From Real to Reel: Still Photographers in the Movies – Alfred Stieglitz

Alfred

This is my fourth in a series on real life photographers as portrayed in the movies. Here we take a look at Alfred Stieglitz.

Today, photography is recognized as an art form. Photographs hang in museums and galleries right next to paintings, sculptures and other works of art. It wasn’t always like that. The change in perception was primarily due to one man: Alfred Stieglitz. As a photographer, as a cultivator of taste, an entrepreneur and as a publisher of a magazine (Camera Work) dedicated to photographic art, Alfred Stieglitz changed photography taking it away from the pictorialism style that mimicked painting and dominated photography in the early 20th century. It was a break from the past of photographers like David Octavius Hill and Julia Margaret Cameron. Stieglitz was inspired by them but did not want to emulate them.

AlfreddAlfred Stieglitz was born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1864 to a monetarily well off family. His father, Edward, was in the clothing business and made a financial fortune, enough so that in 1871 he moved his family to Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Edward would soon retire and devote himself to overseas travel and the arts. The Stieglitz family was living in Europe with young Alfred studying engineering at Berlin’s Technische Hochschule first became interested in photography. He spent his out of class time at the racetrack, local cafes and the opera. Most of the time there was a woman by his side. Stieglitz soon dropped the engineering education as his interest turned toward photography. In 1884, with his family now back in the States, Alfred remained in Europe to further his much self-taught education in photography. By 1887, Stieglitz was an expert enough photographer to win both first and second prizes in the English journal Amateur Photographer.

In 1890, Alfred returned to America. He discovered that Kodak with the release of their first point and shoot camera along with the slogan “you press the button and let us do the rest” amateur photographers were flooding the market. Stieglitz’s goal was to prove photography, like painting, was a form of artistic expression. As a member of the Camera Club of New York, he became editor of the journal, Camera Notes. As the editor, he promoted his personal beliefs on what were the artistic qualities of photography, publishing photos of other photographers who held similar creative points of view.

As time went by Stieglitz began to come into editorial conflict with the majority of the membership.  He and other like-minded photographers eventually decided to break away from the staid Club members and form their own group known as the Photo-Secessionist. They believed photography was not just a mechanical thing but like painting and sculpture involved craftsmanship. In 1905, with the financial help of Edward Steichen, Stieglitz opened the Little Galleries, commonly known and called 291 (the 5th Avenue street address).  It was at the Little Galleries where Stieglitz exhibited works by photographers and artists, both American and European.

Steerage

The Steerage by Alfred Stieglitz

In 1907, Stieglitz made what remains today his most famous work. The Steerage was shot during a family trip to Europe. His wife, Emmy, insisted on first-class accommodations. Their passage was on the SS Kaiser Wilhelm II, then considered one of the largest passenger ships. Strolling on the deck one day his eye caught the view dividing the upper first class passengers from the lower class, aka steerage. The photographer raced back to his cabin and grabbed his camera, a 4×5 Auto-Graflex. The camera used glass plate negatives. He only had one plate prepared. With that one plate, he made the photograph.

It was another week until the ship landed in Paris that Stieglitz would be able to use an Eastman Kodak darkroom and print the picture. The photographer claimed he knew he had a masterpiece right away, yet he did not publish the photo until four years later in the October 1911 issue of Camera Work.

Alfred-Stieglitz-georgia

Georgia O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz

“Finally, a woman on paper!”

Those were the words Alfred Stieglitz uttered after seeing the charcoal drawings twenty-two year Anita Pollitzer, Georgia O’Keeffe’s closest friend, and six years her junior, presented to the photographer at his 291 Gallery late New Year’s Day, January 1916.  Later that year in May, Stieglitz included O’Keeffe’s drawings in a group exhibition. O’Keeffe was unaware of the exhibit and only found out through a fellow student about the work of a “Virginia” O’Keeffe on display at 291. Georgia made her way to the gallery and quickly rebuked Stieglitz for exhibiting her work without permission. Alfred was unapologetic; he was too enthused. He went on to rave about her work; how it moved his soul.

From this point on, their personal and artistic lives were entwined. Georgia took a teaching job in Texas, but they corresponded regularly. In 1918, he convinced her to move to New York, promising her a place to live and studio space where she could work. Soon after, Stieglitz began taking a series of nude photographs. When his wife Emmy found out, she gave him an ultimatum, stop seeing O’Keeffe or get out. The photographer quickly moved out and into the same apartment as O’Keeffe. At this point, they still had not been sexually intimate, but that would soon change.

Georgia O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz

Stieglitz was obsessed with O’Keeffe. Over the next five years, he photographed her more than 300 times creating in the process a brilliant catalog of work and portraits of an emerging artist. He was the teacher; she was his muse. Though over the years that would change.

He was a quarter of a century older than her and married to a staid, dull woman. Alfred and Georgia came from different backgrounds. Stieglitz, an old-fashioned, European, steadfast traditionalist while O’Keeffe was a poster child for the modern liberated woman.  Naturally, their relationship was both passionate and unorthodox.

The Terminal and the Flatiron Building by Alfred Stieglitz

They married in 1924. Stieglitz continued to exhibit O’Keeffe and other artists including Marsden Hartley, John Marin and Paul Strand. As O’Keeffe became more confident and independent, they would disagree on many fronts. One major impediment was Dorothy Norman.  Stieglitz met Dorothy Norman in 1927. Like him, she was married. Beautiful, financially well off and a patron of the arts, she began spending a lot of time at Stieglitz’s gallery. The photographer, always a man with a roving eye started an affair with Dorothy Norman which lasted until his death.

In 1929, O’Keeffe, with Rebecca Strand (Paul Strand’s wife), went to Taos, New Mexico and the art colony of heiress Mabel Dodge Luhan. It was the beginning of a love affair with the New Mexico landscape that would influence her life and art for the remainder of her life. To the dislike of Stieglitz, O’Keeffe began spending a portion of her time every year in Southwest. Part of her reason for getting away from New York was Alfred’s continuing affair with Dorothy Norman.

Norman1

Dorothy Norman by Alfred Stieglitz

During the final years of his life, Stieglitz had a series of heart attacks. With O’Keeffe spending her time in New Mexico, Dorothy Norman managed the gallery during these times. In 1946, Stieglitz suffered a stroke. O’Keeffe came back to New York. She found Norman in his hospital room. Norman left, and O’Keeffe was at his bedside when he died.

O’Keeffe remained in New York for an extended period arranging Stieglitz affairs. In 1949 she donated over 1,300 of Stieglitz’s prints to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. Later, in 1980 she would give another 325 photographs including many nudes. The total collection, aka The Key Set, is the largest collection of Stieglitz work in the world. (1)

 

Alfred Stieglitz on Screen

Alfred Stieglitz has yet to make it to the big screen, but made for television productions have been a bit kinder. In 1991, American Playhouse, a PBS produced series presented A Marriage: Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. The production starred Jane Alexander as O’Keeffe and Christopher Plummer as Stieglitz. It was written by Julian Barry (Lenny) and directed by Ed Sherin. There are few, if any, artistic couples who loom as significant in the history of culture and art as Stieglitz and O’Keeffe. Alfred Stieglitz did not consider himself a photographer, but an artist and through his galleries and his highbrow magazine, Camera Work he almost single-handedly made photography a recognized art form. Additionally, he was a pioneer in introducing the Modern Art movement to America.

To date, two films have featured Alfred Stieglitz, and as one would expect, Georgia O’Keeffe. In July 1991 PBS’ American Playhouse premiered a 90-minute film called A Marriage: Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stiglitz with Christopher Plummer as Stiglitz and Jane Alexander as O’Keeffe. The film was the brainchild of Alexander, a passionate admirer of O’Keeffe. She wanted to do a feature film but was unable to raise the financial backing needed. According to a New York Times article[1] Alexander’s husband, Ed Sherin whose credits include Valdez is Coming and TV shows Homicide in the Streets and Law & Order, suggested she try the PBS route. It would be a lower cost production but doable.

Plummer was not the first choice to play the photographer. Initially, the excellent Scandinavian actor Max Von Sydow was set to play Stieglitz, but he dropped out before production began because of a conflict in schedules. Martin Landau was next, but he too dropped out. Finally, Christopher Plummer came on board. He loved the script and quickly agreed. He became Alfred Stieglitz and is as sublime in the role as Jane Alexander is as Georgia O’Keeffe. Written by Julian Barry, the film illuminates the financially strapped art world of that period as well as two of its most gifted artists. It reflects how Stieglitz was not just a superb photographer but a wheeler and dealer in the art world of their time.

Stieglitz was a bigger than life character: mischievous, loyal, and generous, yet he could be domineering, sexist, brooding and demanding. He was a father figure to many upcoming artists of his time. Plummer captures all of this in his portrayal.  Jane Alexander’s take on O’Keeffe is as compelling as Plummer’s. Stieglitz was already married when he left his wife for O’Keeffe, twenty-four years younger. The two were opposites in just about every way except for artistic talent. Their life together was a constant battle of tug and pull. However, this film does not only focus on their personal relationship. Unlike most biopics, much of the time is spent on their respective arts. We see the Stieglitz photographing O’Keeffe, and how the photographer fought for and supported her work.

Creative partnerships are a rocky road; Stieglitz and O’Keeffe were no different. Her allegiance to Stieglitz forced her at times to submit to his demanding nature, including when he demanded she abort his baby she was carrying and wanted to keep. He also was a philanderer, cheating on his first wife with O’Keeffe and then later cheating on O’Keeffe after they married.  Eventually, she would make her way out to Santa Fe, coming back to New York and Stieglitz on occasion.  She was always uncomfortable living in New York, and even more so during their summers spent at the Stieglitz compound in Lake George, upstate New York. Alfred Stieglitz died in 1946. O’Keeffe would spend the rest of her life at her Ghost Ranch just outside of Santa Fe.

In 2009, Georgia O’Keeffe, another made of TV film arrived on Lifetime. Directed by Bob Balaban, the film stars Jeremy Irons as Stieglitz and Joan Allen as O’Keeffe. Like the earlier film, Georgia O’Keeffe had an extended gestation period. It was in development at HBO for four years before they decided to pass on it.[2]  Lifetime decided to pick it up. Unlike the stage-bound A Marriage: Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz it was shot on location in New Mexico including O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch just outside of Abiquiú, New Mexico. It was the first time filmmakers were allowed to film there.

Unlike the 1991 film, Georgia O’Keeffe focuses more on the complicated relationship, between O’Keeffe and Stieglitz and not as much on her art and what made her so unique. People who know little about O’Keeffe’s art will not learn much about what made her so extraordinary. The same can be said about Stieglitz, if you do not know who Stieglitz is and his importance, not just to Georgia, but to the evolution of photography as an art form, well the viewer will still be clueless after watching this film. For me, that the film’s central weakness. That said, it’s entertaining, a primer into the world of these two artists. Hopefully, making you thirst for more. Visually, it is beautiful to look at; the New Mexico locations as photographed by cinematographer Paul Elliot make you want to go there.

 

Footnotes:

[1] New York Times, Drawn From Life, July 23, 1991, Michael Kilian

[2] Reuters, Kimberly Nordyke, Lifetime Paints O’Keeffe Portrait, Nov. 5, 2008

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