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Matinee: 'Alfred Stieglitz: The Eloquent Eye' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

19 October 2013

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the fourth in our series of Saturday matinees today: a half-hour documentary featuring the work of Alfred Stieglitz, the father of modern photography, who was among the first to argue for photography as an art. Or, as we like to think of him, the first guy who bought a camera.

In this hour-and-a-half PBS film from 1999, director Perry Miller Adato makes something of a sequel to his earlier documentary on Stiegliz's wife (and one of his most important subjects) Georgia O'Keeffe.

She appears here in an 1980 interview, the only footage of her talking about her husband. In an interview, Adato confides:

On camera in her home, her garden and her studio, she speaks frankly and intimately, her reminiscences salted with her dry humor. O'Keeffe talks about Alfred Stieglitz -- the student, the man, the photographer, the pioneer in the introduction of avant-garde European art to American, the defender of struggling young American modern artists; her own views on the artists of the famed "Stieglitz circle" and of their life together. This film, rare during her lifetime, became unique after her death in 1986.

Even in his early 1890s street photography, Stieglitz's focus wasn't about sharpness but in "seeing." A mechanical engineering student in Berlin in the 1880s, he was challenged to shoot in difficult conditions no one else thought suitable for photography. Which served him well as he tried to capture the big city phenomenon of the "old passing into the new."

His New York City gallery exhibited the avant-garde artists of his era. Adato names them:

I was not prepared for the incredible scope of the avant-garde art that Stieglitz showed for the first time in America. Rodin, Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne -- these were familiar, but in addition he exhibited Toulouse-Lautrec, Le Douanier Rousseau, Picabia, Brancusi, African art, Oskar Bluemner, Eli Nadelman, Gaston Lachaise, Gino Severini, Georges Braque, Gordon Craig. I was intrigued to learn that after closing his famous 291 gallery in 1917, he devoted the rest of his life to showing and advocating only American artists, including the great pioneers of American modernism -- John Marin, Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley.

It was in that gallery that the young Ansel Adams brought his portfolio, winding his way "through multitudes of garbage cans soaked with cold drizzle" and shuddering at life in New York "only later to realize that it was garbage collection day."

Then it was 17 flights up to the gallery where no one greeted him. He found Stieglitz in a small room and was rebuffed, told to come back after lunch. Adams was infuriated but his pregnant wife Virginia convinced him to keep the afternoon appointment. Adams recalls that meeting with Stieglitz:

He sat on the one and only chair so I sat on the radiator. He looked at each print with the greatest care. Each time I started to say something he would imperatively gesture for silence. He put the prints back in the portfolio, tied up one end, tied up the other end, tied up the front, then looked at me. Then he opened the portfolio again and studied them as carefully as he had the first time. By now the steam heat was pouring out of the radiator and I could not sit there anymore; my bottom had baked into corrugation. I was extremely nervous, but Stieglitz finally spoke, "You are always welcome here."

For more on Stieglitz, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has a nice entry on him in its Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History with a slideshow of a few images.

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