Truth and illusion

The exquisite Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand, culled almost entirely from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s stellar collection, is more than just a showcase for three of photography’s supremes. It also offers an opportunity to reconsider some of photo-history’s hoariest assumptions.

According to the standard narrative, Alfred Stieglitz came to the medium in the late 19th century, determined to pry it from the clutches of Sunday amateurs and enthrone it next to painting and sculpture as one of the fine arts. He and his fellow pictorialists imitated the gauzy, atmospheric paintings of Whistler, the compositions of Japanese woodblock prints and the steamy cityscapes of the impressionists. But by the time of the legendary Armory Show in New York in 1913, Stieglitz had rejected the symbolist style in favour of a modernist orthodoxy, insisting on sharp focus with no visible retouching, and commanding a kind of latent abstraction from his followers. With the fanaticism of a new convert, he condemned the manipulated print for its fraudulence and artificiality.

Formalism now ruled, and Stieglitz even reinterpreted his old pictures to conform to his new ideas. “You may call this a crowd of immigrants,” he famously said of “The Steerage”, taken in 1907 but not exhibited until 1913. “To me it is a study in mathematical lines, in balance, in a pattern of light and shade.”

Whistler remained close to Stieglitz’s heart long after he had disavowed the painter’s influence, and the seductive beauty of that period shimmers through one masterpiece after another. Steichen’s velvety black surfaces – altered, painted over and enhanced to the max – are the exhibition’s unequivocal stars, igniting unlimited admiration for his compositional agility and consummate lighting effects. Steichen was a master of the pregnant ambiance. His soft focus mimicked the elusive eddies of a dream, as in “The Little Round Mirror” (1905), where a sinuous and shadowy nude, her back to the viewer, gazes raptly at her own reflection. We can’t know her identity, or even admire a body so fuzzily rendered that it melts into the surrounding darkness. The woman is only a symbol of femininity, of self-absorption, of the interior life.

Steichen painted too, and he knew how to give his photographs a tactile lushness. He modified his prints, experimented with darkroom techniques and even scraped out portions of pictures by hand. The three extant exhibition prints (all in the Met’s collection) of his iconic “The Flatiron” were developed in different ways from the same negative, conveying the architecture’s shifting nocturnal moods. Steichen used the darkroom as an expressive tool.

By the 1910s, Stieglitz had begun to find these promiscuous minglings of truth and illusion insufficiently loyal to a theoretically objective medium. If Steichen revelled in heterodoxy, Stieglitz felt that his friend’s effusive style smacked of self-indulgence. Photography, he now insisted, should not be the handmaiden of painting, but its own, unadulterated entity. He praised the work of his young disciple Paul Strand as “brutally direct, devoid of flim-flam; devoid of trickery and of any -ism”. But of course he wasn’t. Inspired by Cézanne and cubism, Strand combined the lessons of Paris with the realities of Twin Lakes, Connecticut. He translated the ordinary stuff around him into geometric symphonies. A pageant of shadows cast by a porch balustrade; an army of white picket fence posts became the building blocks he reassembled into Picassoid patterns.

Yet Stieglitz, for all his posturing and praise of Strand, couldn’t quite let go of the needling desire to tap into deeper meaning. Despite his scathing formalist rhetoric, surfaces for Stieglitz were signifiers of something else: emotion, mortality, revelation. He titled his vision of thrusting skyscrapers and billowing smokestacks “City of Ambition”, while a steam engine chugging through spumes of black smoke becomes the “Hand of Man”. The railroad may be a fact of 20th-century industry, but it’s also Stieglitz’s graphic emblem of modernity’s equivocal beauty. Both pictures are suffused with coal-thickened air and an atmosphere redolent of Monet’s paintings of the Gare St-Lazare. Braiding truth and metaphor, trains and buildings vaporise into the hubris and grandeur of mankind.

Later, as Steiglitz came to identify ever more thoroughly with the modern style, he denounced the idea that a picture should be “about” anything at all, yet he couldn’t bring himself to leave behind that notion entirely. He boasted about the abstract qualities of his skies, yet those late images have more in common with the “fussy” fin-de-siècle work of Innes and Whistler than their creator could ever admit.

His sternly “objective” examinations of Georgia O’Keeffe’s skin, feet and face quiver with romantic passion. And the more he exhorted his fellow photographers to stick to the medium’s distinctive techniques, the more he drove them to look at other painters. They spurned Whistler, and embraced Picasso – but how is aping cubism more purely photographic than aping symbolism? What Stieglitz, Steichen, and Strand all knew – and proved, but refused to admit – was that the camera is an artist’s tool, no purer or more corruptible than the burin or the brush.

‘Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand’, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until April 10.

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