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Course: AP®︎/College Art History > Unit 6

Lesson 2: Modern and contemporary art

The first modern photograph? Alfred Stieglitz, The Steerage

Alfred Stieglitz's photograph, The Steerage, captures the essence of early 20th-century immigration. Despite common misconceptions, the image shows Europeans, not immigrants to America. Stieglitz, a pioneer of modern photography, used this image to transition from pictorialism, embracing the camera's unique qualities. The photograph's geometric shapes symbolize the fast-paced modern life.

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Video transcript

(light upbeat music) - [Beth] We're in the LACMA Study Center for Photography and Works on Paper looking at probably one of the most important photographs of the 20th century, The Steerage by Alfred Stieglitz. - [Eve] He came upon this image on a trip with his wife and daughter, they were not coming to America but rather going to Europe. They were lucky enough to be in first class. This image is of the steerage, where the cheapest seats would be. So these are not, as it's often perceived, immigrants coming to America, but actually Europeans, some rejected at Ellis Island, some who came just on a worker visa. - [Beth] This has come to symbolize the experience of immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century and even the figure wearing a shawl has been understood as a Jewish figure wearing a prayer shawl. None of that is true. - [Eve] Analyzing a photograph has many other layers, perhaps, than traditional painting where you know that that image came from the artist's mind. So this image, in the same way, came from the artist's mind, there's some ambivalence, I think, on his part, about where he fits in the scenario as a first generation German Jewish American. - [Beth] So at the bottom of the image we see the steerage, above an observation deck that includes all types of people. And it's clear from Stieglitz's later writings that he did feel somewhat ambivalent about traveling first class. He didn't grow up in circumstances that would have allowed him normally to travel that way, and seemed to have felt stifled by it and left that part of the ship to seek out different kinds of people in different circumstances. We do have this sense of this modern world of people of all types coming together, of movement, of immigration. And yet, when Stieglitz talked about this image he tended to emphasize the formal aspects of the photograph. The relationship of the shapes and lines to one another and not the subject matter, the very thing that has drawn so many of us to it. - [Eve] That goes to his role as one of the fathers of photography. He really put this image out there. He was the one who was successful in making it appear in numerous magazines beyond its first iteration. In his own journal, Camera Work, this was a very influential photography journal, pushing forward the doctrine that photography could be fine art. - [Beth] Stieglitz himself said. "That if all my photographs we lost "and I'd be represented by just one, The Steerage, "I'd be satisfied." So what is it about this that meant so much to Stieglitz, who had such a long and important career? - [Eve] It was a turning point for him from pictorialist photography into modern photography. Pictorialism was a term that was used by photographers practicing at the same time who wanted their work to be accepted as fine art, but leaned on painting and drawing. Photographers were trying to blur the edges. Have wonderful additional toning, so that it looked like everything other than a photograph. Stieglitz is ready to move on and to embrace all the inherent wonderfulness that comes through the camera. By having a mechanical tool as your device, photographers were, for a long time, not considered fine artists. - [Beth] Modern life being characterized by the machine and not turning away from that, but embracing it. - [Eve] This is not a direct quote, but he would have said that the camera was the device to be used to document modern life. - [Beth] Stieglitz was especially interested in that oval shape of the straw hat. - [Eve] That directs you, but you start to see that geometric shape repeat and then you start to see other geometric shapes repeat. It's satisfying for the eye, but it simultaneously does represent the swirl of modern life. Everything's moving faster, people are going back and forth from one continent to another regularly enough that we have something called the steerage, and the pace of life is different. So, the pacing within a composition changes too. - [Beth] It's important to remember that he saw this, recognized it as a compelling composition that said something that he wanted to say, went to his cabin, got the camera, came back, and took this photo. - [Eve] His heart just beat faster, hoping when he came back that the specific start point in the composition, the straw hat at the upper deck, was still gonna be in place. - [Beth] This is such an important photograph in the history of American photography and it's no surprise that contemporary artists look back to it and do their own versions of it. - [Eve] One of those photographers who's tackled this iconic image is Vik Muniz. Started his career re-appropriating existing imagery and making us look at it anew. He would work with materials such as dirt, dust, gold. - [Beth] And here chocolate sauce. - [Eve] Which can represent the darks and the lights of photography. - [Beth] And so he's doing this as performance, remaking this work in a odd medium, and then photographing it. - [Eve] Muniz is doing that kind of tongue-in-cheek, but also to point out the fact that photography has inherent mutability. The truths that are in photographs can constantly be questioned. (light upbeat music)