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Honoring an American icon
Categories: Art, Utrinque Paratus

Center for Visual Arts depicts best of Stieglitz

By Leigh E. Rich

He was to photography what Samuel Clemens was to literature, Samuel Barber was to music and Frank Lloyd Wright was to architecture.

There is no doubt Alfred Stieglitz embodied the modern 20th-century America he helped create and capture on the photogravure plate.

And in an exhibition somewhat unfairly titled Alfred Stieglitz: Georgia O’Keeffe’s Enduring Legacy, the Metro State Center for the Visual Arts pays homage to the life, labor and loves of an American icon.

Born in 1864 in Hoboken, N.J., to well-to-do German-American parents, Stieglitz spent his educational years in Europe studying engineering, a subject that would undoubtedly influence Stieglitz the photographer and artist in decades to come.

Discovering the wonders of photochemistry in 1883, Stieglitz’s early portfolio tells of his formative years in Europe, with breathtaking scenes from France, Italy and the Netherlands such as “A Nook in Pallanza (Italy)” and “On the Dykes,” both featured in Metro’s exhibit.

Returning to the United States in 1890, however, Stieglitz turned his camera at the turn of the most technology-driven century to his new home of New York City. His atmospheric street scenes of New York in all seasons—such as “Winter, Fifth Avenue,” “The Terminal, New York,” “Spring Showers” and “Street Paver Beside Smoking Kettle”—continue to speak of the birth of a modern age more than a century later and foretell of the industrial yet expressive New York series Stieglitz would complete in the first half of the 1900s.

“Reflections, Night – New York” from 1896 depicts Stieglitz’s artistry as a photographer and a man aware of his changing times, as a darkened, tree-lined street obscures a looming building illuminated only by the artificial sources inside, thus warmly juxtaposing nature and technology.

This “search for Truth” with a capital “T,” as Therese Mulligan, curator of photography for the George Eastman House, writes in her introduction to the exhibit, is what makes Stieglitz himself an enduring legacy.

A writer, publisher and photographer, Stieglitz is also credited with the elevation of photography—and American photography in particular—as an art form. He was a modern artist in an increasingly modern era, who so innovatively conveyed an everyday realism in his subject matter—”everyday” in Stieglitz’s era being witness to the rise of the automobile and America’s city skylines.

Though also known for his enduring portraits of colleagues, friends and both of his wives, Emmeline Obermeyer and Georgia O’Keeffe, that portray both a mystery and an intimacy with his subjects, the most captivating Stieglitz photos in the exhibit are his perspectives on New York’s growing metropolis.

“From My Window at the Shelton, West” and “From an American Place, Looking North” tell of the Big Apple’s gray, industrial strength looming in the midst of the Great Depression. In the latter, Stieglitz masterfully captures an erect skyscraper, gleaming white in its polished stones, in the background of his vision, with the dark, half-constructed girders of a skyscraper-to-be in the foreground.

This play with shadow, particularly in the rest of his New York series in which many of the behemoth buildings are lost to the darkness, is predominant in many of Stieglitz’s pieces. In another series, Equivalents, Stieglitz captures a spectrum of grays as well as balance in motion and the form of formlessness of water and clouds.

Even many versions of O’Keeffe as seen through Stieglitz’s camera-and-eyes engulf the artist—with the exception of her strong face the color of alabaster—in an untold variety of blacks and grays. But in his portraits, most of which are of women, Stieglitz also articulates a sense of modernity. “Dorothy True” depicts a softened joy in the partly contemplative, partly content face of a woman in 1919. True’s black-stockinged leg can be found in another Stieglitz, in which her outstretched limb, complete with heeled shoe and black skirt, defiantly stands out against a white background.

The women whom Stieglitz photographed working, ruminating and playing were as progressive as the automobiles, locomotives and edifices of the 20th century.

Also of interest in Metro’s exhibit are the photographs of Stieglitz himself, a sort of Mark Twain cum Einstein chimera or a not-so-absent-minded professor whose own serious yet exultant countenance explains his ability to portray the intimate and the spontaneous—and the natural and the personal world—simultaneously.

Alfred Stieglitz: Georgia O’Keeffe’s Enduring Legacy runs through Saturday, Dec. 14, at the Metro State Center for the Visual Arts, 1734 Wazee St., (303) 294-5207. 

Rich, L. E. (2002, November 6). Honoring an American icon: Center for Visual Arts depicts best of Stieglitz. CU-Denver Advocate.

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