Masters of Photography: Aperture
This is the small book accompaning an excellent Stieglitz show that my friends and I saw on September 1, 2002 in the National Gallery in Washington. For major shows in all museums, there are often two accompanying books - an incredibly expensive (often aournd $90), comprehensive tome examining all of the artist's works or the entirety of a show, and a small book featuring the best works. Even the small books are often expensive, which is one reason this stood out - only $13 for a hardover! The book is beatuifully designed and printed, and visitors must have realized it, since my friend and I picked up the last two copies available.
To review the book is really to review the show itself. Stieglitz is one of the masters of photography, and a major force in popularizing and legitimizing photography as a serious art form. His career was vast - spanning the 1880s to 1940s. The exhibit and the book divide his career into several themed periods - scenes of daily life and industry, portraits of friends and especially his wife, the artist Georgia O'Keefe, abstracted landscapes and cloudscapes, and cityscapes of New York skyscrapers. The book staggers the themes a little, often juxtaposing a nude of O'Keefe with a cloudscape, for example. Stieglitz's distinctive style can be seen in all the shots. He frames each carefully, and maintained a philosophy throughout his career that photos should be direct and honest, without extensive manipulation from the artist.
One of the highlights of the exhibit was seeing the various papers, combined with a range of techniques, that Stieglitz experimented with and mastered over the years. The rough textures of some of the papers added a lot to the prints, and this texture is reproduced pretty faithfull in the book. Unfortunately, the book is purely black and white and doesn't show the many photos printed on tan or blue tinted paper.
Perhaps my favorite piece here is Sunlight and Shadows,
Paula, from Berlin in 1889. The picture is complex and detailed, showing
a woman in a small room writing on a table while lights stream in through
the window, creating a fascinating pattern of stripes on the table and
wall behind her. There is an incredible amount of detail and pattern,
making the work cry out for extended perusal. Stieglitz dwells on the
character of the woman through her action, the setting, her dress, and
the four small photographs of her within the picture. The work directly
evokes a Vermeer - a window on the left creating stark shadows, a central
female character empowered by her solitude, independence and show of
intelligence through her actions. The only difference is that most Vermeers
showcase their women's gazes, while this woman is preoccupied with her
letter and does not show her face. The other main difference, a lack
of color, is hardly noticeable since the photo, like so much of Stieglitz's
work, has a broad range of light that echoes vivid color. But the other
snapshots of her on the wall do confront the viewer more directly. The
honest and bold look in the eyes of one of them echoes the epic series
of photos of O'Keefe that Stieglitz would focus on decades later.