Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946)
“In photography there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.”
Alfred Stieglitz was the oldest of six children born to a part-Jewish German family that had emigrated to the U.S. in 1849. The civil war had come to an end when he was born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1864, and his boyhood was focused on education, culture, and becoming successful in his chosen career. At the age of 18, Stieglitz’ parents sent him to Germany to complete his education. While completing his studies in mechanical engineering, he took a class in photochemistry. Stieglitz was quite taken with photographing the German countryside, and the medium struck him as a new source for creating fine art. Proving photography was fine art was his lifetime calling.
Stieglitz came of age at a time of transformations in all areas of life taking place at the speed of light. Picture it – his life spanned from the post-Civil War era through the Victorian times and the Industrial Revolution, followed by its backlash to the Arts & Crafts era and forward further still to modernism. Photography grew and developed over these years as a reflection of culture, industry, society and history. Stieglitz reveled in it, expressing his vision from pastoral imagery to a skyward direction-increased urbanization with skyscrapers and sharp lines driving toward the modern era-and always bringing the human perspective into the photographic equation.
It was not only his vision, but the vision of other artists and photographers that Stieglitz looked to champion. He, along with Edward Steichen, Clarence White, and others, broke away from trying to have photography mimic artistic styles through manipulation of the negative to letting the medium stand on its own. Stieglitz and Steichen created the 291 Gallery in New York City. In this space, he would exhibit paintings and photographs side by side to stand on their own merits as works of art.
While he would continue to move the medium forward, Steglitz met and married the painter Georgia O’Keeffe. His portraiture of O’Keeffe was ever-evolving, some being more symbolic in nature and others very natural in their creation. His close-up portraits of O’Keeffe would convey as much about the design of the times as they did about their relationship.
The growth of the artistic impact that could be made through photography never failed to draw Stieglitz’s eye, and he continued to work throughout his later years, often photographing from his apartment windows as he reflected upon the human condition. His body of work spans the evolving times he lived in with his own artist perspective.
“I want to make them [American Indians] live forever. It’s such a big dream I can’t see it all.”
Edward S. Curtis was born a photographer. Raised in Whitewater, Wisconsin by parents Ellen and Johnson Curtis, he was given a stereopticon by his father at a very early age and was hooked. When Edward’s father returned from the Civil War, his health was greatly impaired and a move to a more “open” climate was deemed necessary for his well-being. Johnson took his eldest son, Edward, and headed west to Sydney, Washington, located across Puget Sound from the city of Seattle.
After his father passed from pneumonia a few years later, nineteen-year-old Edward took any work he could find. His photography of the beautiful nature of the Sound honed in on the Tulalip and Muckleshoot Indians. His pictures were displayed at the Imperial Photograph Company in Seattle. Tourists to the area would seek out the images and purchase them to share with their families.
Fast-forward through years of study and reflection on the changing status of the Native American in the U.S. Curtis knew he was witnessing the vanishing of the Indian as they once were. He worked to try and capture their stories before it would be too late. Exhibiting and selling photos only went so far to sustain this journey, yet his mission and his art was being recognized by many – President Theodore Roosevelt, the Vanderbilts, and others who saw what a New York art critic stated: “We as a nation are not doing this but one man, an American, an explorer, an artist with a camera, has conceived and is carrying into execution the gigantic idea of making complete photographic and text records of the North American Indian so far as they exist in a primitive condition today.”
In 1906, Curtis was summoned to the White House with instructions to bring as many of his images as he could to share with President Roosevelt, who stated, “Curtis, you have started a colossal job but it must be completed. You’re the only man who can do it and I will give you every assistance possible.” Roosevelt then arranged a meeting between investor J. Pierpont Morgan and Curtis, and thanks to Edward’s determination, Morgan agreed to fund the project to photograph the American Indian at the rate of $15,000 per year over five years.
The body of work encompassed over 40,000 photographs of more than 80 tribes, along with 10,000 wax cylinder recordings of native languages and music, numerous written accounts of tribal life and biographical sketches of tribal leaders. All scaled down to 20 volumes containing 1,500 photographs; 25 sets along with 500 original prints were given to Morgan as repayment for financing the project. In all, 222 complete sets were published using the finest imported photographic paper, high-end leather binding and more, to become what Morgan had requested – “… a set of books, the handsomest ever published.”
Curtis received no salary for the project, which took place over the course of more than 20 years of living among the tribes, facing the wrath of Mother Nature when cameras and fragile glass negatives were washed away in a flash flood or, in one instance, tossed into the sea while in Alaska.
Curtis devoted his life to the art of photography and to preserving the story of Native Americans. He had a family who supported his work, and his daughter Beth eventually became his trusted colleague. He died in 1952 at the age of 84.
“Today I am no longer concerned with photography as an art form. I believe it is potentially the best medium for explaining man to himself and to his fellow man.”
There are times when an artist comes across a medium and utilizes it as an expression of time. Edward Steichen was such an artist. Born Eduard Jean Steichen in Luxembourg, 1879, Steichen later changed his name to Edward as he staked his claim in the burgeoning art medium of photography.
The family emigrated to the U.S. in 1881. With the advice of his teacher and the support of his mother, Steichen left school at 15 and worked as an artist – painting, drawing, and designing for a lithographer – when he purchased his first camera, a Kodak 50-exposure box camera, at the age of 16. His painterly approach and eye for design lent themselves to his new found obsession, and he had his first show with the Philadelphia Photographic Salon in 1898, juried by Clarence White.
Over the ensuing years, Steichen’s life ran parallel with Alfred Stieglitz’ as they founded the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession (a.k.a. “291”) and participated in the International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography in Buffalo. Initially renowned for his soft focus and almost ethereal approach to photography, Edward became known for his modernist style within the realm of publishing, working as chief photographer for Condé Nast from 1923-1938, following his stint as an aerial photographer during World War I, with a move toward sharper focus and defining space with sharp lines of light. Edward established himself as an acclaimed pioneer of fashion photography.
When World War II began, Steichen was commissioned to be the Director of the U.S. Naval Photographic Institute in 1945, overseeing combat photography. While in this
position, he was able to convince the higher-ups to hire a number of photographers to utilize the camera to document combat during the war, and was able to create an Academy-Award winning documentary The Fighting Lady while on duty.
Following the war, Steichen served as the Director of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art through 1962. Here, he oversaw what would be considered the pinnacle of his career, The Family of Man exhibit. The mission was to highlight the common bonds shared among people all around the world – human development and the cycle of life presented as a photo essay with spaces for discussion and areas to give pause for the viewer to contemplate the images. Steichen invited photographers to submit photographs for consideration explaining that the aim was to “capture the gamut of life from birth to death,” something he felt could be most clearly told through photography.
The exhibition brought together 503 photos from 68 countries taken by 273 photographers, The Family exhibit has been seen by over nine million people in 37 countries. The book of this exhibition is still available to purchase.
“There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”
Ansel Adams, a noted environmentalist and widely regarded as one of the most famous photographers of all time, is best known for his striking black and white landscape photographs of the American West, especially Yosemite National Park.
Adams first visited Yosemite National Park in 1916 with his family. He wrote of his first view of the valley: “the splendor of Yosemite burst upon us and it was glorious … One wonder after another descended upon us … There was light everywhere … A new era began for me.” His father gave him his first camera during that stay, a Kodak Brownie box camera, and he took his first photographs. He returned to Yosemite on his own the following year with better cameras and a tripod. In the winter, he learned basic darkroom technique working part-time for a San Francisco photo finisher. In 1922, Adams began selling his Yosemite prints to the public. In letters and cards to family, he wrote of having dared to climb to the best view points and to brave the worst elements.
Adams put on his first solo museum exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in 1931 featuring 60 prints taken in the High Sierra. It was at this time that he also began deploying his photographs in the cause of wilderness preservation. A solo show at Alfred Stieglitz’ “An American Place” gallery in New York in 1936 put Adams on the radar of the critics and buying public, and launched his photography career and life as an environmentalist, which lasted until his death in 1984 at the age of 82.
Adams placed great value upon technical mastery of his craft, carefully evaluating gradations of light in the image, manipulating degree of exposure, and constantly experimenting with new techniques. Along with contemporaries Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston, Adams founded the group f/64, devoted to what they termed “straight photography,” as opposed to staged or embellished images. He also felt an intense commitment to promoting photography as a fine art and played a key role in the establishment of the first museum department of photography, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Adams’ career as a photographer earned him an honorary artium doctor degree from Harvard University and an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from Yale University. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1966, awarded the Conservation Service Award by the Department of the Interior in 1968, a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980, the Sierra Club John Muir Award in 1963, and was inducted into the California Hall of Fame posthumously in 2007.
Adams’s work continues to be the ‘gold standard’ in the photography market, and continues to appreciate, although values fluctuate. In April 2017, Christie’s sold “Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, 1938” for $559,500 to benefit the Elton John AIDS Foundation. For those unable to afford these high-end prices, the market is flooded with affordable reproductions and prints for a consumer public that continue to share his love affair with the beauty and majesty of the American landscape.
“My favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been.”
Diane Arbus was known for her photographs of marginalized people – dwarfs, giants, transgender people, circus performers – and others whose normality was perceived by the general public as ugly or surreal. Her photography style is characterized as “direct and unadorned,” a frontal portrait centered in a square format. Her pioneering use of flash in daylight isolated the subjects from the background, which contributed to the photos’ surreal quality. Her work has been described as consisting of formal manipulation characterized by blatant sensationalism.
Arbus began her career in 1946 as a commercial photographer, going into business with her husband, Allan Arbus, and together contributing to such publications as Glamour, Seventeen, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar even though both “hated the fashion world.” Coming to the realization that she no longer wanted to be a commercial photographer, Arbus quit the business in 1956 and began wandering the streets of New York City with a 35mm Nikon. She would follow strangers and wait in doorways until she saw someone she felt compelled to photograph. She would number her film as she developed her photos. Her last known negative was labeled #7459.
The first major exhibition of her photographs occurred at the Museum of Modern Art in an influential 1967 show called New Documents, featuring “a new generation of documentary photographers,” which also included works by Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander. Opening night, Arbus was greeted with yellow roses by Richard Avedon.
Having struggled with depressive episodes throughout her life, Arbus committed suicide in 1971 at the age of 48. The following year, she was posthumously chosen as the first photographer to ever represent the United States at the Venice Biennale.
Forty plus years later, Arbus is hotter than ever. In 2016, a signed print of her Child with a Toy Hand Grenade, a photograph originally acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in 1964, sold for $785,000 at auction. That same year, The Met ran a landmark exhibition entitled diane arbus in the beginning, featuring more than 100 photographs that focused on the first seven years of her career, from 1956 to 1962, “the period in which she developed the idiosyncratic style and approach for which she is known the world over.”
Today, her works are held in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh, and the Getty Museum’s Department of Photographs, among others. Her photographs will be on display at the Smithsonian American Art museum from April 6 through September 30, 2018 to feature a portfolio of work from 1969.
She completed the printing for eight known sets of A box of ten photographs, as she titled it, only four of which she sold during her lifetime. Two were purchased by Richard Avedon; another by Jasper Johns. A fourth was purchased by Bea Feitler, art director at Harper’s Bazaar. Arbus signed and titled the prints in all four sets, and each print was accompanied by an overlying vellum sheet inscribed with an extended caption. For Feitler, Arbus added an eleventh photograph. This is the first exhibition to focus exclusively on A box of ten photographs, using the eleven print set that Arbus assembled specially for Feitler. It was acquired by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1986, and is the only one of the portfolios completed and sold by Arbus that is publicly held.
Annie Leibovitz (b. 1949)
“When I say I want to photograph someone, what it really means is that I’d like to know them. Anyone I know I photograph.”
Anna-Lou “Annie” Leibovitz is known for her bold and provocative portraits of famous Americans and celebrities. Celebrated as a chronicler of popular culture, her work has been used on numerous album covers and featured in such magazines as Rolling Stone, Vogue, and Vanity Fair. She has photographed everyone who is anyone, from John Lennon to Queen Elizabeth II.
Leibovitz started her career in 1970 as staff photographer, working for Rolling Stone magazine. In 1973, publisher Jann Wenner named Leibovitz chief photographer of Rolling Stone, a job she would hold for 10 years. Leibovitz worked for the magazine until 1983, and her intimate photographs of celebrities helped define the Rolling Stone look.
In 1991, Leibovitz’ collection of more than 200 photographs were exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. She was the first woman to be so honored. Four of the most memorable Annie Leibovitz shots-of Mick Jagger, Demi Moore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Queen Elizabeth II-gain added power from the stories behind them, shedding as much light on Leibovitz’ portrait-making process as on her subjects.
Leibovitz has received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Center of Photography, American Society of Magazine Editor’s first Creative Excellence Award, Centenary Medal of Royal Photographic Society in London and designated a Living Legend by the Library of Congress. This past October, Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005-2016 was released, the third in a series of coffee table books chronicling her more iconic images from 1970 to the present.
Leibovitz prints command strong prices at auction helped by the subjects she photographs. In 2016, a photo of David Beckham taken by Leibovitz in 2004 sold for $26,530 at a charity auction held by Phillips London to raise money for UNICEF, and a photo of Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi (Blues Brothers), Hollywood, California, 1979 realized $22,500 at a Christie’s auction this past October. One of her most expensive photographs to be sold at auction is of Keith Haring taken in New York City in 1986 which sold for $93,750 at Sotheby’s in 2016.
Known the world over, exhibitions of Leibovitz’ work has spanned the globe. In 2016, Leibovitz’ photo series called “Women: New Portraits” traveled Europe before opening in New York in November 2016, and a show of more than 30 of Leibovitz’ most famous portraits of prominent personalities is currently being featured in the first solo exhibition of her work in Berlin, Germany through April 27, 2018. She is also currently conducting an online Master Class series to teach her philosophy on photography-how to develop concepts, work with subjects, shoot with natural light, and bring images to life in post-production-to a new generation of photographers.