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The Steerage

Alfred Stieglitz, The Steerage (1907)

Regarded as a central figure in the history of early twentieth-century art, Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) championed photography as a fine art in its own right, on par with the pictorial expressions of modern painting and printmaking, and yet unique in its craft and processes.

In 1883, Stieglitz's family relocated from New York to Berlin, Germany, where the young man began his studies of photography. A perfectionist by nature, Stieglitz absorbed all he could to become a master of the technical and pictorial aspects of this craft. He declared that photography "fascinated me, first as a passion, then as an obsession."

In 1890, Stieglitz returned to New York and soon became an influential voice among many of the most prominent American artists, photographers, and art critics. However, where many other master photographers, such as Lewis Hine or Jacob Riis, were concerned with documentary photography, Stieglitz focused primarily on the pictorial qualities of an image through the fundamentals and design principles of art. This "art for art's sake" attitude grew out of the Aesthetic Movement of the late nineteenth century which had witnessed a shift from art with a narrative subject toward the pictorial language of a composition as an end in itself.

In 1902, Stielgitz formed the Photo-Secession Group to promote and support the idea that photographers, like painters and printmakers, could manipulate their images to achieve desired pictorial effects. Photographers were encouraged to push their craft in new aesthetic directions by altering light and focus; using special filters and lens coatings; or by making endless darkroom adjustments, such as cropping, burning, or alternative printing processes.

The Steerage reflects these new aesthetic ideas of Stieglitz. Whereas a documentary photographer might have showcased a poignant image of rejected immigrants heading back to Europe in the steerage compartment of a passenger ship, Stieglitz concentrated on a Cubist-like exploration and redistribution of shapes, tonal values, and textures. Steiglitz notes, "You may call this a crowd of immigrants... To me it is a study in mathematical lines, in balance, in a pattern of light and shade. I saw a picture of shapes." Although one might certainly understand this image as a social commentary, set against the artist's description, this image is a premier example of Steiglitz's commitment to the pictorial qualities of a composition.