Masterworks from the
Metropolitan Museum of Art
(Metropolitan Museum of Art/
Yale University Press)
Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen were the two true geniuses of early twentieth century photography, creating what some might think of as the Art School of American Photography. Their works often included misty shots on pale swirls of naked bodies against dark backgrounds, bodies, often, floating there with washed-out edges, vague patterns off there in the distance, the very objects that others emphasized in early photography (sharp focus, sharp features, formidable contrast) now touched out. Stieglitz was also fond of clouds, would photograph them and give them filmy titles like "Music No. 1" or "Equivalent." He was also a bit unfocused on the subject of Georgia O'Keeffe (aren't we all?) ... he loved her much too much (don't we all?) ... and lived with her much of his life when he wasn't fighting with her or at war with the other important photographers in America.
O'Keeffe might well have been included in the title of this book because Stieglitz took over three-hundred photographs of her during his long career. Sixteen are included here, including her face [complete with demi-mustache: see Fig 2 below], hands, feet (pretty gnarly), toes, breasts (beautiful), backside, frontside (gorgeous!), throat ... with several additional pictures of her staring at the camera (and the photographer) (and us) and doing her hair and caressing the hubcaps of her Ford V-8 and, also, fondling a horse skull. Which is OK by me because I have always found the camera art of her body and her personality far more engaging than those strange paintings of flowers looking more like intimate body parts than tulips and begonias.
Steichen was like Stieglitz and if you get their names confused I am with you because I can never remember who is who nor who has the "i" before "e" (but not after "c.") Steichen also did the misty bodies/wind-blown hair/faceless-faces in space and four of these turn up here reminding us not so much of the Impressionists (of whom he was fond, so fond that he shot photographs that look like they just busted out of Manet's paint-studio).
Steichen was also much taken with Auguste Rodin and especially that corn-ball statue "The Thinker" which when I was in grade school whenever someone assumed the same pose we inevitably dubbed him "The Stinker."
Rodin's statue in honor of Honoré de Balzac is even cornier but evidently those who put this volume together thought enough of it to include three shots Steichen made of it at 4 A.M., 11 P. M., and midnight. These three are included here as an overleaf which must have cost a small fortune in the production of this fine volume but when you open up the set they appear impressive enough although god knows what that statue has to do with the novelist though it has been said that Balzac's figure was so gargantuan that the sculptor chose to drape him in robes because that was the only way that Rodin could do him justice without making a comic figure out of him ... a statuesque Oliver Hardy or Falstaff.
Paul Strand is here too although with only twenty-seven photographs compared to Steichen's thirty-eight and Stieglitz's fifty-three, making one imagine that he was chosen as part of the triad because his name serendipitously begins with St. I'm not making a dig at him mind you because he was a terrific photographer and his studies of agave plants and the Flatiron Building are as rich as his still-life studies that could have been painted by Cézanne or even Jacques-Louis David.
Outside Georgia O'Keeffe and the filmy nudes, the operating field for these three masters was New York so the city turns up here and there including some bare walls courtesy of Steichen, waterfront scenes by Stieglitz ("The City of Ambition!") and office buildings by Strand.
There is a touch of kissing cousins here, too, with a shot of Stieglitz looking balefully at Strand's camera, Strand with pipe in hand photographed by Stieglitz, Steichen with "Little Sister" by Steichen [see Fig 3 below], Stieglitz (again, baleful) by Steichen ... and three by Strand of Stieglitz shooting something with his bellows camera. The book also has a colorful frontispiece by Steichen that shows Stieglitz pulling his magazine "Camera Work" out of a bag.
It's all very confusing, if not incestuous but all of them are very pleasant-looking although Stieglitz is given to glaring at cameras but in the Glaring Sweepstakes we must give the prize to the famous portrait on page 77 of J. P. Morgan. Morgan, it is said, did not take kindly to Steichen's suggestion that he "reveal more personality than he intended," so of course he did.
--- Leslie Seamans, M. A.