Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Alfred Stieglitz & Georgia O'Keeffe Collection Exhibit at the Crystal Bridges Museum

Patrick Saunders and I drove to the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas this week for an exhibit of a portion of the personal art collection of photographer Alfred Stieglitz and painter Georgia O'Keeffe, as well as some of their own work, that was donated to Fisk University by O'Keeffe after Stieglitz died. Crystal Bridges and Fisk are now sharing the work. Much of the art collection and some of their better known works were also donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the University of Chicago Art Institute, so the donation to the Fisk is fairly small, comparatively, but it was worth the trip for me just for the opportunity to see the original image Alfred Stieglitz made of his "The Terminal" photo, as well as how he chose to crop it when he made a photogravure of it - the initial gelatin silver he made of the full negative and a cropped photogravure enlargement are hanging side by side in this exhibit. I didn't know that this would be the case, and I've never had the opportunity to see the difference between an original image Stieglitz shot of a full negative compared to a cropped version processed in another manner. His cropping and enlargement of the "The Terminal" image when he made the photogravure made the steam coming off the horses much more powerful and visceral because his cropping and enlargement brings you into the image in such a way that you could almost be standing there next to the horses - you could almost feel the steam as well as see it. And the warm brown added by the photogravure process gives the image an emotion and a sense of life that the gelatin silver didn't have. It was so interesting to have the chance to see the choices he made with the photogravure. I have a better understanding of what was meant by Pictorialism at that time and why it was somewhat controversial for its time. The emotion, mood, and softness in Stieglitz photos that I am so enthralled by all come not really from the way the images were initially shot, but by what process he chose for the negative, how he manipulated the processing, and how he cropped. Having this experience makes me wish I could see more photos that I admire in this way in exhibits. We can learn so much from being able to see a photographer's process, rather than just the final result, and I am grateful that Crystal Bridges chose to display these photographs this way, and to explain more about Stieglitz's process.



I was also able to see the photogravure of this image, "The Steerage", another famous Stieglitz photo. The emotion and humanity in this photo are a product of the subject matter itself, but the processing heightens the emotional quality of it just that much more. The image I have posted here is a gelatin silver version of this photo, I believe, but the photogravure process and the warmth it creates really intensified an already emotionally compelling image, and this version that I saw at the exhibit didn't seem to be cropped in any way, but I'm not certain of that.



The Stieglitz photo that still moves me the most is one he took of the Flatiron Building in snow. You can hear and feel the quiet. No one could ever photograph this building quite like this again. A much different skyline crowds in all around it now, and Madison Square Park is full of people at all hours. Patrick and I lived in New York for several years, and frequently took our dogs to a dog park there when we first arrived. It was never empty or still, at any hour, and an insane amount of traffic buzzes around the park 24/7. Stieglitz's photo is so peaceful and so quiet - it must have been wonderful to be able to appreciate and photograph Manhattan back when it actually had silent, empty spaces and moments devoid of people. Stieglitz took this photo of the Flatiron I think in 1906, and the photo of me and my dogs was taken by Patrick in 2006. He had to work hard to find an angle that didn't have something else competing with the Flatiron for skyline, and to catch a picture of us in between large crowds of people passing through.



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