Intro:

In 1902 Alfred Stieglitz founded an organization he called the Photo Secession, bringing together a group of photographers working in New York City. Stieglitz borrowed the “Secession” concept from progressive artists’ groups in Germany and Austria that had adopted the term some years earlier to proclaim their objections to, and independence from, an artistic and academic establishment. Some notable members of the Photo Secession, in addition to Stieglitz, were Edward Steichen, Gertrude Käsebier, and Clarence White. At the time all of them were bringing a Pictorialist aesthetic to their work.  Pictorialism sought to legitimize photography as a fine art form, putting it on equal footing with other fine art mediums.  Toward this end the Secessionists brought an extraordinary degree of craftsmanship to the making of photographic prints, using exotic emulsions, fine quality papers, and painstaking techniques that produced subtle painterly effects in their prints.  They favored soft focus exposures that further evoked associations with painting, the work of the Impressionists in particular.

The Photo Secession was intended as an exhibition society and members were encouraged to exhibit as a cohesive group. Steiglitz rented a gallery to further this mission. The exhibition space, at 291 Fifth Avenue, came to be referred to simply as “291”, and served as a major locus for Photo Secession activities until 1917. In1903 Stieglitz launched the publication Camera Work, a finely printed journal that served as a vehicle to showcase Secessionist work. The Henry Art Gallery’s collection holds a number of excellent examples of work by Photo Secession members. Two pieces by the innovator Stieglitz are featured in the attached slideshow. Several images in the collection were featured in copies of Camera Work. We encourage visitors to search our collections database for additional pieces using the key words Camera Work.

Erin Weible

Pictorialism and the Photo Secession:

Pictorialism arose in the late nineteenth century from technological and conceptual developments in photography, and in response to a widely-held notion that photography was merely a scientific, mechanical process rather than a fine art. Englishman Henry Peach Robinson spearheaded the movement with his book Pictorial Aesthetics in 1881. He believed that if photography emulated painting it would be considered a legitimate form of aesthetic expression. Pictorialists used the intensive, yet highly variable, gum bichromate process that enabled the photographer to achieve graphic and tonal effects akin to those of printmaking and drawing.

When George Eastman introduced a portable camera in 1888 he set off a world-wide craze for the amateur snapshot. This commercially-oriented invention further complicated the Pictorialist goal of establishing photography as a fine art medium. The Pictorialists reacted to this development by establishing societies to promote the distinction between art and leisure photography. One such group in London, the Linked Ring, held annual salons, like those that featured painting, to showcase their photography.

Americans Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen were active in these European circles. Stieglitz returned to New York City in 1890 and joined the New York Camera Club, a group that embraced the Pictorialist aesthetic. Encouraged by the ideas he learned in London and his interactions with his peers in New York, Stieglitz founded a quarterly publication called Camera Notes that existed from 1897 to 1903. The journal printed recent reviews of photography exhibitions and critiques written by proponents who sought to set aesthetic standards for both artistic and amateur photography as well as reproductions of photographic images. In 1902 Stieglitz opened The Little Galleries of the Photo Secession, which became known as Gallery 291. There Stieglitz exhibited photographs by himself, Steichen, Gertrude Käsebier, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Clarence H. White who shared their aesthetic sensibility.

Gallery 291 not only served as an exhibition space for the Photo Secession (this group eventually took over the mantle of the Pictorialists) but also promoted artistic developments beyond photography. Stieglitz sought to increase photographers’ awareness of modern art by presenting exhibitions of sculpture by Auguste Rodin, Impressionist paintings, and other recent movements. He selected works that emphasized a sophisticated visual vocabulary of light, shade, geometry, and tonality in order to encourage photographers to reach for these formal elements in their pictures. Such traits came to identify Secessionist photography at large.

Kim Coulter

(Alfred Stieglitz: Katherine [Camera Work 12:15, October 1905])

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Alfred Stieglitz (U.S., 1864–1946)

Katherine [Camera Work 12:15, October 1905]. 1905

Photogravure

8 1/4 x 6 5/8 in. image size

Henry Art Gallery, Monsen Study Collection of Photography, gift of Joseph and Elaine Monsen, 91.27

(Alfred Stieglitz: Experiment 27 [Camera Work 27:33, July 1909])

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Alfred Stieglitz (U.S., 1864–1946) and Clarence H. White (U.S., 1871–1925)

Experiment 27 [Camera Work 27:33, July 1909]. 1909

Photogravure

8 1/8 x 6 1/4 in. image size

Henry Art Gallery, Monsen Study Collection of Photography, gift of Joseph and Elaine Monsen, 91.41

(Clarence H. White: Drops of Rain [Camera Work 23:41, 1908])

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Clarence H. White (U.S., 1871–1925)

Drops of Rain [Camera Work 23:41, 1908]. 1908

Photogravure

7 5/8 x 6 1/8 in. image size

Henry Art Gallery, Joseph and Elaine Monsen Photography Collection, gift of Joseph and Elaine Monsen and The Boeing Company, 97.192

Photo Secessionists such as Clarence H. White began manipulating light, shade, and transparency to visually flatten photographs and distinguish the abilities of the camera from other media. In this image the window is translucent and the presumed landscape behind it is limited to shades of gray with no distinctive forms, creating a smooth plane of changing black and white tones. Raindrops appear as two-dimensional dots suspended in the middle ground of the photograph, taking on the smooth texture of the space behind the window. In the foreground, the large glass globe imitates the flat surface of the window behind it. Additionally, the globe is lit so that there are no shadows cast, only a circle of light tracing its circumference, rendering it two dimensional.

(Edward J. Steichen: Steeplechase Day, Paris:  After the Races [Camera Work 42/43:59, April/July 191)

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Edward J. Steichen (U.S., b. Luxembourg, 1879–1973)

Steeplechase Day, Paris: After the Races [Camera Work 42/43:59, April/July 1913]. 1907, printed 1913

Photogravure

6 1/8 x 6 3/4 in. image size

Henry Art Gallery, Joseph and Elaine Monsen Photography Collection, gift of Joseph and Elaine Monsen and The Boeing Company, 97.278

Edward Steichen worked closely with Alfred Stieglitz on the 291 gallery and served as the Photo Secession’s contact in Europe. He spent a great deal of the period before the First World War in Paris painting and making photographs in the Symbolist style. His subjects tended toward landscapes and genre scenes. This photograph is an excellent example of his work during this period; the image is imbued with a personal, dreamlike aesthetic.

(Alvin Langdon Coburn: St. Paul’s, London)

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Alvin Langdon Coburn (England, b. U.S., 1882–1966)

St. Paul's, London. 1910

Photogravure

15 1/4 x 11 1/4 in. image size

Henry Art Gallery, Joseph and Elaine Monsen Photography Collection, gift of Joseph and Elaine Monsen and The Boeing Company, 97.41

(Gertrude Käsebier: Portrait of Miss N [from Camera Work I:II, January 1903])

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Gertrude Käsebier (U.S., 1852–1934)

Portrait of Miss N [from Camera Work I:II, January 1903]. 1903

Photogravure on laid Japanese tissue paper

7 3/4 x 5 3/4 in. image size

Henry Art Gallery, Joseph and Elaine Monsen Photography Collection, 2006.51

This portrait of Miss N is Gertrude Käsebier’s most famous tableau vivant, a “living picture” that draws on the conventions and traditions of painting. The mysterious Miss N is Evelyn Nesbit. Notorious for her self-styled sensuality, Nesbit was a popular model for photographers and painters in New York and Philadelphia. Not content to play a passive role, she participates here in this creation, transforming herself into a work of art.

(Gertrude Käsebier: The Picture Book [from Camera Work 10:7, April 1905])

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Gertrude Käsebier (U.S., 1852–1934)

The Picture Book [from Camera Work 10:7, April 1905]. 1903

Photogravure

6 1/2 x 8 1/2 in. image size

Henry Art Gallery, Joseph and Elaine Monsen Photography Collection, gift of Joseph and Elaine Monsen and The Boeing Company, 97.249

Gertrude Käsebier produced a series of photographs focused on human relationships and loving moments between mother and child. Although at first glance this image reads almost like a snapshot, it was in fact carefully planned and composed.  Käsebier has captured an asymmetrical image clearly styled after the Japanese woodblock prints much in fashion at the turn of the 20th century. In order to achieve asymmetry, the subject has carefully bent her right leg at the knee and leaned her head in the opposite direction, forming a strong diagonal line that connects with the foliage in the top right corner of the image. An additional Japanese print aesthetic, called truncation, appears in the eccentric, extreme cropping of the tree. The combination of diagonal asymmetry and truncation allows the weight of the picture to shift to the right-hand corner.

(Alfred Stieglitz: Snapshot in the New York Central Yards [Camera Work 20, 1907])

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Alfred Stieglitz (U.S., 1864–1946)

Snapshot in the New York Central Yards [Camera Work 20, 1907]. 1902

Photogravure

7 1/2 x 6 1/8 in. image size

Henry Art Gallery, Joseph and Elaine Monsen Photography Collection, gift of Joseph and Elaine Monsen and The Boeing Company, 97.163

Snapshots in the New York Central Yards is a virtuoso exercise in capturing tonal subtleties. As daylight hits the top of a locomotive’s smoke stack, a brilliant billow of white is captured against the grey of the hazy sky. Beneath the steam clouds, different shades of grey dapple the snow piled along stark black train tracks. Stieglitz’s use of soft focus allows subdued tonal contrasts to emerge overall, to great atmospheric effect.