A Bit of Venice was photographed in the early summer of 1894 and published in New York several times later in the same decade. The striking photograph summarizes the results of Stieglitz’s nine years of study in Europe and represents the moment when the impact of his crusade on behalf of photography as an art form was first being felt in the United States. The photograph was taken during Stieglitz’s four-month European honeymoon in 1894 and his first trip to Venice since 1887. Shortly after his return to New York, Stieglitz created a photogravure from the negative. Clearly satisfied with the result, he published the image four times between 1897 and 1899 in influential photography magazines and books. In 1897 it appeared in the magazine Camera Notes and in Stieglitz’s portfolio Picturesque Bits of New York and Other Images. This print is from The Photographic Times of 1898. The photogravure was also included in the 1899 portfolio American Pictorial Photography, Series I published by the Camera Club of New York.
In its careful composition, use of soft focus, and straightforward printing methods, without manipulation or retouching, A Bit of Venice epitomizes the qualities sought in pictorial photography. At the forefront of circa-1890 European photography, pictorial photographers recognized that, while much was to be learned about composition and point of view through the study of contemporary painting, they could achieve effects with their cameras unattainable in any other medium. In his Venetian photographs, Stieglitz presents a point of view not unlike that to be seen in James McNeill Whistler’s much-discussed Venetian etchings (1879-80), but in A Bit of Venice he captures a damp mystery that could be suggested only with a camera.
The influence of European painting always lurks in Stieglitz’s images from the Venice honeymoon trip. The photographic negative provided Stieglitz with the raw material for the final photogravure. "My hand camera negatives are all made with the express purpose of enlargement and it is but rarely that I use more than part of the original shot," Stieglitz wrote in 1897, adding that "prints from the direct negative have but little value." His change of attitude over the years is evident in his reuse of the 1894 negative in the early 1930s in a gelatin silver print. Revealing that the 1897 photogravure represented only about a quarter of the original negative, the later more complete image lacks the mysterious quality of the photogravure. For example, one hardly notices the unsettling presence of the man coming through the distant arch at the right.
The caption to a later reprint of this image (Alfred Stieglitz, Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum [exh. cat., Malibu, 1995]) suggests that the photograph’s somber mood may reflect Stieglitz’s "first realization that he and [his wife] Emmeline [Obermeyer, who had loathed the stench of the canals and the shabbiness of the people who most interested Stieglitz as subjects] were motivated by quite different priorities." The marriage in fact lasted until 1924.
Alfred Stieglitz, "The Hand Camera: Its Present Importance," American Annual of Photography and Photographic Times Almanac for 1897, p. 19;
Richard Whelan in Alfred Stieglitz: A Biography (Boston, 1995), p. 119. 9. Los Angeles, Calif.,
The J. Paul Getty Museum, inv. 93.XM.25.55
Homer, William Innes. Alfred Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession. Boston, 1983.
Peterson, Christian A. Alfred Stieglitz’s "Camera Notes". Exh. cat., The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1993.
Whelan, Richard. Alfred Stieglitz: A Biography. Boston, 1995.