieglitz uses a compelling formal element in his life as a focus of artistic and personal meditation.


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