Why write another biography of Alfred Stieglitz? Author Phyllis Rose readily admits that there are already many Stieglitz books: the adoring hagiography by his late in life lover, Dorothy Norman; Richard Whelan’s biography, so authoritative that Rose herself relied on it completely and never found a fault; an intimate biography from his grandniece. There’s a volume and more of his letters, a complete compendium of his photographs, and not to mention several group biographies. Is it significant that Yale’s Jewish Lives series commissioned this latest work? Not really. Rose (appropriately) has as little interest in Stieglitz’s Jewish identity as Stieglitz himself had. Still, she offers a brief clue to this biography’s raison d’etre at the close of the prologue: that she wants others to appreciate Stieglitz’s “versatility,” his ability both to make art and to nurture other artists.
What follows is a straightforward account of Stieglitz’s upbringing in a bourgeois, cultured, German Jewish American family in the late nineteenth century. Alfred was in his early twenties when the techniques of making photographs advanced rapidly. Suddenly, photographers could produce nuanced grey tones, cameras became more portable, and even color photographs were possible. Stieglitz found all these technical developments exciting, and between his European sensibilities and the advice of his artistic friends, he quickly honed a sense of what was considered aesthetically “good” and why.
Stieglitz established himself in New York City as the go-to person in photography, opening galleries, publishing magazines, and sending work to shows. He set high prices for everything he exhibited — not only to support the photographers he promoted, but also to establish the high value of this new medium. Along the way, he married a woman who could support his lifestyle and even fathered a daughter. However, Stieglitz’s real passion, his real life partner, was photography. It almost seems inevitable that when he finally fell in love, it would be with someone, Georgia O’Keefe, who allowed his camera full access to her body. Rose wisely refrains from wallowing in the well-known aspects of their romance — her selection of his photos of O’Keefe’s body says it all.
It also becomes clear that Stieglitz was a highly demanding partner; Dorothy Norman eventually replaces O’Keefe as his model and muse.
Rose follows Stieglitz’s story through his declining health and his death, deftly selecting images from his oeuvre and discussing their importance. (Alas, the photographs in the glossy inset are superior to the ones set into the text.) At the end, however, one must return to Rose’s basic premise: that Stieglitz was a master photographer and a great mentor to other artists. While the history of Stieglitz’s galleries and magazines certainly lends this credence, one wonders about the photographers Stieglitz refused to sponsor and admit to his inner circle. One may also wonder why O’Keefe had to move halfway across the country to free herself of him. Perhaps Stieglitz’s support was not unconditional and was more than a little self-serving — a critical point of view that is largely absent here.
That said, this is a lovely volume — well-illustrated, gracefully written, and just the right length for the general reader.
Bettina Berch, author of the recent biography, From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezierska, teaches part-time at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.