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Current time:0:00Total duration:5:37

The first modern photograph? Alfred Stieglitz, The Steerage

Video transcript

[Music] 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 he came upon this image on a trip with his wife and daughter they were if not coming to America but rather going to Europe they were lucky enough to be in a 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 this has come to symbolize the experience of immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century and even the figuring of Shaw has been understood as a Jewish figure wearing a prayer shawl none of that is true analyzing a photograph has many other layers perhaps than the traditional painting where you know that that image came from the artists mind so this image in the same way it came from the artists mind there's some ambivalence I think on his part about where he fits in this scenario as a first-generation German Jewish American 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 sequences later writings that he did feel somewhat ambivalent about traveling first-class eating 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 that goes to his role as one of the fathers 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 camerawork this was a very influential photography journal pushing forward the doctrine that photography could be fine art Stieglitz himself said that if all my photographs were 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 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 we're 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 modern life being characterized by the machine and not turning away from that but embracing it this is not a direct quote but he would have said that the camera was the device to be used to document modern life Stieglitz was especially interested in that oval shape of the straw hat 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 was in a composition changes too it's important to remember that he saw this recognized it as a compelling composition that said something that he wanted to say I went to his cabin got the camera came back and took this photo his heart just beat faster hoping when it came back that the specific start point in the composition the straw had at the upper deck was still going to be in place 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 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 and here chocolate sauce which can represent the darks and the lights of photography and so he's doing this as performance remaking this work in a odd medium and then photographing it manie's 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 [Music]