the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

SEEING THROUGH THE STORM

At the time of its initial publication, this image by Alfred Stieglitz was deemed a failure.

At the time of its initial publication in 1893, this image by Alfred Stieglitz was deemed a failure.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

LOOK CAREFULLY AT THE PHOTOGRAPH TO YOUR LEFT. It was, at one time, judged by contemporary critics as a grand failure. Alfred Stieglitz, the father of modern photography, and the first to advocate for its status as a legitimate art form, made this image after standing for three hours in the miserable blizzard that had buried the New York of 1893 in mounds of cottony snow.

The coachman and his horses are rendered in a soft haze due to the density of the wind-driven snow, and by the primitive slowness of the photographic plates in use at the time. There was, for photographers, no real option for “freezing the action” (unwitting pun) or rendering the kind of razor sharpness that is now child’s play for the simplest cameras, and so a certain amount of blur was kind of baked into Stieglitz’ project. But look at the dark, moody power of this image! This is a photograph that must live outside the bounds of what we consider “correct”.

More importantly, a technically flawless rendering of this scene would have drained it of half its impact.

Of course, at the time it was created, Stieglitz’ friends encouraged him to throw the “blizzard picture” away. Their simple verdict was that the lack of sharpness had “spoiled” the image. Being imperfect, it was regarded as unworthy. Stieglitz, who would soon edit Camera Work, the world’s first great photographic magazine,  and organize the Photo-Secession, America’s first collective of artists for promotion of the photo medium, had already decided that photographs must be more than the mere technical recording of events. They could emphasize drama, create mood, evoke passions, and force the imagination every bit as effectively as did the best paintings.

Within a few years of the making of this image, the members of the Photo-Secession began to tweak and mold their images to actually emulate painting. The movement, called Pictorialism, did not last long, as the young turks of the early 20th century would soon demand an approach to picture-making that matched the modern age. The important thing, however, is that Stieglitz fought for his vision, insisted that there be more than one way to make a picture. That example needs to be followed today more than ever. When you make an image, you must become its champion. This doesn’t mean over-explaining or asking for understanding. It means shooting what you must, honing your craft, and fighting for your vision in the way you bring it to life.

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4 responses

  1. Thank you so much for the historical information and importance of Stieglitz’s work. There is a new book out by Mary Street Alinder, “Group f.64: Edward Wiston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and the Community of Artists Who Revolutionized American Photography”. Of course Stieglitz has a role to play in this book but more importantly, it was Group f .64 that advocated moving away from Pictorialism. I was fortunate enough to go to San Francisco where Mary Street Alinder gave a reading/lecture and signing at Scott Nickol’s Gallery.

    January 5, 2015 at 12:11 PM

    • The f/64 book received rather a mixed review from the New York Times, as I recall. The group certainly made the move away from painterly effect, as did some of Stieglitz’ own cohorts in the Photo-Secession, such as Edward Steichen, who pioneered many modern techniques on his way to a constantly changing style of over seventy years of work. I would love to have attended Ms. Alinder’s lecture, especially Q&A! It’s funny to me that photography went from “we’re more real than painting!” to “we’re just like painting!” to, “never mind, we’re something else completely.” Such are the growing pains of a new art. Thanks again for your input!

      January 5, 2015 at 5:14 PM

  2. Thank you for that great post. It further validates my own photography – others will always delight in telling you why your image doesn’t work or is technically flawed – but it is your own vision and your own belief that matters. Great work.

    January 7, 2015 at 4:00 AM

    • I truly appreciate your feedback. It’s hard to make your art thrive in a world that lives on “likes”! Stay strong and fight for your vision!

      January 7, 2015 at 7:49 AM

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