In our June/July issue, Leah Ollman spotlights five artists who produce striking aesthetic effects with photographic methods that are deliberately slow, antiquated, and physical. We looked in our archive for other articles about process-based photography to expand the context around Ollman's research.
In our July/August 1973 issue, Jerald C. Maddox gives an account of the early twentieth-century Photo-Secession, a group of American photographers led by Alfred Stieglitz who endeavored to uncover the unique potential of the medium, separate from painting, and raise the status of photography to fine art. However, these photographers often employed methods to produce a "nonphotographic image"—soft focus, deep shadow, negatives, and textured papers—which, Maddox notes, undermined their efforts, giving the effect that "these works are produced by individuals who wished to be painters, but somehow lacked the conceptual ability required to generate the necessary images out of their own imaginations." We present the article in full below. —Eds.
The Photo-Secession divorced photography from mundane illustrational tasks and created an atmosphere that encouraged photographers to think of their medium as an artist thinks of his. It freed photography from painting, allowing it to become an independent and expressive twentieth-century art.
The first decade of the twentieth century was of major importance for American photography, for it brought about a fundamental change in attitude toward the medium. It was a complex period filled with important events and interesting personalities, yet much of the creative activity evolved from one man and the photographic group he founded and headed. Any consideration of these years must, of course, concentrate on Alfred Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession, for it was through their efforts that photography came to be accepted as art. However, many other photographers were active as well, some of whom have emerged as more important figures than most of the Photo-Secessionists. Frances Benjamin Johnston had completed the photographs for the Hampton Album in 1899; Edward S. Curtis was working on his monumental documentation of the American Indian; Lewis Hine began photographing the immigrants at Ellis Island in 1905, and in 1908 he started his work for the Child Labor Committee.
The beginning of the period was marked by the Third Philadelphia Salon, significant because it was chosen by photographers and sponsored by an established fine arts institution––the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The jury consisted of Stieglitz, Gertrude Käsebier, Clarence White, Frank Eugene and Eva Lawrence Watson, all of whom became members of the Photo-Secession. The exhibition attracted a great deal of attention: the criticism was largely, but not entirely, favorable, and the critics, both pro and con, touched on the qualities which were to characterize most of the Photo-Secession work throughout the period.
Joseph T. Keiley, who later became associate editor of the Photo-Secession's quarterly Camera Work, wrote in Camera Notes:
The American work of today, as a whole, is quite direct––strong, firm and full of definite purpose. It is marked by a distinct style... while, except in rare instances, wanting to be a great degree in poetic imagination, it shows keen pictorial appreciation and great refinement of feeling.
Charles L. Mitchell, writing for the American Amateur Photographer, felt differently:
The majority of those whose pictures are exhibited seem to strive to imitate the work of the painter, or of the engraver and etcher.... There are too many "impressions" and too few clearly conceived, thoroughly expressed realities; too few real pictures and too much "trash."
The decade culminated in a large exhibition held in 1910 at the Albright Gallery in Buffalo. The Albright exhibition was a culmination in more than a chronological sense, for it also marked the beginning of a decline for the Photo-Secession's style of photography. But between these two exhibitions fell ten years of frantic activity, most of which was stimulated by Stieglitz and a few of his associates.
On his return from Europe in 1890, Stieglitz began his public efforts to define and establish photography as an art. He exhibited his own work and acted as a judge for photographic exhibitions. His writings and photographs appeared in the important photographic periodicals, and in July 1893 he became editor of American Amateur Photographer, a position he held until January 1896.
By 1900 Stieglitz had attained a position of great influence in this country and in Europe. He was now editor of Camera Notes, the official publication of the Camera Club of New York that he had been instrumental in starting in 1897. Under his leadership Camera Notes became a serious publication with good reproductions and important writing, replacing the Camera Club's earlier, less ambitious efforts. Earlier photographic criticism had been concerned mainly with technical details, a carry-over from the days when complications of the process and the lack of standardized materials made just getting an image on the negative a feat in itself. But the introduction of dry plates and the increasing simplification of the photographic process had given the medium an easy accessibility which allowed a greater emphasis on its creative aspects. Stieglitz treated photography as an expressive medium, the equal of painting and the other visual arts, and attempted to publish and discuss only what he felt met high critical standards. While this approach seems unremarkable today, this was not the case in the context of that time.
In 1902 Stieglitz focused his efforts on the organization of the Photo-Secession, which was intended to further promote the acceptance of photography as an art. Their first exhibition, held at the National Arts Club in 1902, was selected by Stieglitz from the work of his friends. It was at this time that he adopted the name Photo-Secession, derived from various groups of European modernist artists who had broken away from the academies and called themselves Secessionists. The group which grew out of this show had twelve founders: John G. Bullock, William B. Dyer, Frank Eugene, Dallet Fuguet, Gertrude Käsebier, Joseph T. Keiley, Robert S. Redfield, Eva Watson Schütze, Edward Steichen, Edmund Stirling, John Francis Strauss and Clarence White. The stated purpose of the organization was as follows:
To advance photography as applied to pictorial expression;
To draw together those Americans practicing or otherwise interested in art;
To hold from time to time, at varying places, exhibitions not necessarily limited to the productions of the Photo-Secession or to American work.
Because of these activities Stieglitz resigned his position as editor of Camera Notes, and was later forced to resign from the Camera Club, though he was reinstated shortly thereafter.
During the first half of the decade the Photo-Secession's influence became widespread, and exhibitions of their work appeared frequently here and in Europe. They sent out collections of photographs under strict terms: they must be hung as a unit, not submitted to a jury, and listed as "Loan Exhibition of the Photo-Secession." Despite the restrictions, the work was in great demand; in 1904 Stieglitz noted that there had been 147 requests for Photo-Secession exhibitions. One such show, held in Pittsburgh in 1904, elicited the following from the art critic Sadakichi Hartmann:
[It] is indisputably the most important and complete pictorial photographic exhibition ever held in this country. I must confess to no special fondness for the ordinary run of photographic exhibitions, but the Pittsburgh show is so far superior to anything of its kind I have ever seen before, that I consider it a privilege to have viewed it and to have found real pleasure in my task of studying it.
In 1903 Stieglitz began to publish Camera Work, which was to become the most important aspect of the Photo-Secession, giving wider currency to its ideals and providing a record of what it attempted to do. It was very highly thought of, more so, in fact, than much of the photography itself, as indicated in the disappointment of one Albright exhibition reviewer in 1910:
Not the least of the debts that the Photo-Secession owes to Mr. Stieglitz is in connection with Camera Work. In this wonderful periodical, through which the Photo-Secession workers are known more widely than though the actual exhibition of their prints, he has maintained a standard of selection very considerably beyond that of the present show. One who has known the work of the Secessionists only through Camera Work will find little cause in the present exhibition for surprise or astonishment...In the case of at least one well-known worker, the original prints now on view are so far inferior to the photogravures from the same negatives in Camera Work as to cause a distinct feeling of disappointment.
In the second half of the decade Stieglitz's interests began to turn to other aspects of contemporary art. He and Steichen opened the Photo-Secession Galleries in 1905, and although the exhibitions of the first year or so were devoted to photography, by 1907 they had turned to painting and sculpture. With Steichen as European representative, the gallery became New York's outpost of the European avant-garde, and the number of photographic exhibitions declined until after the Buffalo exhibition of 1910.
The Buffalo show of over five hundred prints was the most important held up to that time in a major art museum. Even though it had both open and invited categories of exhibitors, it was entirely a Photo-Secession affair. Both sections were chosen by the group, and all of the works had a similar approach to the medium. Stieglitz intended it as an affirmation of the group's ascendancy, a role which had begun to be questioned by those who felt that the quality of Camera Work was slipping and that the Photo-Secession galleries had been taken over by other media. Paul Haviland attempted to explain these developments in Camera Work:
The season, which ended with but a single photographic exhibition has led many of our friends to presume that the Photo-Secession was losing its interest in photography....If the position of photography among the arts is to be firmly and permanently established, this can be accomplished by proving it capable of standing the test of comparison with the best work in other media and not by isolating it.
The Albright exhibition, designed by Max Weber and installed by Weber, Stieglitz, Paul Haviland and Clarence White, was a major event in the history of photography, for it summed up what had been attempted and accomplished in the decade just ended. Charles Caffin, writing in Camera Work, emphasized its quality:
Within the limits of what they have proposed to themselves, these photographers have reached an average of technical accomplishment which is as high as the present-day average in any other medium of picture making.
An editorial in American Photography was less favorable:
The scheme of things, to a Secessionist, consists of an enormous expanse of dense black shadows, punctuated by a few more or less successfully arranged light spots, and the vision of six hundred of the vagaries in a dozen different mediums becomes both tiresome and depressing. To say that this dismal madness of monotone represents the final achievement of photography is as foolish as to call the dreary monotony of a slave ditty the highest form of music.
The exhibition marked the beginning of an end, which was, in fact, what Stieglitz intended; the Photo-Secession had achieved its purpose; even the negative review by F. Austin Lidbury in American Photography conceded them that victory:
If this exhibition contains a great deal of the very finest work that has ever been produced in photography, it also contains a great amount of the veriest rot...The last noteworthy impression you get from the show is that of finality...Extraordinary and interesting as it is viewed as a historical summing up, there is no question in my mind but that, as a show pure and simple, one hundred and fifty prints selected from it would have made a far more enjoyable and impressive collection.
It is final in another sense. It is the final and conclusive refutation of the claim that the Photo-Secession is divinely commissioned to uphold a standard of unusual excellence. The Open Section proves that.
Is it, one wonders, final in yet a third sense? Is the Photo-Secession, having at last stormed the citadel which it has been assaulting for so long, having won the recognition which has been the watchword of its fight, now singing, in this exhibition, its nunc dimittis?
Despite its influential position during the decade, the Photo-Secession did not have a lasting effect on the stylistic development of photography. Examining the work with more than fifty years of hindsight, one realizes that its efforts were directed more to picture-making than photograph-taking. Almost all the images exhibit the same weak romanticism and sentimentality found in so much American painting of the period.
This derivation has been noted recently in two exhibitions, "American Tonalism," held in 1972 in San Francisco, and "The Painterly Photograph," held earlier this year at the Metropolitan in New York. Both exhibition catalogs discuss these relationships as well as the variety of methods used by the photographers to produce a nonphotographic image––soft focus, out-of-focus images, deep shadow, hand work on prints and negatives and textured papers. In many cases one feels that these works are produced by individuals who wished to be painters, but somehow lacked the conceptual ability required to generate the necessary images out of their own imaginations.
One particular aspect of Photo-Secession work, however, mitigated to some extent the drawbacks of its thematic poverty. It brought to photography an esthetic self-awareness rarely encountered previously in America. In this the group had much in common with the English photographers H. P. Robinson and P. H. Emerson, and an English group––the Linked Ring Brotherhood––founded in 1892, which included among its members several of the Photo-Secession, including Stieglitz. While this attitude can be considered part of the prevalent estheticism at the turn of the century, its value lay in that it divorced photography from mundane illustrational tasks, and created an atmosphere that encouraged photographers to think of their medium as an artist thinks of his. To think of oneself as an artist, however, does not mean that one is, or that what one produces is art. The members of the Photo-Secession too often thought in terms of painting, from which they borrowed their subjects and forms. In other words, they ignored the fundamental law of evolving modernism––an art's most important component is that which is essential to the medium itself. Sadakichi Hartmann touched on this in his review of the Albright exhibition:
In subject matter the studio print and landscape photography have advanced but few themes if any have been brought out. They are borrowed largely from the other arts. It is the men who have preferred the city streets, the impressionism of life and the unconventional aspects of nature to costuming and posing, who have occasionally enriched our wealth of pictorial impressions. In many instances they have discovered and subdued new and unusual motifs and improvised upon the laws of composition with the skill of true virtuosos. I refer in particular to Stieglitz's skyscrapers and dock scenes, and some of Coburn's interpretations of city views.
The medium's unique qualities––fidelity to the most subtle tonal effects, the clarity of detail, the ability to capture a specific moment in time, in a word, literalism––are what define photography's nature and indicate its possible modes of usage. It is the realization that one is dealing with physically perceived reality that can give the photographic image so much of its power, and in some cases its mystery.
Many of the Photo-Secession thought that in order to be art, a photograph must subvert these qualities; this attitude underlies the failure of the Photo-Secession to sustain itself and its influence beyond the close of the decade. This is something of a paradox, since the Photo-Secession has come to stand for all that was avant-garde in the first decade. An examination of their work, however, reveals how much of this––in photography, at any rate––is due to Stieglitz's inspirational character and promotional efforts. A more effective use of photography's fundamentals is found in the work of the Photo-Secession: Johnston, in fact, was an associate member of the group. Hine took members of his photography class to see their exhibitions and introduced Paul Strand to Stieglitz. A few years later Stieglitz gave Strand an exhibition and featured his work in the last issue of Camera Work, but it is unlikely that the Photo-Secession, with the exception of Stieglitz, had much influence on these documentary photographers. Their style was dictated by the nature of what they wanted to express, a statement about the human condition and not an esthetic ideal. Photography's inherent literalism was eminently suited to this purpose. It is paradoxical that our acceptance of their work as art has little to do with the way they saw it; it stems instead from the attitude that the Photo-Secession succeeded in establishing for photography in general.
This function of the Photo-Secession explains, perhaps, one of the curious aspects of the period––the difference between Stieglitz's work and that of the other members of the group.
He continued and enriched a tradition of documentary photography, bringing to it a new esthetic awareness and seeing in it expressive possibilities that paralleled the development of modernism in painting. One has only to consider a picture like The Steerage to understand the qualities which have enabled it to survive its time.
Stieglitz himself considered it his greatest picture; he described taking it: "I saw a picture of shapes, and underlying that a feeling I had about life." One can assume, therefore, that for Stieglitz, the Photo-secession's raison d'être was propaganda. The painting-derived style of most Photo-Secession work was easier to get accepted as "art" than Stieglitz's more sophisticated modernist esthetic, one which had not yet gained acceptance even in painting. This explanation of Stieglitz's motives is consistent with his growing interest in avant-garde art after 1907. When attacked in 1911 for presenting the painting of Picasso and Matisse in Camera Work, Stieglitz's justification was that it was photography that had freed painting to do something else. It can also be said that Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession movement freed photography from painting, allowing it to become an independent and expressive twentieth-century art.