Selections from Camera Work, 1903 - 1911
July 8 - September 5, 1999
The Berkshire Museum is featuring an exhibition of more than 50 of the Museum's collection of photogravure prints drawn from Alfred Stieglitz's famous and lavishly illustrated periodical Camera Work. Containing some of the finest examples of photography and modernist art, Camera Work was published from 1903 - 1917. The exhibition opens July 8 and will remain on view until September 5, 1999.
Featuring images by some of the finest and best-known American and European artists and photographers - Edward Steichen, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Gertrude Käsebier, Clarence White, and Stieglitz himself - "Selections from Camera Work, 1903 -1911" represents a time when photography was fighting for its place in artistic expression. (left: Alfred Steiglitz, Gossip-Katwyk, 1894, (detail))
Photographer and founder of the Photo-Secession group, Alfred Steiglitz was born in Hoboken, NJ in 1864. The son of a successful German immigrant business man, he was educated in New York City and in 1881 was sent to the Berlin Polytechnic to study mechanical engineering. It was there Stieglitz became interested on photography. Working with H.W. Vogel, a famous photochemist, he developed a brilliant technique and become interested in the strong linear design and atmospheric mood characterizing new photography in Europe.
When he returned to American in 1890, Stieglitz was an international figure and determined to create an American school of fine-art photography on par with those in Europe and Germany. It was in 1896, as the vice president of the Camera Club in New York and the editor of its periodical Camera Notes, Stieglitz tried to make the publication a vehicle for creative - rather than amateur - photography. When this failed, he founded the Photo-Secession.
Secession was a term which served as referent to the efforts by a group of German and Austrian painters who abandoned traditional salon painting formulas in favor of a different set of conventions, Steiglitz followed their lead and Photo-Secession was born to promote pictorial photography as a serious artistic medium.
The Photo-Secession artists were often termed pictorialists because they took on themes traditional to painting and achieved painterly effects in their photography. Serious amateur photographers at the turn of the century pursued their goals with inventive homemade printing methods or revivals of earlier printmaking techniques. Prints were often as large as 20" x 30" in order to emulate the scale of small paintings. Themes included portraits, nude and landscape studies, city views and architectural details, women with children, and many different leisure-time activities.
Many images were imbued with symbolic content or evocative of literary subject matter. The primary goal was artistic impression, not merely an exploration of the camera's mechanical ability to record nature. "Pictorialists" believed that photography was a medium of personal expression and that any means taken to that end was justifiable. They defended manipulative techniques, such as combination printing, double exposure, soft focus and staged subjects, as well as the painterly gum bichromate process in which actual pigment forms the final image as in Steichen's Self Portrait.
In 1902, Alfred Stieglitz organized an exhibition consisting solely of pictorial works. His aim was to elevate the status of pictorial prints, which he considered distinct from the variety of photography seen in salons or camera clubs popular at the time, for the purpose of promoting photography as a fine art. Stieglitz spontaneously called the exhibition "American Photography arranged by the Photo-Secession."
Exhibiting with Steichen, Käsebier, Coburn, White and others who he felt exploited the creative possibilities of photography, Stieglitz began publishing their work and that of other European colleagues in 1903 in the magazine Camera Work. The voice of modern photography and the first to showcase modern art in the United States, the magazine was born to provide a venue for pictorial photography as defined by the Photo-Secession members.
Camera Work was a precedent-setting publication. Works were reproduced in photogravure, a fine-arts method of employing an etched copper plate and printer's ink. The gravure prints, considered collector's items, were executed in a manner which came close to imitating the tonal scale and visual sense of original prints. Over the years, Camera Work became a forum for redefining the artistic goals of photography.
Paralleling the late 19th century styles of Impressionism, Art Nouveau and Symbolism, the Photo-Secession photographers felt their works should be judged by the same aesthetic criteria applied to painting. Käsebier specialized in soft-focus images with a fictional or narrative basis, as for example in My Neighbors, April 1905, as well as themes of motherhood and women as in Portrait (Miss N.), January 1903. White's pictures have a Whistler Ian elegance that bespeaks of people at leisure, both in salons and landscapes, and Steichen is known for nudes in Art Nouveau style, atmospheric landscapes and interpretive portraits.
Eventually, any form of "impressionism" in prints was de-emphasized as tastes changed in favor of another set of aesthetic values. By 1914 Stieglitz turned away from the art-for-art's-sake doctrine and ceased altering his photographs. The concept of "straight" photography was established and the group drifted apart. Steichen came to agree with Stieglitz, Coburn believing more than ever in the validity of photographic manipulation went on to complete abstraction, and Käsebier's strong commitment to the pictorial style led her to form the Pictorial Photographers of America (a group whose low standards and out-of-date sentimentality eventually discredited their original ideas.)
It is the early years of pictorial photography as defined by the Photo-Secession in Camera Work that Museum-goers will see in "Selections from Camera Work at The Berkshire Museum."
Read more about the Berkshire Museum in the Resource Library
For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
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