The Prismatic Fragment: Looking into Alfred Stieglitz's "The Steerage"
Published in The Steerage and Alfred Stieglitz, co-authored with Anne McCauley, Volume 4 of the series “Defining Moments in American Photography,” edited by Anthony W. Lee, University of California Press, 2012.
The Prismatic Fragment: Looking into The Steerage
Alfred Stieglitz, The Steerage, 1907
Free acts are exceptional. (1)—Henri Bergson
It is June 1907, on the liner Kaiser Wilhelm II, at port near Plymouth, England. A man in early middle age, well dressed and pensive—we will call him Stieglitz—leans against a railing at the forward end of the lower promenade deck, looking west toward the ocean just crossed. A capable, sometime photographer, he is cradling a camera. It is midday, unsparingly bright and duly warm. The voyage has forced a certain idleness upon him: a man of the leisure class, he is not by disposition a man of leisure. He is traveling neither quite for business nor for pleasure, though there will be episodes of both. Rather he is pulled from New York to Europe on the tides of an idiosyncratic career, and—we can surmise—his wife’s bourgeois petulance, which the European trip indulges and against which it offers a measure of escape. He has made a name for himself as an impresario for photography as a new art—an expressive art of high seriousness. As an artist in his own right, a writer, gallerist and publisher, he has made a vocation of his own temperamental antipodes—bombast and reticence, prognostication and advocacy, gallant arrogance and idealistic generosity. To look at him inferentially, as from a distance—and how else are we to know a man at the center of his own myth?—is to see someone at variance with himself: unorthodox and methodical in equal measures, occasionally innovative and consistently protective of the idea of innovation, imperious and impulsively anti-authoritarian. The downtime of the weeklong Atlantic passage has left him disagreeable, if relaxed, and the ship offers little escape from the time with himself.(2)
The orlop deck of the ship’s bow that the photographer looks out on contains the steerage, the hold of the ship allocated for third-class passengers. What the photographer sees from the foredeck on which he stands is in fact only a small part of the steerage, most of which is below deck, extending deep into the ship’s hull. Windowless and claustrophobic, the steerage is quite unlike the ship’s staterooms and promenade decks, and the small section he sees—crowded with passengers enjoying fresh air—only intimates conditions below. Even at a glance, the steerage recalls the crowded, tenement-thick neighborhoods of the photographer’s own New York—the Lower East Side, The Bend, and the Fourth Ward—and their counterparts in other cities along the eastern seaboard and further west, in the interior of North America. Likewise, the people before him are recognizable as erstwhile inhabitants of these cities—destinations in the greatest labor migration in human history.
This photographer, looking into his camera, out at the scene before him, and back into his camera—what does he see? Then and there, what does he know? The particular distance separating himself and the third class passengers is about 50 feet, near enough to hear the crowd as a crowd but out of earshot of any individual. Even if he wants to, he cannot speak with them, and the burden of not speaking is shifted toward seeing—seeing as the echo of stories and voices cascading in the mind. Whence these stories, these voices? First of all, there are the articles appearing in the New York and national media on steerage-related issues—crowding, hygiene, food, medical care, the treatment of women, accidents, and generally grim conditions. These stories are one aspect of investigative journalism on immigration issues—health, hygiene and housing conditions, job safety, and the social and political implications of demographic shifts, which are among the central issues of the day.(3) “I shall never forget the first meal I received on this boat,” writes the investigative reporter Kellogg Durland, traveling incognito in steerage in 1906 in order to describe the experience of a third-class passage:
“When my turn came to receive the dole [of food] I had to brace myself considerably… A hand soiled with all kinds of dirt—ship dirt, kitchen dirt and human dirt—pulled a great “cob” or biscuit out of a burlap sack and shoved it towards me. Then he snatched up a tin dipper and filled it with coarse red wine. As he handed this to me he sneezed—into the hand from which I had just taken my biscuit… I can, and did, more than once, eat my plate of macaroni after I had picked out the worms, the water bugs, and on one occasion a hairpin. But why should these things ever be found in the food served to passengers who are paying $36.00 for their passage?”(4)
Likewise there is the New York Times’s sobering account of the findings of the Senate Immigration Commission’s investigation into conditions in steerage, particularly for women, as reported largely by undercover women agents:
“During these twelve days in the steerage I lived in a disorder and in surroundings that offended every sense. Only the fresh breeze from the sea overcame the sickening odors. The vile language of the men, the screams of the women defending themselves, the crying of children, wretched because of their surroundings, and practically every sound that reached the ears irritated beyond endurance….(5)
And perhaps, the memory also rings in his ears of the immigrant tailors who sought him out in his New York gallery only months before this trip, requesting his assistance in their struggle for better wages and working conditions—
“We understand you are interested in the working-class. In justice.”
“Well,” I said, “what is it I can do for you? What is it you want from me?” They said, “We’d like you to be an arbiter for us.” (6)
Their request both flatters and corners him—can he deny that justice is on their side, or that pursuing justice is a duty for a man who preaches a high-minded dedication to truth in the name of art? But the self-fashioned nobility of his life’s work is at odds with social activism, and he refuses the request by way of an awkward promise—
“You will find many men who will plead your case for higher pay and shorter hours. You do not need me, but if ever you should come to me and say, ‘We refuse to work for anybody who will not let us give our best’,—I’ll be your leader. My life will belong to you.”(7)
If he is less than convincing as a rhapsodist of the common man, failing to recognize that the tailors speak as proletarians, not artisans, his response signals an honest dilemma.
Looking out over the steerage, contemplating distances, apprehending, lingering in the midst of half-grasped intentions—Stieglitz has found his way to an edge. Behind him is the bourgeois world in which his career and social standing are embedded, a world he largely detests, and before him are “the people” not in any nationalistic, ethnic, historical, or creedal sense, but in a free and inadvertent collectivity of once and could-have-been Americans held together by need and unseen forces, and a quality of solitariness made manifold.(8) Inasmuch as the crux of his own Americanness is a spirit of dissidence and refusal, he may well recognize his own solitariness in the combined solitudes of the scene before him.(9) The steerage, as he encounters it, is a pent and spontaneous community, a place of desperation and determination undischarged onto any final shore. In orbits of closer and more distant empathy, his mind and his heart travel: his role is to circle, to round a recognition, to see a landscape, a cityscape, a shipscape whose surfaces are a rapid unsentimental education he identifies and does not fully understand, and more—to notice his own alienation as one position in that landscape, a counterpart to a dense anonymity. His share in the world before him is to know acutely—even if just for an instant, and even if knowing does not quite mean possessing it as an object of knowledge—that freedom for anyone on this ship glides within and not away from a more encompassing uncertainty.
* * *
Here I am in the presence of images… images perceived when my senses are opened to them, unperceived when they are closed. —Henri Bergson (10)
Alfred Stieglitz makes a picture from his place above the steerage of the Kaiser Wilhelm II. The picture has an experiential origin—as all photographs do—in a photographer’s time with a camera, in this case an instrument of elegant design and superb versatility, used to make 4-by-5 inch negatives on glass plates. The Graflex: a leather-covered box, turtle-like when closed and crane-like when open. From behind a fitted frontside panel, the lens creeps forward by the turning of a small knob, lightly knurled for thumb and forefinger, a deliberated conveyance along a finely cut rack and pinion (Figure 1). The lens is the prized Goertz Double-Anastigmat (“Dagor”), 6 inches in focal length, exquisitely sharp and with a maximum aperture of f/6.8, which is to say wide enough make use of the Graflex’s other great advance, its fast shutter speeds—including twelve speeds between 1/100th and 1/1000th of a second.(11) Deep within the mechanical body, shaded by its tall folding hood, is a finely ground glass on which the photographer sees a glowing play of shape, color, focus, and texture in constant motion. It is an engrossing phenomenon—a private spectacle in alluring, dimmed miniature, reversed left to right, its forms shifting endlessly. To photograph with this camera is, more than anything else, to intervene in this display, to make decisions about framing, timing, focus, and focal depth, and other instrumental concerns. If it is right to say that every camera naturalizes the audacious thought that a machine can transmogrify the world into a picture in the first place, the Graflex does so by its tacit suggestion that the world’s surfaces, resplendent on the ground glass, are graced and not betrayed in this act of intervention, which responds to their endless play by ceasing it.
In the picture Stieglitz makes, we look out across a distance to two decks of the steerage. Like a fugue, the image conveys the architecture of the ship by describing an elaborate counterpoint of line, volume, and tone. Across the picture’s width is a heavy beam, dark and slightly bowed as the picture gives it to us, dividing the composition in two. A gleaming gangway adorned with scalloping chains elaborates this division, emerging abruptly from the left, traverses the distance of the frame to the support beam. Other horizontal forms emerge—the bundled tarpaulin just below the beam, the brief lines of the sheeny metal steps at the far right of the picture, the dark boom extending across the sky, and its umbral twin, the mysterious black band across the picture’s bottom border.(12) Against this horizontality are complementary vertical and nearly vetical elements that create a complex of trapezoids and triangles. The large mast is the most dominant of these upright diagonals. Its complement is the narrow, crescent-topped pole holding up the gangway, as well as the stanchions leaning to and fro on the gangway, the handrails of the metal staircase, and the many standing figures on both levels. The result is a formal organization that is all at once ponderous and weightless. The effect is of a massive structure suspended within the frame, attached (as it were) where the center beam touches the left and right edges. This beam becomes a kind of a pivoting axis on which the whole scene is liable to swing forward and backward into space, as if to mimic the lapping movements of the vessel.
Stieglitz’s depiction of the scene is, of course, a handling of photographic variables that are are also worth noting. There is the drawing of the lens—the specific proportionality, compression, and scale it yields—and also the moderately low contrastiness of its uncoated glass. There is the discrete depth of field (the amount of space in the world that appears to be in focus), which begins at approximately the plane marked by the capstan in the picture’s lower left corner and falls off just behind the row of figures standing at the middle railing. This moderately shallow depth of field renders the figures at the top of the frame less distinct individually and more continuous with one another, articulating them as a group or a mass both tonally and socially. The wide aperture that yields this particularly shallow depth of field demands a moderately fast shutter speed, which endows objects and figures with an added crispness, what I would call a certain optical alertness. My guess is that this fast shutter is Stieglitz’s technical priority. He is, after all, dealing with an organic, moving world—the passengers are themselves in motion, as is ship and the sea beneath him. A deep depth of field would be a moot choice if the entire picture were blurred from a slow shutter.(13)
If it is right to say that in the intricate design and formal organization Stieglitz studies how line, shape, volume, and tonality acquire the discrete solidities of the imagined objects themselves, the picture is equally a meditation on space in and around these solids, which is to say the implications of a vantage point that is not physically locatable in the scene depicted. It is as if we are perched or floating before what we see: space drops off precipitously in front of us, the view is both tightly cropped and oddly expansive, and the self-splitting of the composition creates a sense of peripheral vision. Or to put it differently, it is as if space—or whatever we are to call the volume of light bending outward from where we look—were itself a body in the picture, occupying the area between the (implied) vantage point and the ship’s objects and figures, “touching” them and us both.
This amplitude of distance seems in many ways to indicate the picture’s deep subject—namely, what distance as apartness might mean in this place, for this photographer, and for us as viewers. Of the figures we see—I count eighteen below the gangway, of which six are children, and at least thirty above the gangway, including at least one child—none is the protagonist or acts as a foil for the others. Distance itself mediates our encounter with these passengers: the picture has the effect of a reaching toward them, as if casting out a line of sight with no assurance that it quite reaches them, or that it can be relied on to catch or hold insight, much less knowledge.
If anything recuperates our (imagined) connection to these passengers, however tentative, it is that they themselves are in a state of waiting. In this steerage, at this moment (a moment that the photograph prolongs to infinity) they abide where past and future are held indefinitely in abeyance—marooned in a listless present. There is scant activity, no work, and little of what we would call leisure. These are migrants and expatriates, perhaps erstwhile pilgrims, seekers or ex-seekers, goal-setters and chance-takers, all returning to Europe for reasons and purposes that the picture does not reveal. Some may be making a round-trip as migrant workers; others may be among the large number of immigrants who returned to Europe—over one fifth of the arriving Eastern European Jews, over a third of Poles, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes and Greeks, and over half of the Italians, Hungarians and Slovaks.(14) If we read the pictures as a study in power relations, its strong lateral division means that literally—and so metaphorically—we look down at these passengers of a “lower” social stratum and, at the same time, across to them as equals. We are positioned both “above” them and “with” them. The picture’s social understanding is as much horizontal as it is vertical—or rather, it is equally detached from both, with the result that the passengers we see are neither objectified nor subjectified. They are not social specimens meant to elicit paternalistic sympathies, nor members of notional communities to which we ourselves might belong or not belong. The picture presents them without origins and destinations, without nationality, language, occupation, or politics. We see no discernible bonds or lack of bonds between them, and the picture does not bend us toward hope, nostalgia, or grief and confesses no narrative of survival or of failure. One might say that it is a picture of diaspora—a picture of what dispersedness looks like, the condition between coming and going, quest and aftermath.
In short, if photographs are unique among objects of visual culture in being hungry for stories, hungry for connections to other photographs, hungry for analysis, hungry for autonomy from analysis, in this picture social testimony acquires the peculiar force of inconclusiveness. Seen “on its own”—one limited way among others of approaching it—the image offers a non-declamatory testimony of starts and suggestions that is appropriate for a subject that itself equivocates. The picture in effect is the equivalent of a language inadequate to describe how these passengers are at once “in”, “on,” and “of” this ship—neither captives of it nor free to roam it, neither sojourners nor inhabitants of the vessel, or of the undeclared places toward and away from which it moves. The picture’s formal exactitudes as Stieglitz renders it from the incessant play of form and light upon a ground glass, ultimately shows a “floating” world, and likewise inaugurates a floating, indeterminate reckoning.
* * *
Wherever anything lives, there is, open somewhere, a register in which time is being inscribed.
—Henri Bergson (15)
Thirty-five years after making the photograph, and thirty-one years after first publishing it, Stieglitz publishes an extended account of its making, “How The Steerage Happened,” a narrative from outside or “behind” the picture, into which it enters.(16) The text—to paraphrase it—recounts how Stieglitz sails with his family for Europe in first class on the fashionable Kaiser Wilhelm II. He suffers the shallow society of the “nouveau riches” until the sheer sounds of their voices drive him from his steamer chair. He walks as far forward on the deck as possible, and alone—which is to say against his alonness—encounters the steerage. The scene fascinates him, and then holds him spellbound, forming within him a “new vision,” which he describes, first, as a sequence of observations in time and, second, as layering of observations in (inner) space, as if striae within himself. The ordering of elements is similar in the two renditions. “The people” come first or, in the spatial imagination, on the top, then the ship and its paraphernalia, then the abstracted “shapes” these make (a contrapuntal harmony of imitative geometric forms—something perhaps like the mathematical exactitudes of a baroque fugue), and finally an “underlying” feeling “about life,” a powerful sense of a common humanity mingled with a “feeling of release.”
Stieglitz then finds himself racing to and from his cabin for his camera, hoping against hope to find the scene intact and the spell unbroken. To his delight and astonishment, all is as it was, and with but one unexposed plate and a thumping heart, he makes a picture. As the shutter closes, the epiphany begins to deflate, replaced by dancing visions of an artistic accomplishment so significant that it will eclipse all his earlier works, and indeed may open a “new era of photography, of seeing.” Eventually he returns to his wife, still dazed by his time “far away in a distant world,” explaining to her (in vain, we deduce) his sense of social alienation, though this hardly describes his experience. He processes the negative in Paris at the darkroom of a mysterious and kind stranger, and packs it for safe passage back to New York. Trepidation about his accomplishment keeps him from doing anything with the masterpiece negative for some time. When finally he makes a gravure and shows it to his confidant, the man cannot see it for what it is, and so Stieglitz puts the picture away until he is in the company of artists who can “truly see” it. When he judges the world ready for it, he publishes it in his journal Camera Work in 1911, some four and a half years after making it, to great and ongoing acclaim.
It would be presumptuous to judge the honesty or dishonesty of Stieglitz’s claims about his private experience. Who among us is in any position to act as judge over another’s rapture? We can say, though, that the text reads like a fable (and is as fallible as fables are). Structured on a mythic motif—the central figure, a social misfit and truth-seeker, “captures” a transformative insight and brings it back (in the form of a photograph) for the betterment of the world—the text reads as a comparatively shameless piece of self-hagiography. Many of its details are implausible. If the ship were driving into a brisk wind, as Stieglitz claims, why are the clothes on the line in the lower left hand corner of the picture not fluttering even a little? If the ship is traveling east, as Stieglitz claims, the shadows should be falling from right to left (from south to north) and not the opposite way, as they do in the image. Why does Stieglitz go to the darkroom of a stranger when he is on his way to see his close friend Edward Stiechen, who maintains an excellent darkroom?(17)
A look, once again, at the picture’s particularly photographic qualities suggests that, contrary to Stieglitz’s claims, the negative for The Steerage was most likely far from perfect, and its imperfections may partly account for his delays and possible early ambivalence about the image. It is not accidental that when Stieglitz’s narrative has him anxiously ask, “Had I succeeded, had I failed?”, he immediately qualifies the question by asking, “That is, was the exposure correct?” It is well to remember that Stieglitz’s foundational training in photography is rigorously scientific. Beginning in 1884, he studies with the eminent photochemist Hermann Wilhelm Vogel at the Königliche Technische Hochschule in Berlin, and technical control and perfectionism of craft thereafter remain at the core of his abilities and identities as a photographer.(18) The first dozen years of his published writings (1888-1900)—as well as the next decade’s—are devoted substantially to technical matters, with articles written both in English and in German on all manner of subjects from exposure and development to methods of copying negatives, platinum printing and toning (a subject of particular interest and expertise) and experiments in color photography.(19) Later in his career, Stieglitz makes a point of describing even his aesthetic and expressive concerns as matters of “scientific” understanding, saying of himself that “at heart, [I am] a scientist.” (20) This is not just to say that science—knowing experiential control of photography’s material processes—is the very precondition for Stieglitz’s art, but that technical skillfulness is the precondition for any photographer wanting to transcend the mere application of technical procedures. Like science, art for Stieglitz is a matter of specifying rules, testing the limits of one’s own habits discerningly, and then breaking these habits consciously, resulting in self-governed artistic discovery. Or to put the point differently, for Stieglitz art is not simply an ennobled “use” of a basically scientific approach to photography, but is a deeper reason for a scientist’s sensitivity to an instrument and a medium in the first place.
Technically, Stieglitz’s picture appears to fail on his own terms. His decision to opt for a fast shutter speed is a gamble that results in an underexposed negative that he cannot or did not adequately compensate for in development.(21) Indeed, reading as a photographer, I see that his own description of his picture unwittingly draws attention to this “failure.” A pattern emerges among the elements Stieglitz names as formally significantly—the straw hat, the suspenders, the white gangway and its stanchions and chains, the metal stairway at the picture’s far right, the funnel at the left, and the triangular sliver of sky at the top of the frame. Almost all of these elements are tonal highlights, the parts of the negative that received sufficient, or as photographers say, “proper” exposure. It is true that the highlights reach the eye more insistently than the midtones or shadows, which may explain Stieglitz’s attentiveness to them. Still, Stieglitz’s emphasis on the highlights seems oddly one-sided—inasmuch as the image seems more self-evidently an intricate balancing of light and shadow. In other words, it is not the brilliance of the gangway against the cavernousness of the below-deck shadows that he sees, nor the silhouettes with the shape(s) of the sky. Rather he offers an inventory of those parts of the picture that to him are technically adequate, passing over the (inadequately described) middle and darker values.
Likewise suspect is his claim not to have proofed the negative. Would it not be reasonable to expect him at least to make a platinum print of a negative that so excited him, especially if it is technically “perfect?” A thin negative, however, does not print well in platinum—this he knows. He knows further that the gravure process can provide better separation in the dark areas, but is time-consuming and costly, and requires the expertise of an assistant to make the copper plates and pull the prints. It stands to reason that these technical problems result in, or compound Stieglitz’s indifference to the negative, and they also help to explain the delay between his making of the negative in May 1907, its appearance in Camera Work four and a half years later, and its first exhibition two years after that, in 1913.(22)
Still, even if Stieglitz’s bombast and self-mythologizing actually betray a sense of failure (and compel us to “de-auto-mythologize” him)—in other ways his narrative is a plausible and indeed, valuable description of creative tribulation.(23) We as viewers may or may not care about his technical standards for his work, but we must accept that he holds them for himself. If his narrative is an effort to dissimulate a sense of failure, as I suggest above, we can choose to fault him for his guile or empathize with an honest sense of failure, and an honest need to lament. And suppose this argument is not wholly persuasive—suppose the thrall of his own legend simply seems to have overtaken him—in that case we are left with another example of an artist not knowing how to judge creative effort. First he underestimates his work and himself, then he overestimates—the dissemblances of the text are, at the least, a fair record of this sincere struggle.
Moreover, it is entirely reasonable—and no discredit to Stieglitz—that others probably had to intervene in his understanding of the picture before he could really to grasp it—that the picture’s conception came, as it were, after its birth. According to Edward Steichen, in 1911 the painter Max Weber brought The Steerage to Stieglitz’s attention as a Cubistic accomplishment, and only Pablo Picasso’s admiration for the picture—and his praise of Stieglitz as “the only one who has understood photography”—allowed Stieglitz to see the picture in the formalist terms he narrates.(24) If so, there is nothing unusual about that sequence, as working artists know. It would be normal, in other words, for Stieglitz to fail to grasp everything that happened during the making of the picture, and to need some further experience (such as a response from other artists) to recognize what happened during the creative act, and what the resulting picture might mean.
Stieglitz’s text is candid about a form of magical thinking common to photography, evident in what I take to be the pivotal moment of “How The Steerage Happened”—not his actual making of the picture, but his decision to leave the scene and return with the camera, hoping ardently that it would remain unchanged in his absence. Stieglitz’s departure and return to the scene, whether or not it actually happened, dramatizes a common inclination to treat photography as effecting a miraculous condition of abeyance, the world seemingly suspended—life pending life, or life in a strange remission from life. Who among us does not think when making a photograph (even if we do not proclaim out loud)—“hold still!”—as if the world could hold still? Who among us does not secretly wish that the world might be made to halt for an instant when so commanded by a person with a camera? The wish is remarkable for its simplicity and its audacity. Should Stieglitz as an artist have been exempt from such wishful thinking? Why should he have gainsaid-in-advance the insights such a wish might bring to the creative process?
The triumph of abstract formalism in “How The Steerage Happened”— Stieglitz’s vaporous sanctimony about “feeling,” “seeing” and “life,” and the transcendent affect of simple shapes—is undoubtedly a gloss that reflects personal and curatorial commitments Stieglitz developed in the years between making the picture and writing about it.(25) Stieglitz’s interests in European modernism were still largely unformed in the summer of 1907, and his justifying appeal to the ascendant language of pure form is not “original” to the experience on the Kaiser Wilhelm II. Though his aesthetic epiphany is unswervingly Romanticist and remorselessly highfalutin, as Allan Sekula briskly argues, Stieglitz’s holism is not simple or absurd reductionism.(26) The publication of “How The Steerage Happened” creates more than a picture alone but essentially a photo-text piece in which meaning no longer comes “from” the picture but from the exchange between the picture and the narrative. Indeed, inasmuch as the written text formalizes a story that Stieglitz had developed in multiple tellings—what might be called an oral text—The Steerage had essentially become a photo-text piece far earlier. For this reason, perhaps, the published text retains just a spark of orality, a sense of a story told—and probably told better—in spoken form. There is a woodenness about the written text, a sense that the language best suited to this picture’s backstory is live, in the mouth and in the body.
In any case, the publication of the narrative effectively establishes Stieglitz as not just the picture’s maker but its author, the authorizing force behind its interpretation. As such a force Stieglitz introduces rudimentary problems about photographs that he must wrestle with: does the picture become more or less itself (as it were) when we extend it into words, and do the words become more or less scrutable as a result of the authority invested in their author? On the one hand, the narrative consummates the interpretation of the image and, on the other hand, it explodes any presumption of the image’s self-sufficiency, introducing the radically destabilizing possibility that the picture truly becomes meaningful only by of an induced dependence on language—by itself it is empty of meaning. The appeal to a transcendent formalism strikes me as a desperate attempt to regain control of the turbulent process of making meaning that his “authorizing” narrative introduces prima facie.
To put the point differently, by his own logic Stieglitz as narrator can at best be incompletely successful at possessing the image authorially. The problem is that his account gives decidedly mixed messages about its own interpretive authority. On the one hand, he acts heavy-handedly, by turns attempting to place the photograph in a procrustean bed of orthodox formalism and treating the image as an illustration in a memoir. On the other hand, for him the essence of the image’s success its connection to radical newness, not novelty but a more primal discovery whose arrival in his consciousness is deeply linked for him to the possibility of creativity itself. The implication is that the picture is important not merely as a record of his own private experience, or for its mastery, which has the effect of conquering the viewer, but for its capacity to endorse similar breakthroughs wherever they may happen, to prompt further radical creativity in others.
Thus Stieglitz’s account of breaking out of a self-contained, purely inward experience for the sake of a creative act is one of the story’s vital lessons. Artists do become transfixed at certain junctures in the creative process. The core lesson of Stieglitz’s story is that the creative act happens when an artist is moved to snap out of this transfixed state—in Stieglitz’s case, to race for a camera and return, and then to struggle to find a new but related episode of concentration that is equally engrossing but less inert. In this sense Stieglitz’s account shelters a different imperative: that the artist at least try to break free of the inclination to cocoon—and its corollary, the undue privileging of the self—and rejoin the world. In short, the defining tension of Stieglitz’s narrative is the friction between his need to demonstrate an overweening self-importance, and an equal need to violate it in action—to rupture the inner life with the turbulence of the outer world, and vice versa, which is precisely the photographic act.
“How The Steerage Happened,” in which Stieglitz appears to present a blooming self-awareness of creative genius, is in effect a description of an aporia—a sustained, irresolvable predicament—that is the very purpose of his creative method, as well as a fissure in it. That he purports to tell us “how ‘The Steerage’ happened” is to say not that he wants to lay down the meaning of the picture, but that he wants the reader to enter a state of extrapolative discernment that brings the picture to life, and pries open, even a little, the disruptive psychic-emotional-aesthetic experience that Stieglitz encountered within himself and not merely within himself. As full of dissimulations as his narrative is, Stieglitz’s text also describes an experience of radical availability to the world, a heightened relational condition that I would call dependent freedom—not freedom from the world but freedom toward it—and an effort to grapple with what creative work in that condition might mean.
* * *
A perfect definition applies only to a completed reality. —Henri Bergson
“I said one day,” Stieglitz writes in conclusion to his 1942 account of “The Steerage,” ‘If all my photographs were lost and I’d be represented by just one, The Steerage, I’d be satisfied.” For an artist who made photographs for some five decades and made most of his mature work after The Steerage—specifically his (very differently accomplished) pictures of the Manhattan skyline, his portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe, and his series of cloud formations that he termed “Equivalents”—this is a strong claim. It is stronger still given Stieglitz’s legacy in championing the cause of photography as a fine art, the equal of painting or any other expressive form—for which he effectively deems The Steerage his own best contribution. What, then, is the picture’s contribution to the particular category of photographic production called “art photography?”
Stieglitz’s most recalcitrant challenge in hoisting photography to the status of high art is the medium’s complicated ontology—what a photograph is to be as an artistic creation. Painting’s ontology—which I would argue holds regardless of medium, history, style, iconography and social use—only partially describes the issue for photography. In a painting we encounter an image that owes itself necessarily to the creative gesture of an artist who begins with a “blank” or “empty” surface and then alters it, marks and perhaps “fills” it. A painting by definition is a mark against marklessness, a something that adduces a ruptured originary nothingness—the latter always retained as a silent counterpoint even in the completed work. In this sense a painting is burdened constitutively by intentionality, or in the words of the painter/photographer Ben Shahn, “the very act of making a painting is an intending one.”(28)
Thus even when a painting reads as an account of erasures, removals, and blottings-out or as an accident evacuated of purpose beyond a handling of paint itself, its marks are still built up of these gestures, against the blankness that would otherwise be the case. In this sense a painting is an image consistently in the mode of creative presence. Stieglitz’s long crusade on behalf of photography belabors this approach. Through repetition, bluster, reasoned argument (occasionally), and exquisite production values, he insists that we can approach a photographic image in much the same way—as an exercise in unique and rare mark making using light-sensitive materials rather than paint. He insists that we flatter the photographic image for its optical, textural, surface, and tonal qualities and that we prize, petition, and valorize (some would say fetishize) the creative intelligence responsible for it. He strives to position the photographer as an image-wright whose choices derive every bit as much from skill and insight as the choices of a painter. For Stieglitz, photographs that display such qualities make the highest claims for photography as art—and for photographers as artists—as irresistible as they are unavoidable.
But Stieglitz recognizes that there is another side to the story of photography, a recognition that shows up more in his practice as a photographer than in his writings—and nowhere moreso than in “The Steerage.” Imagine, as an experiment, The Steerage beside a painting that is its identical copy, visually indistinguishable from the gravure original. Would we not be inclined first to see the photograph as a picture “from” a time and a place in the world (1907, on a boat), and the painting as a picture “from” the imagination of the artist? If the answer is yes (the common sense or reflexive answer), the complications of Stieglitz’s task come into view. His problem is to corral into the domain of high art the ways that meaning arrives in the photograph from two directions at once—from the world independent of creative agency, and from a creative response to that independence. To photograph is not simply to produce a something from a nothing (an image on a once-imageless surface—paper, glass, celluloid, mirror), but a something from a something else—an image that depends on another image, thrown by a lens onto the ground glass of a camera. In this sense, a photograph is not simply something that a photographer makes, but equally something that a photographer makes happen, a handling—or more precisely an intervention upon, a breaking into (which is a breaking-up-of, a breaking-apart-from) the ongoing image-event that photography itself is responsible for, in which a lens issues and keeps issuing an invitation to a picture. Photography’s core illusion—to picture the world as if apart from the contrivances of picturing—in effect proposes the irruptive paradox that the world changes into nothing other than itself when it enters into the predicaments of photography.(29)
At the heart of this proposition—to digress historically for a moment—is the idea that photography is itself a creative agency as much as (or more than) it is a medium for it the agency of its users—an idea that emerged more or less fully formed at photography’s inception, and whose upshot is that the medium destroys any simple possession that the artist can claim over the image. It is particularly the legacy of William Henry Fox Talbot, who in 1839 announced the invention of the negative-positive process that came to dominate the analogue photographic industry for most of its history. Using the metaphor of the photograph drawn by “the pencil of nature” (the title of his 1844 book), Talbot envisions the photograph as a self-made image, an emanation more than a representation, and the photographer as less a producer of images than a midwife in the remarkable phenomenon of the world birthing its own image.(30) In other words, one might say that light, for Talbot, bears appearances within itself and that photography, in its particular combinations of optics, chemistry and mechanics, is the means by which we come to see the world’s mutating surfaces as a presence dwelling within light.(31) It is a short step from this approach to the by-now naturalized presumption that a photograph confirms the actuality of a subject in shared time and space, at the very least its real existence in discrete time and place before a camera, and so, by extension, before us. In Susan Sontag’s influential articulation more than a century later, “[The photograph is] a trace, something directly stencilled off the real; like a footprint or a death mask...a material vestige of its subject.”(32)
In at least two respects, The Steerage suggests that Stieglitz grasps a significantly more nuanced ontologic realism than that which imputes a naïve or axiomatic identity between a photograph and its referent in the world. First, he understands that realism arises because of, and not in spite of the myriad technical, aesthetic, and heuristic decisions involved in photographic production. Against the fantasy that any photograph represents the appearance of things as-they-are, Stieglitz recognizes that appearances—and what we understand through appearances to be actuality—are profoundly plastic in photography. The Steerage’s purchase on the actuality of the steerage of the Kaiser Wilhelm II on a spring morning in 1907 proceeds by way of certain choices that Stieglitz makes, and not others.(33) In effect Stieglitz treats photography as an agency without an agenda, constantly beholden to the photographer’s discrimination or lack of it, deliberation or forfeiture of it.
Second, Stieglitz recognizes, at least implicitly, that photographs perform as representations by way of complex imaginative acts through which we reconstruct what the world looks like, relative to more or less familiar pictorial conventions. In photographs, after all, being is necessarily a matter of semblance—a form of seeming—and so of resemblance, which is to say seeming-already-to-have-been. To see the picture as “of” a steerage is to catalyze the imagination in multiple ways simultaneously (spatially, temporally, symbolically, affectively, and perhaps morally) under the aegis not of invention, but of recognition. It is to inaugurate a chain of hardly noticed conversions in which semblances become resemblances, and resemblances become given things rather than—or in addition to—made things.
To put the point differently, a hidden labor of wishing is at work when we plausibly contrive an uninvented picture of the world from the “traces” put into light-sensitive emulsions. —By themselves, how much do traces tell? Is it really possible to reconfigure a foot from a footprint? Is not something else at play if we “see” the world in a photograph, or a foot from its print, or a glass from a water ring on a table? Photographs are traces of these kinds: traces that communicate partially and selectively the appearance of the subject that left them and operate precisely through a solicitous extrapolating imagination.(34) The more useful aspect of the word “trace” is thus not the imprint, but the sense of tracking-down, following, ferreting-out—precisely what The Steerage so adroitly initiates.
Altogether, a reasonable synthesis of Stieglitz’s conception of photography as art (as modeled by The Steerage) would seem to be as follows: photography demands that an artist acquire not only the inner vision of (for example) a painter, but also acquire control over the medium’s attending ontologic complications, namely the ways that photography as a creative agency seems to broker the outer world transparently, without calling attention to itself. In this sense, the photographer’s artistry is the better and not just the equal of the painter, inasmuch as the photographer is positioned to be the master of two worlds and not just one. Stieglitz’s narrative of The Steerage confirms certain aspects of such a synthesis, specifically the self-vaunting “perfection” of his picture.
To my eye, however, The Steerage proposes photography as art that is more disruptive, and has higher stakes. Much like the hold of the steerage we see in the image (whose distinct social spaces are visible but not accessible to one another), The Steerage offers art photography as an agora—an open space of assembly with no master, no owner, no controlling hand, a space pent up and penned in, through which visuality itself (making-visible, having-made-visible—visibility as a state of becoming) is the only real freedom. What really counts in the photograph as art is not what the picture “captures” (to use the dominant proprietary metaphor for the photographic act in our own time) but what it releases, what expectations it loosens. As The Steerage exemplifies it, the photograph as art operates by way of a triangular relay of meaning—photographer to photographed to viewer—with the image itself confirming none of the narratives it petitions about the meanings of this relay, including that of the artist and of the critic. Rather the image submits them, as it were, to perpetual arbitration, unfixing each from a single and singular relation to itself. The image’s artfulness is not a crafting of form that transcends these narratives, but a skillful magnifying of their irresolutions, particularly as these navigate the photograph’s hybridity—part window onto the world and part mirror of the photographer’s interiority. The photograph “becomes” art, Stieglitz’s picture suggests, when its interpretive irresolutions become intrinsically fascinating, and self-perpetuating. Almost invariably this process of becoming-art entails the picture’s restatement in other forms—analyses, decodings, glosses, lore and speculation, not to mention further photographs—to handle the peculiar combinations of contingency and permanence in its illusions.(35)
Perhaps the best contemporaneous articulation of this approach is the philosophy of the influential early twentieth-century French philosopher and public intellectual Henri Bergson, from whose book Creative Evolution (1907) Stieglitz published a carefully chosen excerpt in Camerawork No. 36, the same issue in which he published The Steerage for the first time. Bergson’s statement, an “extract” (as Stieglitz aptly titles it) from a complex, sprawling investigation of time, memory, freedom and evolution, could well serve as Stieglitz’s own artist’s statement. In a nutshell, Bergson’s intellectual project, which begins in his first book, Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience (1889, translated as Time and Free Will), and develops in phases through the subsequent four decades, is to explore human freedom as a reality of the experience of time, wherein he locates the possibility of radical newness, and ultimately ethical responsibility. Arguing against the Kantian notion that free will is removed from (de-objectified) space and time, Bergson proposes freedom as the experience of time itself (la durée, or what might be called in English, “lastingness”), a process of psychic evolution by means of continuous and interpenetrated awareness perfused with cumulative (and so for Bergson differentiative) memory, whose wholeness is neither a unity nor a multiplicity of being, but an extended qualitative relationality. In particular, Bergson emphasizes what he calls intuition, a confluence of (analytic) intelligence and (pragmatic) instinct as each gathers force from the other reciprocally and move toward an ever-enlarging heed of “the sympathetic communication…between us and the rest of the living.”
Though Stieglitz is by no means a theorist—and this can hardly be overstated—his writings about photography as art reflect just such a Bergsonian intuition, namely an entering into things not for the sake of determined outcomes, but for the sake of experiential nuance and discovery. Thus Stieglitz, following his elder contemporary Peter Henry Emerson’s emphasis on “selection” in the photographic act, inveighs against derivative, imitative ways of making pictures.(36) “Avoid books on composition as you would the plague,” he enjoins in 1905, “lest they destroy in your mind all other considerations than the formulae which they lay down.”(37) Instead his “only” advice is “to study the best pictures in all media—from painting to photography—and to study them again and again, analyze them, steep yourself in them until they unconsciously become part of your esthetic being.”(38) Likewise he asserts the primacy of a sense of tonal value in photographic prints, which he conceives as an infinitely supple materiality, much like the light and air always around us. “Atmosphere,” he writes, “is the medium through which we see all things… [I]t graduates the transition of light to shade; it is essential to the reproduction of the sense of distance… Now what atmosphere is to Nature, tone is to a picture.”(39) (And it would only be apt in a book such as this to add by way of corollary: what tone is to a picture, language is to the phenomenon of photographic meaning.)
In the terms of Bergsonian intuition, The Steerage originates by accident, in an unanticipated encounter, for unpredictable ends. Stieglitz sets out to wander aboard a vessel and reaches a boundary point where social and personal contradictions announce themselves sharply and unavoidably. He receives time sympathetically in that liminal place. He negotiates it through a camera—through the instrument’s lure and also its guile. The forms that appear in the ground glass parry inner and outer worlds back and forth, spinning into play awareness of the difference between self and other, memory and anticipation—eventually approaching what Stieglitz variously (and roughly) calls “feeling,” “life,” and “living beauty.”(40) At some point, this camera-induced aliveness issues an imperative: not to be averred but to be altered, to be morphed (possibly ruinously) into quite another state—a photograph.
This imperative is not categorical, not what anyone would do in the same circumstances, but the opposite: it is particular to Stieglitz then and there, elective, noncompulsory and so all the more necessary.(41) Just so, The Sterrage lays out a set of terms for photography’s success as art, derived from the irruptiveness of the moment’s demand on the photographer. Somewhat schematically, I would name these terms as follows. First, the art photograph (that is, the photograph as art) retains the sense that it cannot have been entirely prefigured—that it has arisen from and proceeds back toward an open encounter with an incomplete world. Second, it retains the sense that its meanings unfold within and not apart from the very changingness of the world it represents. Third, its inner logic suggests that any understanding of it will arise not as (post-facto) knowledge of the image, but as a discovery within it, a dwelling-alongside the work itself. Fourth, and perhaps most important in the case of The Steerage, the differences between reality and representation that the picture announces lure us into the social distances it contemplates and modulates visually. That is, The Steerage’s success as art pivots on its activating and not merely confirming the distancing effects of representation—so that as viewers we are not merely beholders of a performance but participants in an unrepeatable experiment that the photographer begins and hands off to the future, to us.(42)
In short, art photography as Stieglitz proposes it is a distinctly relational practice that yields—through a transitivity unique to photography—a relational conception of freedom. The photographic process is not fundamentally about gaining possession of the outer, visible world we have in common, or the invisible, inner worlds particular to each of us, but the contrary: it is about conveying (transferring, shifting) the world and the self into a specific, acute awareness of one another, as they are joined evolvingly in time and place. In this sense, the art photograph is a by-product as much as a product of the creative process. It comes not as one-directional self-expression, but as explorative absorption in the world and its attending discoveries. In this sense, the most important thing about Stieglitz’s narrative is not its details, but its effort to communicate a state of wonder, which is the locus and the generative source of freedom as Stieglitz understands it. Art photographs are not instances of the world well-captured, but well released: they channel the heightened searchingness of free, creative practice into states of stalled aliveness that demand our own engaged participation, most commonly as acts of reading, narrating what we see, telling stories. Or to put it differently, our own reception of such an image is not meaningful simply to the extent that it reconfirms the photographer’s experience, or validates a set of prescriptive intentions we can admiringly or honorifically ascribe to the photographer’s “vision.” Rather our reception is meaningful to the extent that we understand that the photograph was made precisely for us: by making an image, the photographer ruptures what would otherwise be a private affair. The photograph as art—in a lasting formulation I would credit to Stieglitz not because he theorized it but because he did it—is a dare-infused wish. Stieglitz took up his camera with the hope that all the worlds co-mingling in the creative process might yield a prismatic fragment through which all manner of insights can pass—literary, historical, scientific, ethical—to be split or synthesized, depending on which direction we are looking.
* * *
A melody has no dimension in time, because…it stands in a definite relation to all other notes down to the last. Hence the last note, which may not be played for some time, is yet already present in the first note as a melody-creating element. (43) — Béla Balázs
The Steerage comes to Stieglitz at the midway point of his 50-odd year career as a photographer. It follows from several pictures in the preceding fifteen years that anticipate its concerns, and is followed by several subsequent pictures that reflect on them.(44) The anticipatory pictures (on which I wish to focus here) are premonitions of The Steerage more than preparations for it, which is to say that the fraction of a second it took to make The Steerage was the last instant of a years-long process of making. Two issues recur through what can be called the gestation period of “The Steerage.” First, Stieglitz is drawn repeatedly to littoral boundaries—sea meeting land, meeting city, meeting sea-faring vessel—in whose meetings occur larger irreconciliations: settledness and unsettledness, habitation and migratoriness, citizenship and statelessness, national belonging and cosmopolitanism. Second, Stieglitz is preoccupied with the nature of the public as against his own individuality—the ways that photographs invite speculation about the identities, purposes and power of groups via precisely circumstantial description.
Alfred Stieglitz, West Street, 1893
In his 1893 photograph “West Street” (Figure 2), Stieglitz pictures the docks of Lower Manhattan, where great sailing ships join the city for periods of time. Stieglitz positions himself in the midst of an intersection looking down the dockside road, so that the sharply foreshortened city architecture at the left and the receding line of ships at the right are given roughly equal visual balance. Stieglitz positions the camera so that the nearest ship’s massive bowsprit (the spar extending from its prow) appears to reach nearly the width of the street itself, meeting a two-story gas streetlamp to form an urban/maritime arbor. The commerce of the city/ocean occurs as a visually dense band across the picture’s middle, in which street cleaners, horse-drawn carts, stacks of cargo, pedestrians, and signage are all described in a filigree of small shapes and lines. More important to Stieglitz is the street itself—which occupies roughly half of the photograph—covered with a half-melted wintry slush, so that the pavement reads as a body of water. Positioning us in the very midst of this soft/hard earth/sea, we are left to contemplate what it is to dwell at the juncture of the continental and oceanic expanses extending from the left and the right borders of the picture. A related set of concerns is evident in Stieglitz’s 1894 picture, “The Landing,” made in the Dutch seaside town of Katwijk, (Figure 3).
Alfred Stieglitz, The Landing, 1894
Here Stieglitz balances earth and sea, voyagers and townspeople as if on two sides of a scale, each holding the precise social and geographic weight of the other. The format of the picture—panoramic, a comparatively rare cropping for Stieglitz—suggests the scale of the reference, but it is the suppression of detail that lures us in: the picture’s tonal flatness as it melds the turbulent skies and the calm sands, and its use of profile and contour (forms of specificity-from-a-distance) to describe the ships and the aggregate humanity on the beach.
Alfred Stieglitz, Five Points, New York, 1893
In his 1893 picture Five Points, New York (Figure 4), Stieglitz puts himself, and so puts us, too, in the middle of a muddy street at a carefully chosen distance from the curbside. The streets intersect at an angle somewhat less than 90 degrees—without the corner building looking obviously triangular—so that the picture describes a dynamic spatial geometry, a buoyant perpendicularity in which we are almost looking in two directions at once. This dynamism is heightened by the raking descent of the (imaginary) horizon lines of the buildings delineating the street at the right half of the picture—horizon lines deflected near their (hidden) convergence point by a row of buildings in the distance, itself built at a different non-orthogonal angle. Moving through and across the picture’s geometry is a curiously ophidian social organism, a snaking humanity proceeding in contractions along the sidewalk and across the intersection. Or—the effect is the same—they move like a swishing current coursing its way along the path of least resistance. It eddies at the very corner of the block as some men look over one another’s shoulders toward some not-visible, unpicturable activity (a sidewalk vendor? an accident?), while others push their way past and a girl prances. Or—just as likely—they are a human garland strung between mire and masonry, not quite ornamenting a social landscape droll with semiotic counterpoint—painted stars shining in broad daylight, deep shadows and deep discounts, rigid trolley lines and slack laundry lines. As in “The Steerage,” the common people appear as a body-in-waiting, an anonymous humanity that belongs just as much to untold other corners and to myriad unseen instants, both subsequent and antecedent. In this sense, the picture is not just a description of a time and place bound in actuality, but a positing of a life-world that extends in all directions and grows with our attention to it.
Alfred Stieglitz, On the Ferry Boat, 1904
Alfred Stieglitz, Nearing Land, 1904
Stieglitz makes two photographs in 1904 that take up similar concerns—a significantly impenetrable but not remote social body—both pictures made while aboard vessels in New York harbor. In some contrast to the earlier pictures, in which an undisturbed solitariness seems the predicate of what opens out before us, in On the Ferry Boat (Figure 5), and Nearing Land (Figure 6), we are among the people we see, though not quite as a member of the crowd. In the former picture, we stand behind the figures, and in the latter, we hover across from their own hovering as they spill off the right and bottom edges of the frame, visually unsupported by the boat itself. In effect, The Steerage combines the vantage points of these two pictures, On the Ferry Boat’s horizontality and demotic connotations, and Nearing Land’s elevation and attendant shadings of elitist privilege. As with the earlier pictures, in both of the 1904 pictures Stieglitz approaches the social body as something dislocated from any mediating collective consciousness of power, or will to it—as docile, penned-in, perhaps impotent, and only coarsely defined by words such as “crowd” or “throng”. As with The Steerage, he is interested in the commonplace as a precisely equivocal, largely unfathomable whole, and he treats photographs as harbingers of the honest difficulty of understanding social otherness encountered in quasi-shared public space. Unlike the earlier photographs, in which inscrutability is not a spectacle held at a distance, by 1904 it is an animatedness of form—a beckoning darkness in On the Ferry Boat, and a shimmering blur of figures in Nearing Land—that approaches and even touches us. In 1910 Stieglitz again photographs the ferries of New York harbor (Figures 7 and 8), with the public now shown retreating. The melancholy of these pictures complements the picturesque optimism of his views of lower Manhattan (Figure 9) and also his later cityscapes (Figure 10) in which stark volumes and dizzying heights eclipse whatever might be sympathetically called human scale.
It is worth mentioning that Stieglitz is only one photographer among many others at the turn of the century concerned with what might be called exploratory realism—pictures that describe a shared social world in which the viewer and the subject viewed are mutually implicated. In contrast to the well-known work of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, who made exploratory social photography (later called documentary) for politically instrumentalist purposes—campaigns for social reform—Stieglitz’s approach is more like that of Alice Austen and Charles Zoller (in New York), Arnold Genthe and Alice Iola Hare (in San Francisco) and others looking at how immigrants form metonyms for the uncertain entity called “the public” as it is taking shape in the American psyche (Figures 11-12). Like Stieglitz, these photographers variously see immigrant subjects as curiosities (threatening or not), alterities (approachable or not), forces of latent populism (orderly or disorderly), or simply lacunae in America.(45) What distinguishes Stieglitz’s pictures from those of his contemporaries is a persistent reticence, differently modulated in each picture, but consistently present.
Alice Austen, Hester Street Egg Stand, New York, 1895
Charles Zoller, New York, ca. 1900
Stieglitz is also not the only turn-of-the-century photographer working in the idiom of unscripted witness in steerages. Contemporaneous photographs by Edwin Levick (Figure 13), William Rau (Figure 14) and an anonymous photographer (Figure 15) show in differing ways just how insistently Stiegliz takes a non-participatory approach. Levick’s photograph shows a remarkable density of immigrants on the open deck of an ocean liner—with virtually everyone standing at attention, looking toward, if not directly up at, the camera in a vast group portrait. The multitude here overtly collaborates in the picture, which is made with their knowledge and presumably their consent—and so in some sense is made for them as much for the private purposes of the photographer. Rau’s photograph likewise pivots on a returned gaze, though here the passengers seem less collaborative than curious (or aware but uninterested) in the photographic act. Where Stieglitz’s vantage point in The Steerage betrays a distantly inclusive, noncommittal, or paternalistic attitude toward his subjects (depending on one’s perspective), Rau’s picture allows the steerage passengers to begin to emerge as individuals and co-travelers. The anonymous photographer’s picture does what none of the others attempt: it enters the space of the steerage itself and assumes the vantage of its subjects, portraying them in repose rather than leisure. What distinguishes The Steerage from these and other contemporary pictures is not just the (irritatingly) high preciousness with which Stieglitz treats his subject, but the pendant descriptive mode that he finds his way into, which is less overdetermined than a genre scene, less risky than a snapshot, more spontaneous than a study, more sustained than a glimpse.
Edmund Levick, Immigrants on an Atlantic Liner, 1906
William Rau, Emigrants coming to "Land," c. 1905
Photographer unknown, Steerage on Ocean Liner, early twentieth century
Set midway into Stieglitz’s own evolution as a photographer, The Steerage likewise sits at the midpoint of photography’s now 170 year history (1839-2009)—a useful coincidence inasmuch as diverse artistic and photographic lineages pass through it, so that the picture extends and embroils itself in time future and time past, and in relevance of distinct sorts. Stieglitz’s career on behalf of photography as art—as The Steerage ties it all together—is an attempt to lure the anxieties of self-consciousness into collaboration with the medium’s erstwhile social descriptiveness. Stieglitz does not disavow that descriptiveness, but invests it with the ethos of solemn contemplation, thereby lending it opacity as well as ingenuity. In effect, he redirects the social tasks of applied image making—expository, narrative, technical—toward the prestige of the auratic art object, as mediated by the bourgeois institutions of the emerging art world (the gallery, the club, the curatoriat) rather than the chamber of commerce or the state. Such a vision remains the foundation of art photography into our own time.
Paul Strand, Blind Woman, 1916
If Stiegltiz’s own work in subsequent years does not fully dilate the particular challenges of The Steerage—its simultaneous self-centeredness and orientation toward others—the work of other photographers does, and with Stieglitz’s blessings. In 1917, Stieglitz devotes the final issue of Camera Work to the work of the young Paul Strand, whom he essentially names as his heir apparent.(46) Photographing mostly in public places in New York City, Strand produces a portfolio of unflinching, even confrontational, and perspicacious works. An elegant brutality ricochets in these pictures—nowhere more than in his photograph of 1916, Blind Woman (Figure 17). The photograph forces an encounter with a beggar, a woman announcing a ruthless disadvantage with a bold word that she carries as a brand on her person. Above it floats a metal tag, her official license to loiter for alms. The photograph works contrapuntally, with her inability to return our gaze matched by our own inability to turn away—she is stare-hardened and stare-softened at once. Likewise the merciless attention that the photograph pays to her vulnerability is an appeal for mercy: her survival depends on generosity (both blind and clear-sighted), so that her very presence stands for our mercy or lack of it.(47) At the same time, as much as the picture leads us to reflect on her condition, it also proclaims how little we understand her: she is a cipher, without a known story and at the same time capable of resisting whatever story we might impose on her. In this sense the picture preserves for her an autonomy—it does not look down on her (not just because the vantage point is low), and also does not heroize her. More needful than needy, she is not a symbol of a cause, but the sight of her is a challenge to reflect on our own social and political commitments. In connection to The Steerage, we might imagine her as an immigrant some years after her arrival in New York, but more to the point, Strand’s photograph furthers what Stieglitz’s picture begins—the photograph as a source of uncertain knowledge that declares what it does not resolve.
Leon Levinstein, Coney Island, 1966
Strand’s example, in turn, plays itself out in the work of numerous American photographers in subsequent decades who embrace the poetic indeterminacy of direct observation. At mid-century and after, Robert Frank, Louis Faurer, Dave Heath, Lisette Model, Leon Levinstein and William Gedney (among others) are—like Stieglitz—outsiders conscious of their outsiderness, interested in depicting the stranger as a stranger, and doing so with a certain non-confessional intimacy (Figure 18). This lineage continues into the late decades of the twentieth century and into the new century in the work of photographers for whom discrete inconclusiveness is a form of social observation—the defeated humanism of Andrea Modica’s Treadwell, the stiff revelations of Tina Barney’s aristocrats, the non-plussed alienation of Joel Sternfeld’s Stranger Passing, the buffered sadness of Larry Sultan’s Los Angeles sex workers. In various ways, each of these photographers draws out the implications of The Steerage’s opaque entreaties. Other contemporary photographers pursue related themes that look look to the equivocations of the art photograph to interrogate loss, historical disjunctions and the complications of collective memory. I am thinking, for example, of Richard Misrach’s Violent Legacies, An-My Lê’s Small Wars, Mark Klett’s After the Ruins, and Robert Polidori’s After the Flood.48 Individually, each of these books contemplates fragments of a traumatic history—specifically American militarism and its legacy (Misrach, Lê), and the destruction and/or reconstruction of major cities (Polidori, Klett). These works broaden the irresolutions of The Steerage by linking the testimonial indeterminacies to social histories that are themselves constitutively unsettled.(49)
William Gedney, New York, 1979
Andreas Feininger, Lunch Rush on 5th Avenue, New York, 1950
The dialectics of The Steerage are likewise at play in the work and influence of Walker Evans, whose defining gesture is forthright anti-explanation, a type of delphic social commentary that resists (its own) social consequence, whose formal economy is so great that it appears to mitigate or even cancel its documentary value. Evans’ example leads on the one hand to mid-century American photographers whose pictures offer elegant accretions of the world’s detail, suffused with an accompanying heaviness of spirit that does not call attention to itself as such—as in the work of Max Yavno, Andreas Feininger (Figure 19), Wright Morris, and George Tice. On the other hand, it leads to the mannered visual survey, typified in the 1970s New Topographics work of John Pfahl, Steven Shore and Robert Adams, whose pictures might be summed up as scrupulous pseudo-analysis, formalist self-expression clothed as social investigation. Their work in turn informs the modish postmodern orthodoxy of contemporary photographers such as Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson, and Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, for whom the photographic real is indistinguishable from the imitation of the real, and photography’s actuality is a bottomless artifice, a miming of mimicry itself. These photographers’ elaborately directed tableaux offer us prosthetic worlds—not observations but shills of observations that contrive and then deplete “the actual” as a coherent idea in photography. At the same time, their practice is bent toward lavish commodification, much like Stieglitz’s, girded by the assertion that photography is as artful as painting—“a legitimate child of the Western pictorial tradition,” in the words of Peter Galassi—and more, is indistinguishable from it.(50)
Allen Sekula, Fish Story, 1995
Perhaps the most direct response to The Steerage in contemporary photography is Allan Sekula’s 1995 work Fish Story (Figure 20), a sprawling photo-text inquiry into the “imaginary and material geographies of the advanced capitalist world” as encountered in maritime spaces.(51) Exploring the multiple associations between port cities, coastlines, trade and migration routes, varieties of labor and flows of capital, Sekula firmly directs the legacy of The Steerage back toward critical testimony, and at the same time explodes the terse authority and cult status of Stieglitz’s picture. Twining together pictures and stories of docks and dockworkers, as well as literary, philosophic, economic, historical, and art historical references—including a trenchant analysis of The Steerage itself—Sekula’s work illuminates just how little The Steerage participates in the traditions of maritime painting, and also falls between the cracks of the very modernism it stands for. The Steerage is, for Sekula, simultaneously a romantic vision of a world unto itself (although without rehearsing the familiar tropes of the sea as freedom and the ship as entrapment), an oblique confession of how “the sea is money,” and a quelling of the subversive qualities of the ship’s (indwelling) heterotopia. The Steerage emerges from Sekula’s hands as a fragile cultural artifact—alternately prepossessing of its meanings when given work to do and diffident when released from its tasks, deeply in need of the very breadth that Sekula himself brings to bear, and forever self-clinging in its attitude.
* * *
Doubtless we think with only a small part of our past. (52) —Henri Bergson
The point in looking critically into The Steerage, or any single photograph, is not to inspect it in the all-or-nothing spirit of Diogenes, as if it might be a candidate for the world’s one honest picture, free of gambit, guile and ruse—in short, free of art—and eventually to find it more or less adept at artifice, and so morally fallen. Particularly in the terms of Stieglitz’s artistic practice, a photograph is in itself neither true nor false, neither honest nor dishonest, neither successful nor failed. Rather it gains and loses truth and falsity, honesty and dishonesty, success and failure over time, in relation to the stories we ask it to bear.(53) Perhaps it is not too much to say (I venture, painfully aware that the destiny of all criticism is failed metaphor) that as art, a photograph comes to life with these gains and losses. Comes to life: to look critically into a photograph is not to conduct an autopsy, not to handle a carcass, dissect it and leave it in well cut bits on the inspection table. Rather it is to handle a cultural organism that hosts information, analysis and conjecture all at once—as these nourish and sometimes fail to nourish one another. The point of looking critically into The Steerage is to participate in its liveliness (its livingness, its aliveness), just a little.
In this sense, a core challenge of critical looking is what to do with the appeal that photographs continuously make to re-statements in other forms—stories, testimonies, glosses, decodings, arguments, lore, research, liturgies of praise and of condemnation, not to mention further photographs—to handle the combinations of contingency and permanence, intended and unintended consequences that constitute photography’s illusions. Stieglitz’s own narrative is a consummate example. The Steerage all but beckons Stieglitz to elaborate in words and faith what the photograph only begins, namely a wholeness, a fullness of picturing. But his propensity (and perhaps ours) to push the image toward what we imagine to be its greater coherence—a coherence in language beyond “mere” looking—mistakes what the logic of the photograph as fragment sets out for us. In photographs, we see a severance of time, place, encounter, will, and accident, whose upshot is to prolong each of these in incomplete and uncertifiable forms. With photographs it is not that the fragment is to be a subset of a missing whole, but that the whole is to be a subset of the replete fragment. The never-completed picture is the totality, and the (imagined) narratives it begets (that aspire perhaps to complete it) are its constituent parts.
Inasmuch as a photograph’s testimony is its accumulated lack of guarantees—which for anything else would be testimony in tatters—the interpretive complications that result are precisely photography’s foundation as art. The stakes of art photography, as The Steerage offers them, have less to do with authenticating—either the world or author—than with galvanizing photography’s mercurianism. The challenge that Stieglitz poses with The Steerage, and wrestles with in his text, is that a photograph’s artistry is not the ascendency of the subjective over the objective or vice versa, but the ways that inner and outer observation by turns embellish and cancel, vitalize and deplete one another. All inquiry into the contingencies, contexts and contra-texts in effect re-prompts the photograph’s performance. In this sense, the unrequitedness of the stories with which The Steerage practically quivers—about making and finding, self and other, Americanness and foreignness, commonness and privilege and (yes) the actualities of the photographer’s own interiority—is the picture’s most important accomplishment. Photography, as this picture remands it: a wellspring of meanings lost and found, and a void of inherent meaning.
And what the picture, then, perpetually causes to persist: a man with a camera, leaning against a railing on a ship, leaning and still leaning, leaning as long as the photograph itself is alive to us. This man: a capable sometime photographer. The camera he holds—he holds it and holds it. He looks and still looks from the forward end of the lower promenade deck, westward toward the ocean just crossed.
This man, this photographer—what does he see?
1 Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, London, Allen and Unwin, 1910, p.166.
2 This sketch of Stieglitz’s character—admittedly telescopic—is my own synthesis of several biographical sources on Stieglitz: Herbert Seligmann, Alfred Stieglitz Talking, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1966; Richard Whelan, Alfred Stietliz: A Biography, New York, Little Brown and Company, 1995; Robert E. Haines, The Inner Eye of Alfred Stieglitz, Washington, D.C., The University Press of America, 1982; Dorothy Norman, Alfred Stieglitz, An American Seer, New York, Random House, 1960; Katherine Hoffman, Stieglitz: A Beginning Light, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2004.
3 The New York Times, to take one example, regularly published news and accounts of steerage passage from the late 1880s well into the 1920s.
4 $36 in 1906 is equivalent $820 in 2007 dollars. See Kellogg Durland, “Urgency of Improved Steerage Conditions, 1906,” The Chautauquan, Chautauqua, New York, November 1907, Volume 48, pp. 383-390. For information on calculating the value of money across time, see www.measuringworth.com, a project of the Institute for the Measurement of Worth, co-founded by Dr. Lawrence H. Officer, professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Dr. Samuel H. Williamson, emeritus professor of economics at Miami University.
5 “WOMEN IN STEERAGE GROSSLY ILL USED,” The New York Times, 14 December 1909, p. 3.
6 Alfred Stieglitz, “The Six Tailors,” from “Ten Stories,” in Twice A Year: A Book of Literature, The Arts, and Civil Liberties, No. 5-6, Spring-Summer 1941, pp. 138-139.
8 Any tendency on our part to read tiered visual space as social hierarchy might lead to the mistaken supposition that only the figures below the center beam are steerage passengers. In fact they are all traveling steerage. Its crowdedness owes to its being the only above-board area available to all third class passengers.
9 A decade after his trip on the Kaiser Wilhelm II, Stieglitz discloses that it is “not art as the term [is] generally understood” that defines his life’s work, “but America, my own relationship to my own people… [my] endeavoring to find a place in my own country, to find a job for which I [am] fitted amongst my own people… [my] trying to understand my people, so myself. See Alfred Stieglitz, Twice A Year: A Book of Literature, The Arts, and Civil Liberties, No. 5-6, Spring-Summer 1941, pp. 142-143.
10 Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, London, Allen and Unwin, 1911, p. 1.
11 1/1000 of a second is fast compared even with the speed of today’s cameras. The Graflex actually offered a broader range of shutter speeds than was commonly available later in the 20th century—24 different speeds (1/1000, 1/825, 1/680, 1/550, 1/440, 1/350, 1/295, 1/235, 1/195, 1/160, 1/135, 1/110, 1/90, 1/80, 1/75, 1/65, 1/50, 1/40, 1/35, 1/30, 1/25, 1/20, 1/15, 1/10) compared to the eleven that common to most cameras in most formats for decades (1/1000, 1/500, 1/250, 1/125, 1/60, 1/30, 1/15, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, 1). The Graflex’s “curtain aperture” shutter was made of a coil of opaque cloth with different sized slits in it, which were pulled across the plane of the emulsion by cocking and releasing a spring. The "speed" of the shutter was in fact a function of the width of the window in the cloth and the tension of the spring—both of which were dialed independently according to a chart on the side of the camera. Thus a “fast” speed meant a smaller slit traveling at a slightly faster rate (corresponding to the need for a larger aperture in the lens), and a slower speed meant a wider split traveling at a slower rate (and hence a smaller aperture). Having chosen the slit size and the spring tension, and having set the aperture, the photographer would release the roller blind, the slit would begin to travel from its coiled readiness, and at the same time the mirror would lift up out of the way. As the slit travelled across the plate it would “sweep” the plate with light, covering up what had just been “swept.” Likewise Stieglitz’s lens compares very favorably to contemporary equivalents today—135mm and 150mm—which are commonly offered f/5.6, only half a stop faster than the Dagor. For information on Stieglitz’s lens, see Whelan, Stieglitz on Photography, p. 72.
12 This black band appears in a handful of Stieglitz pictures between 1904 and 1910 (all of them, coincidentally, vertical formats and water scenes like The Steerage)—Nearing Land from 1904, The Ferry Boat from 1910 (the version also called After Working Hours—The Ferry Boat), and The Mauretania from 1910. The mark is curious. It is hard to account for Stieglitz’s decision to leave it in the pictures (though he does crop it out in the rarely seen silver print he made of The Steerage in the 1920s and 1930s)—but what causes it in the first place? An object in the world, such as a near railing, would have left a line with a much softer edge, and something in direct contact with the plate would have left a much harder edge. The particular softness of the band’s edge indicates to me that its cause is the slit in the camera’s cloth focal plane shutter, a few millimeters in front of the plate. The band’s presence in the picture likely owes to a malfunction of the camera’s shutter mechanism, which occurred as follows.
Normally cocking the shutter would pull the slit to the top of the frame, so that it would completely cover the plate before exposure. On Stieglitz’s camera, however, the cocking mechanism apparently did not always pull the slit all the way across the plate before exposure, but only most of the way, so that the shutter cloth, when cocked, left a small section of the plate uncovered before exposure began—approximately the width of the slit in the shutter cloth. The uncovered section of the plate, of course, meant the emulsion was open to the interior of the camera, but this did not result in any exposure because the interior of the camera was light tight due to the mirror being down. When Stieglitz released the shutter, the mirror began to rise and the slit began to fall as normal, so that the section of the plate left uncovered by the miscocking shutter was never exposed to light at all. This resulted in a clear band on the plate that in turn printed as the black band we see. If there were any doubt, this black band proves that Stieglitz made the picture with the Graflex and not some other camera: this mark could only have been made using a camera with a focal plane shutter, which is to say the Graflex. Other 4 x 5 cameras, such as those made by Kodak, all used leaf shutters in the lens, which would not be capable of producing this black band. I am grateful to Craig Weiss of Stanford University for his valuable insights concerning this technical aspect of The Steerage.
13 A 6 inch lens used at f/8, when focused at 35 feet, yields a depth of field whose near limit is 26 feet and whose far limit is 55 feet from the camera. This calculated distance closely matches the distance from the deck on which Stieglitz stood to the end of the photograph’s depth of field, as we can measure it by other photographs of the ship—a distance of approximately 60 feet of the ship’s total 707 foot length. My guess therefore would be that the picture was made at f/8 at about 1/110th of a second, and was at least a stop underexposed, resulting in limited tonal separation in the picture’s lower midtones and shadows.
14 See Virginia Yans-McLaughlin, Immigration Reconsidered: History, Sociology, and Politics, New York, Oxford University Press US, 1990, p. 195.
15 Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell, New York, Barnes and Noble Publishing, 2005, pp. 14. This edition is a contemporary re-issue of the original 1907 edition.
16 Alfred Stietlitz, “How The Steerage Happened,” Twice A Year: A Book of Literature, The Arts, and Civil Liberties, No. 8-9, Spring-Summer 1942, pp. 127-131.
17 For an insightful analysis of why The Steerage was most likely made while at anchor in Portsmouth, England, see Beaumont Newhall, “Alfred Stieglitz: Homeward Bound,” ARTNews, 87, March 1988, pp. 141-142. For an equally probing set of questions about the discrepancies between Stieglitz’s narrative and his actions during and after making the picture, see Sarah Greenough, Alfred Stieglitz/The Key Set, Volume One, 1886-1922, Washington and New York, National Gallery of Art and Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 2002, p. lv, note 118.
18 Greenough, The Key Set, p. xv.
19 For a complete bibliography of Stieglitz’s published writings in English and German, compiled by Sarah Greenough, see Richard Whelan, Stieglitz on Photography: his selected essays and notes, New York, Aperture, 2000, pp. 257-268. Stieglitz also studied briefly with the well-known physicist and physiologist Hermann von Hemholtz. See Katherine Hoffman, op.cit., p. 36.
20 These remarks occur in 1922 a lecture at the Brooklyn Museum of Art specifically for students, in which Stieglitz insists that a critical understanding of representation is essential and indeed, primary, “in a scientific sense.” He exhorts young students to examine “the relationship of things, of human beings to pictures, prior even to examining the relationship of one human being to another.” See Herbert J. Seligmann, Alfred Stieglitz Talking, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1966, p. 113. Likewise, in 1914, in a letter to a Boston-based amateur pictorialist photographer, he describes his (patently grandiloquent) ambition “to establish, once and for all, the ‘meaning’ of the ‘idea’ of photography,” and how he has, over the course of his career, “proceeded in doing this in an absolutely scientific way.” See Hoffman, Stieglitz: A Beginning Light, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2004, p. 283.
21 Further, Stieglitz’s account lingers curiously over the origin of the developer (he brought his own, though he could readily have procured it in Paris) and the “tense minutes” of the developing process itself. The episode carries within itself a possible tacit admission of a further mistake, namely that underexposure could have been partly corrected by extending the developing time—a rudimentary adjustment.
22 The silver prints that Stieglitz made in the 1920s and 1930s only confirm the thinness of the negative—in short, that he underexposed the negative for the sake of a fast shutter speed, perhaps knowingly, and did not or was not able to compensate in processing to make a technically perfect negative. See Greenough, Alfred Stieglitz/The Key Set, Volume 1, p. 190-194 for useful reproductions of the gravure and gelatin silver renditions.
23 I am grateful to Jeff Fort of the University of California at Davis for his insightful feedback on my thinking about Stieglitz, including the apt neologism, “de-auto-mythification.”
24 See Richard Whelan, Stieglitz on Photography: his selected essays and notes, New York, Aperture, 2000, p. 197.
25 Stieglitz’s first show of works other than photographs in the Little Galleries opened in January 1907, comprising drawings and watercolors by the American Symbolist artist Pamela Coleman Smith. His second non-photography show was an exhibition by Rodin in January 1908, followed rapidly by an exhibition of lithographs, etchings, paintings and drawings by Matisse, hand-carried to New York by Steichen himself—Matisse’s first American show. Only after 1910 did Stieglitz turn 291 and Camera Work consistently toward modernist art, predominantly non-photographic work by avant-garde European moderninists (Picasso, Braque, Brancusi, Picabia) and their American counterparts (Marin, Hartley, O’Keeffe). See Pam Roberts, “291 Gallery and Camera Work,” in Alfred Stieglitz, Camera Work, The Complete Photographs, Köln, Taschen, 2008, pp. 25-29.
26 See Allan Sekula, “On the Invention of Photographic Meaning,” Artforum, Vol. 13, No. 5, 1975, reprinted in Allan Sekula, Photography against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works, 1973-1983, Halifax, Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1984.
27 Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell, New York, Barnes and Noble Publishing, 2005, pp. 11. This edition is a contemporary re-issue of the original 1907 edition.
28 Ben Shahn, “The Biography of a Painting,” in The Shape of Content, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1957, p. 44.
29 Our commonplace language about photographs reflects just this paradox. We say that a painter “makes” a painting and a photographer either “takes” a picture (as if it already somehow existed and the photographer acquires it), or “makes” it. Other times people say, for example, “She takes a good picture”—meaning that she is photogenic. It is as if photography itself somehow passes around the act of “taking,” shifting us back and forth from agent to subject of its power.
30 See William Henry Fox Talbot: The Pencil of Nature, 1844 facsimile edition, New York, De Capo, 1968.
31 More specifically, the senses in which photography shows light as “carrying” information depends on the use or non-use of lenses. When passing through a lens (at necessarily decreased intensity) and striking sensitive silver compounds, light seems to contain and so to transport information to the light sensitive surface, resulting in marks of greater or lesser density relative to this information. When not passing through a lens, light simply darkens or hardens light sensitive materials (as in contact printing), and seems less informationally fused to the description it allows. See Richard Benson, The Printed Picture, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2008, p. 126.
32 Susan Sontag, On Photography, New York, Penguin, 1979, p. 154.
33 Photographs, for example, may depict the world altogether without focus, or differentially focused, or universally focused in ways quite impossible to duplicate with the eye. A photograph may be faint and underexposed, or dense and overexposed, in either case to the point of illegibility and in ways uncommon in our perception. We do not see the world monocularly or monochromatically or constricted into a square or a rectangle—the list could go on. See Joel Snyder, “Picturing Vision,” in The Language of Images, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1980.
34 Sontag and others have relied on the photograph’s physical relation to the world—what C.S. Pierce calls its signifying power as “index” so that the image may become a platform from which to deconstruct how photographs are inscribed with social power. I have always found this a weak argument—and that the better tools for deconstruction are resemblance and ascriptive context, or what Pierce calls “icon” and “symbol.” The sense in which the photograph is truly to be leveraged as a critical tool is in the sense that linguists use it—likening the photograph to a word such as “I” or “now” with no inherent meaning, but a meaning that shifts precisely according to context and use. See C. S. Pierce’s 1867 paper, “On a New List of Categories,” in The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Pierce, eds. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1934, Volume 2, pp. 49-58. See also Rosalind Krauss, "Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America," in Rosalind Krauss, Annette Michelson, Douglas Crimp and Jean Copjec, eds., October: The First Decade, 1976-1986, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1987, pp. 2-15. See also John Tagg, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories, London, MacMillan Education, 1988. See also Alan Sekula, “The Body and the Archive,” October 39 (Winter, 1986), reprinted in Richard Bolton, ed., The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1992.
It is worth mentioning that scientific explanations offer no respite from these complications. If we light were merely a particle, whatever is before a camera could be said physically to touch an emulsion through light, and so cause its own image to come to exist in collaboration with the (lawful) character of chemistry, optics and mechanics. But but because light is irreducibly also a wave (energy rather than matter), there is no causal connection between an object and an emulsion—just as, for example, a “wave” of people standing up in succession in a sports arena is not a result of any physical contact between them. To speak of photographs as inscriptions, transcriptions, dictations and correspondences of the world, derived from the particle nature of light, are but one type of metaphor we might use. Others, derived from the wave nature of light, would lead us to speak of photographs as transmittals (sendings-along of the states of things), translations, transpondings and transductions—words by which we understand that in order to present something as what it is, photographs converts (renders, issues) it into something else.
35 Inasmuch as the experience of art is commonly stochastic—inducing skilled guessing in the viewer rather than the overcoming of guessing—a photograph is a trove particularly knotty complications. A photograph offers no clear primary and secondary experience: looking-into appearances is also a looking-through aesthetic effects, and looking-from a point of view is also a looking-with intentions that might just as well come after the image as before it. It is not clear whether a photograph perpetuates what it shows as “experience,” or ruins “experience” as a possibility. Likewise it is not clear whether the lingual effects of photographs are comprehensible in familiar forms of language. Is a photograph closer to a poetic state of language, or to prose? When we speak of iconography and convention in photographs, are we speaking of grammar? Does a photograph offer a syntax to be followed or broken, or for that matter any clear distinction between “parts of speech”—nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions, etc.—or between tenses, or any distinction between transitivity and intransitivity of action, or voice, or grammatical subject? Does a photograph communicate in the first or second or third person, singular or plural?
36 See Sarah Greenough, Alfred Stieglitz/The Key Set, Volume One, 1886-1922, Washington and New York, National Gallery of Art and Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 2002, p. xviii. 37 Alfred Stieglitz, “Simplicity in Composition,” from The Modern Way in Picture Making, Rochester, New York, Eastman Kodak Company, 1905, pp. 161-164. See Richard Whelan, Stieglitz on Photography: his selected essays and notes, New York, Aperture, 2000, p. 188.
38 Alfred Stieglitz, “Simplicity in Composition,” from The Modern Way in Picture Making, Rochester, New York, Eastman Kodak Company, 1905, pp. 161-164. See Richard Whelan, Stieglitz on Photography: his selected essays and notes, New York, Aperture, 2000, p. 184.
39 Alfred Stieglitz, “A Plea for Art Photography in America,” Photographic Mosaics 28, 1892, pp.135-137, reprinted in Richard Whelan, Stieglitz on Photography: his selected essays and notes, New York, Aperture, 2000, pp. 29-30.
40 For a photographer prone to feel something toward it, activity on the ground glass is a site of projection from two sides—from the outer world of space and time, and from the imaginative world of the beholder. In the experience of and with the phenomenon of the ground glass, it is precisely not clear who or what controls the confluence—in what measure appearances are a durably impersonal actuality proceeding more or less with the force of nature, and in what measure they are a (cunningly approachable) theatre of actuality is prevailed upon by skill and concentration and a witting collaboration with the creatively-invested implement. What is clear is that no photographer will resolve this problem by any action the camera can make—rather the photographer will participate in the problem, and every instant of its recognition will contribute something to it.
41 Using the kindred terms of the contemporary artist, psychoanalyst and feminist theorist Bracha Ettinger, the artistry of a photograph like The Steerage is to venture toward a social and psychic borderspace, a matrixial (surrounding) space that induces a kind of productive rupture, a co-fading of the familiar alignments of self against other and a corresponding co-emergence of new, trans-subjectivities. See Bracha Ettinger, “The With-in-visible Screen,” in Cathérine de Zegher, ed. Inside the Visible, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1996, pp. 89–113.
42 On the ways that the image constructs modes of beholding, see Michael Fried, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2008.
43 Béla Balázs, from Theory of the Film, in Daniel Talbot, ed., Film: An Anthology, Berkeley, UC Press, 1969, pp. 214-215.
44 Stieglitz’s active years as a photographer are 1883-1937.
45 It is important to mention that Riis and Hine are very different photographers. Riis is inclined toward what we might now call victim photography, more or less condescending images of the disempowered. Hine consistently pictures people who are wronged and not incapacitated, and his way of handling his subjects photographically is significantly non-instrumentalist by comparison to Riis.
46 See Camera Work 49/50, June 1917.
47 Though Strand, a Jew, is not religious, the photograph calls to mind the ancient Jewish teaching that the messiah will come as a beggar, the sight of whom is a test of our individual and collective ethical evolvedness. See Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin 98a.
48 See Richard Misrach, Violent Legacies, New York, Aperture, 1992; An-My Lê, Small Wars, New York, Aperture, 2005; Mark Klett, After the Ruins, 1906 and 2006: Rephotographing the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, San FranciscoFine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2006; and Robert Polidori, After the Flood, London, Steidl, 2006.
49 I would be less than honest if I did not add my own photographic work to this group. See Jason Francisco, Far from Zion: Jews, Diaspora, Memory, Stanford, California, Stanford University Press, 1996.
50 Peter Galassi, Before Photography, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1981, p. 12.
51 Allan Sekula, Fish Story, Richter Verlag, 1995, p. 202.
52 Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell, New York, Barnes and Noble Publishing, 2005, pp. 4-5. This edition is a contemporary re-issue of the original 1907 edition.
53 For a pithy argument on this point, see Errol Morris, “Liar Liar, Pants on Fire,” New York Times, July 10, 2007, searchable on the New York Times website under http://morris.blogs.nytimes.com.