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The Steerage

Alfred Stieglitz, American, 1864 - 1946

Probably made in Plymouth, England, Europe

1907 (negative); c. 1913 (photogravure)


Image: 13 × 10 5/16 inches (33 × 26.2 cm) Sheet: 15 13/16 × 11 1/16 inches (40.2 × 28.1 cm) Mount: 21 15/16 × 16 1/8 inches (55.8 × 41 cm)

Curatorial Department:
Prints, Drawings, and Photographs

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
The Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949

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passengers [x]   ship [x]   travel [x]  

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The 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.