The Last Victorian: Stieglitz and Photogravure

Alfred Stieglitz has often been referred to as the man who took photography into a new era, one in which the novelty with the medium began to be transformed into a more keen observance of aesthetics. Portraits, or documentary image, what many consider the bulk of photography prior to the end of the nineteenth century, was for the most part abandoned by Stieglitz and his prot�©g�©s. A different look and sensibility began to emerge that incorporated the still infant technology with careful new constructions. The irony is that they were borrowing their ideas of composition, manipulation of light, subjects and mythology from art-works of the age Stieglitz attempted to distance himself from.

The photogravure, that fragile and difficult process that became his trademark, was and still is intriguing for photographers. Today, some see photography, along with recorded sound, as the precursors to the death of artistic ownership because of the ease of reproduction. However, since photogravure relied upon the fragile plate process, once the plate no longer existed the photo could not be duplicated. Thus, Stieglitz was straddling eras already when he began his ground-breaking work with this process.

However, the bulk of his photos are not startling in their style nor in many cases their technique. It is obvious they borrow heavily from famous paintings and images, but not ones contemporary to their time. In fact, they do not reflect the artists and movement of the era which Stieglitz was making his photogravures. No traces of the abstraction of Klimt or Hodler, certainly not early Picasso or even Monet. Although at times they provide brief glimpses of the end of the century collapse of colonialism and aristocratic idealism, they still are surely the opposite of Robert Henri and the burgeoning taste for common, everyday subjects that would supplant the elaborate elegance of a vanishing era. Instead, Stieglitz’s and his protÃ?©gÃ?©’s images up to and prior to the end of the First World War relate to a period that no longer existed both for the rest of the art community but in reality. Instead of depicting the instability of a world exhausted by rapid industrialism, overcrowded cities, and the growing middle-class, they seem to purposefully hold in deliberate abeyance the final death throes of the Victorian era.

This imagery that is firmly rooted in an era that has just passed also reflects many early nineteenth century notions of order and balance. Particularly Classicists like Ingres, and others who liberally borrowed from mythology and the Hellenistic, are employed. At the same time these photos also are often Romantic. It is not a contradiction to say that they both embrace Classicism and its adherence to absolute principals, because photographers were at that moment trying to establish themselves as being part of “art” and not merely a curious hobby.

At the same time, the Romantic desire is apt to be almost an inescapable dilemma: the camera at that time being a very static apparatus, one could not capture movement easily. To obtain harmony within a staged setting had its limitations. Contending with the desire to reflect the classical modes of expression utilizing a still very imprecise medium would naturally lead one to create scenes that captured the eye with the implication of movement, or narrative, and this was best done through Romantic images: reclining nudes, shrouded figures, city-scenes that did not take in the muck and dirt of the alley just beyond the edge of the frame.

However, in 1917, the same year Stieglitz’s journal “Camera Work” printed its last edition, the magazine he had personally published since 1903 and that contained the bulk of his most famous photogravures, the first troops of the American Expeditionary Forces landed in France to help hold back the a new German offensive. Stieglitz and other photographers that would follow him, like Man Ray, suddenly changed their aesthetic approach. Some of Stieglitz’s photos from the twenties, silver gelatin prints of people on the streets of New York best reflect what had ensued in the years between that last edition of “Camera Work” and the world they now saw. We now see images like a sooty-faced woman with her mouth wide open and head turned from the lens, a bearded and weary-looking old man wearing a sandwich board advertising something that is hidden just outside the frame, another man with a dark suit strains to turn his head towards something we can only imagine, his eyes bulging beneath his equally dark bowler. In retrospect, it’s not hard to determine what has happened – the return of soldiers and their stories of horror, the soldiers who did not return home, a looming economic crisis, and much of Europe still in ruins. This combined with the development of new film stocks and processes of development, as well as the infant motion picture industry and its concomitant contributions to still photography had finally brought an end to the Victorian era, symbolically, aesthetically, and forcefully. Photography would never be the same, nor would Stieglitz, but the debt we owe to those early works of his are not only within the context of art but also perhaps as the last vestiges of a time that could still pretend innocence, and a world yet to know its own fragility.

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