The Steerage Stieglitz, Alfred  (American, 1864-1946)

The invention of the dry plate resulted in negative-making materials of far higher light sensitivity than in the past. One remarkable result of this was that cameras could come off their tripods, and be held in the hand, since an exposure taken in a fraction of a second wouldn’t require a rigid support. Hand in hand with this change came the remarkable fact that photography, now recording a brief instant of time, could begin to freeze motion.

This is one of the most famous photographs ever made. It is called “The Steerage” and it was taken by Alfred Stieglitz in 1907. The print is a photogravure, taken from a copy of Camera Work, a publication founded by Stieglitz in 1903. Photogravure is an ink process closely related to the traditional art medium of etching; many regard it as the finest method for printing a photograph in ink. First impression of the picture, seen under the influence of its title, is that upon part of the great wave of immigration that created the America of today. But Stieglitz actually photographed a group of travelers who were rejected by the United States and who were being sent back to Europe. He made the picture on a steamer heading to Europe. The power of photographic narrative, produced out of the stuff of the world, is as strong in this picture as any other whether we believe the subjects are coming to or leaving from America, they are inextricably part of something great occurring. Benson

The Steerage is one of the most acclaimed photographs ever taken, and its influence on the development of the medium cannot be understated. The image represents a turning point in the evolution of photography, and also a landmark moment in the career of celebrated photographer Alfred Stieglitz— many have hailed it as the artist’s first truly “modernist” picture. After an illustrious career, Stieglitz recognized The Steerage’s importance in his oeuvre: "I said one day, ‘If all my photographs were lost and I’d be represented by just one, The Steerage, I’d be satisfied.’ I’m not so sure that I do not feel much the same way today. "(Alfred Stieglitz, in: Twice a Year, 1942, No. 8/9, p. 131).

As proprietor of the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession and publisher of the photographic journals Camera Notes and Camera Work, Alfred Stieglitz was a major force in the promotion and elevation of photography as a fine art in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Steerage is considered Stieglitz’s signature work, and was proclaimed by the artist and illustrated in histories of the medium as his first "modernist" photograph. It marks Stieglitz’s transition away from painterly prints of Symbolist subjects to a more straightforward depiction of quotidian life.

The Steerage began its life as a masterpiece four years after its creation, with Stieglitz’s publication of it in a 1911 issue of Camera Work devoted exclusively to his photographs in the "new" style, together with a Cubist drawing by Picasso. Stieglitz loved to recount how the great painter had praised the collagelike dispersal of forms and shifting depths of The Steerage. Canonized retroactively, the photograph allowed Stieglitz to put his chosen medium on par with the experimental European painting and sculpture he imported and exhibited so presciently at his gallery. In 1915, he lavishly reprinted the image in large-scale photogravure on both vellum and japanese paper for inclusion in his last magazine, 291. (MET web site)

Reproduced / Exhibited

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