Defining Straight Photography
Artistic Pluralism or Assimilation to Painting's "Foreign Tongue"
"Why use any language but one's own to express one's feelings and one's fancies? As well address a fellow countryman in some foreign tongue. The artist who has anything worth saying must say it in an original manner-that is, unlike anyone else; for if in the course of his expression he should allow himself to employ methods that are not original with him, but merely adopted and adapted, it will mean what he had to say was really not worth the trouble saying."
-Sadakichi Hartmann, "Gertrude Käsebier: A Sense of the Pictorial," May 1900
Art-historical descriptions of medium specificity frequently begin with Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's 1766 essay Laocoön, which differentiated painting and poetry, arguing that a work of art should have the characteristics only of its own medium. Lessing analogized the relation between media (one medium and another) to the relation between nations (one people and another). Painting and poetry, he wrote, should behave like "two equitable and friendly neighbors," who avoid "unbecoming liberties in the heart of the other's domain, yet on their extreme frontiers practice a mutual forbearance." Media, like nations, Lessing theorized, might mix at their furthest frontiers, in minor genres, while still remaining appropriately pure at their center. At the end of the nineteenth century, practitioners and critics of photography, concerned with the artistic status of their medium, had begun to follow Lessing and to reconsider its central purity. In an attempt to elevate their minor genre to a canonical art form, they set aside techniques such as blurred focus or handwork on negatives, which aimed to emulate painting or etching, and put forward the precept of photography's own medium specificity.
As early as 1889 the influential English photographer Peter H. Emerson had referred to photographs that relied only on the techniques of their medium as "pure." Emerson, however, believed that artistic photography could differentiate itself from established mechanized, industrialized, and commercial photography only if its purity embraced both pictorialism, which drew its aesthetic conventions from nonphotographic media, and a "naturalistic" style, which used slightly blurred focus in an attempt to emulate human vision. Emerson's tenets of photographic "purity" began to be reframed as "straight" photography roughly a decade later by the Photo-Secession, a group of U.S. artistic photographers brought together by Alfred Stieglitz in 1902. That shift in terms from pure to straight added connotations of Americanness-of outspoken and unreserved straight talk, of bold and steady straight looks, of fairness in trade and upright manliness. It even echoed the national colloquialism for undiluted spirits-all while signifying virtue, honesty, and unmixedness. The varied meanings of the word straight suggest its unstable origins. Straight is now an important and rhetorically powerful adjective that denotes modernist photographs characterized by sharp focus, crisp printing, and seemingly objective representation. The early conflicts between theorists and practitioners of photography, however, reveal that they engaged with modern social issues in addition to these issues of modernist aesthetics in defining the proper limits of their medium.
Sadakichi Hartmann, an immigrant of Japanese and German heritage (and a notorious imbiber of spirits), first theorized straight photography coherently in his often anthologized 1904 review "A Plea for Straight Photography." Well acquainted with German language and literature from his childhood in Hamburg, Hartmann frequently cited Lessing in his own essays about art in the United States at the turn of the century as he faulted photographers more concerned with likeness than with their medium's formal qualities. But for Hartmann, commencing his career as an American art critic in the 1890s, Lessing's description of media and international relations was no longer relevant. Hartmann borrowed Lessing's basic association of media and peoples, but new art forms like photography threw the once-stable binary of painting and literature into question. By defining the formal and technical qualities that belonged exclusively to photography as straight, Hartmann offered a powerful model of photography as an artistic medium with its own aesthetics; photography as he described it did not derive from poetry, painting, or sculpture.
Hartmann's statements on straight photography, however, and the aesthetic that informed them developed in a historical, social, and cultural context. Part of that context was the interest in national domains and frontiers-two of Lessing's categories-that were sites of great uncertainty for late nineteenth-century Americans. The identity of the United States as a free haven for immigrants had been monumentalized in 1886 with the dedication of the Statue of Liberty. But by 1890 the U.S. census indicated that populations of new settlers in the American West had increased so dramatically that the region could no longer properly be considered a frontier, and in 1891 piecemeal state enforcement of immigration laws gave way to federal enforcement, under the Federal Immigration Service.
The link between issues of immigration and the frontier may escape twenty-first-century readers, but during the 1890s the frontier experience was widely considered the means by which foreign immigrants were assimilated into American society. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner argued that confronting the harsh wilderness of the West made immigrants into American citizens and gave them a rugged individuality born of their experience on the frontier. In the 1890s the ease of westward movement across the American continent that spread "civilization," and the military conquests that made it possible, such as the massacre of the Sioux at Wounded Knee, were giving national imaginings of the dangers of the frontier a tinge of romantic nostalgia just as that frontier closed. As immigrants arriving in America at the turn of the century settled in burgeoning urban centers of the East Coast instead of making their own westward journey, their arrival caused concern. New York City was increasingly seen as a mosaic of foreign neighborhoods whose residents appeared to retain more of their hereditary culture than the earlier immigrants, who had passed through the city on their way to western territories. Some commentators suggested barring certain foreign groups, while others argued that imperial expansion was needed to maintain a frontier. Still others began calling for a new model of American identity that would celebrate the nation's status as "a multiplicity in a unity," instead of prizing only assimilation to a single national norm.
The cultural pluralism of the turn of the century that is this chapter's focus would be popularized about 1915 by such influential thinkers as Horace Kallen, Randolph Borne, and John Dewey. In Turner's model of assimilation, the frontier had made foreigners into Americans; cultural pluralists argued that the contributions of foreign groups were the true foundation of America's unique identity as a country that would sing in "harmony" rather than in "unison." So brief an account of a shift from the myth of frontier assimilation to that of urban pluralism inevitably over-simplifies. Here, I only introduce the shifting conceptions of frontier and center, foreignness and national identity, that unsettled turn-of-the-century Americans.
Arguments about immigration paralleled contemporaneous debates among the advocates of photography, who began campaigning for the medium's position in the pantheon of fine arts. The immigrant art critic Hartmann, in his attack on the pictorialist photographer and painter Gertrude Käsebier (quoted in the epigraph to this chapter), argued that the true photographer should not borrow from any other arts. He asked, "Why use any language but one's own to express one's feelings and one's fancies? As well address a fellow countryman in some foreign tongue." His question implies that each medium and each language had unique merit and usefulness. Hartmann's understanding contrasted both with the prevailing aesthetic argument that photography would become art only by subjective pictorial intervention to make photographs resemble paintings, and with cultural arguments asserting that immigrants must speak only English if they were to assimilate to American life. Instead, Hartmann contended that photographers should embrace the unique qualities of their medium, just as he (bringing his own unique qualities to his work as a columnist writing for the German American press) communicated with his fellow immigrants in their shared native language. Hartmann built on Lessing's connecting the strict boundaries between media with those between nations and peoples, but he used them to propose an alternative to assimilation, an aesthetic pluralism that relied on nascent ideals of cultural pluralism.
In analyzing the disagreement between Hartmann and Käsebier, both of them participants in Stieglitz's Photo-Secession, this chapter explores the subject, method, and rhetoric of straight photography and the context in which those elements were forged. At the turn of the twentieth century, Käsebier produced studio photographs that self-consciously drew on subjects from her upbringing on the American frontier in a pioneer family and assimilated the norms of painting to photography. Hartmann at the same time drew on his complex Japanese and German heritage to claim a place for photography in a pluralist art world as a medium uniquely suited to depicting America's urban newcomers. As Stieglitz, himself a first-generation American from an affluent German Jewish family, struggled to define artistic photography, he negotiated the often conflicted social and aesthetic space between Käsebier and Hartmann. He published Hartmann's attacks on Käsebier's photographs but never, as Hartmann angrily complained, invited Hartmann to group dinners, because Käsebier thought him too uncivilized. Stieglitz's management of the personalities and competing ideas of photography was essential to the success of the Photo-Secession. Straight photography, though defined in the Photo-Secession, eventually the led to a split within the group. Stieglitz vacillated at first between the two definitions of photography, but eventually he turned against Käsebier's assimilationist pictorialism to follow Hartmann's pluralist medium specificity.
In a time when the nation was grappling with the issues of assimilation, boundaries, and languages, Hartmann argued that photography, as a medium with its own specific methods, should engage those same issues to expand the boundary of the fine arts. He saw the multilingual, multinational immigrant urban dweller as the proper subject for straight photography and an analogy for its method. Representing the new urban immigrant-whether legally, socially, or aesthetically-became a marker of the success of straight photography. Hartmann's model of medium specificity situated photography as art and created for it a modernist aesthetics uniquely attuned to modernity's political and cultural questions about languages, races, and nations. In defining straight photography, American avant-garde photographers claimed for their work the status of art on account of the medium's capacity, as an entirely new form, to capture the confusing modern urban present and thus create an understanding of national identity that was not built on outmoded techniques of art or on scenes from the nation's past. The aesthetics of straight photography as an artistic medium, although often categorized later as apolitical, were initially inflected by contemporaneous discussions of race and nationality and debates about assimilation and pluralism.
Hartmann, Stieglitz, and Picturesque New York
Social art historians have examined how reforming photographers such as Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine used the medium of photography to depict-and change-the squalid lives of immigrants. In fact, critics have faulted Stieglitz for not engaging in photography for such purposes. Alan Trachtenberg, in his essay "Camera Work/Social Work," claims that Stieglitz and his circle forced a separation of photography's aesthetic and social functions to make the medium into art. Examining Hartmann's essays, however, problematizes that opposition of the aesthetic and the social. Hartmann couched his discussion of straight photography, which was foundational to Stieglitz's own understanding of his medium's role as art, in rhetoric that linked straight photography's images and methods to a pluralist appreciation of New York's urban immigrant neighborhoods (whose inhabitants composed Riis's "other half") as a new model of Americanness.
Carl Sadakichi Hartmann was born in 1867 on Dejima, an island in the harbor of the Japanese city of Nagasaki to which foreigners were confined; his travel between cultures and his personal experience of racial difference helped to shape his aesthetic arguments. After the early death of his Japanese mother, his German father took the infant Carl to Germany. After running away from the German Naval Academy when he was fourteen, young Hartmann was sent to Philadelphia to stay with his extended German family. He arrived just as the federal restrictions on immigration written into the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 took effect, barring the immigration of laborers from China. Although that new law did not directly affect Hartmann, a half-Japanese German citizen, debates about racial categories and national identity formed the context of his life in the United States. For example, on moving to Boston in 1887, Hartmann adopted aristocratic Japanese dress for his lectures (although he had little memory of his infancy in Japan or his maternal family there), becoming the exotic embodiment of the foreign culture recently popularized in the artistic sphere that he hoped to join (Figure 3). In his unpublished autobiography, Hartmann wrote of embracing his identity as "Eurasian, which was a newly coined concept," dropping his first name to become Sadakichi at what he called "just the right moment for it." Boston led the country in the appreciation of Japanese aesthetics, and Hartmann strategically crafted himself into what he termed "a kind of living impression of this sentiment." When he moved to New York in 1894, Hartmann deployed more varied elements of his heritage, becoming an eccentric character in the emerging bohemian arts scene in Greenwich Village and writing in German about such New York sites as Ellis Island and ethnic ghettos, as a columnist for the German American daily New Yorker Staats-Zeitung.
Hartmann wrote his first article on the medium of photography for the New Yorker Staats-Zeitung in 1898. In the essay he faulted Americans for taking "the imitation of foreign models" as a "legitimate ... goal," but he drew his reader's attention to two praiseworthy exceptions: the photographers Alfred Stieglitz and Rudolf Eickemeyer, both members of the German American community to which the New Yorker Staats-Zeitung appealed. Stieglitz had even attended secondary school and received training in photography in Germany during the 1880s. Returning to New York in 1890, he recalled being devastated by the predominance of business over culture. Stieglitz joined New York's Society of Amateur Photographers, but instead of a vibrant group of dedicated artists, he found his colleagues to be only dabblers or dull professionals. Hartmann, in praising Stieglitz's work, advanced similar complaints, calling on photographers to commit to their medium as a specific art. He argued that if photography would use "its means according to its purposes, then the way is open for raising it from an amusement for dilettantes to a self-sufficient art." To illustrate the way of self-sufficient art, Hartmann singled out Stieglitz's Winter-Fifth Avenue (Figure 4), a photograph taken during an 1893 blizzard, praising it because it had been made "completely technically without any retouching."
Hartmann based his early praise of Stieglitz on the photographer's use of the means specific to photography, his technical avoidance of handwork. As the critic developed his argument for straight photography, however, simply avoiding retouching was not enough to define photography as art; what had not been done could not constitute a positive achievement. For Hartmann, the urban setting of Winter-Fifth Avenue and the method of its making also came to be the essential components of its photographic artistry. Beginning with his praise for Stieglitz's photographs of New York, Hartmann urged artistic photographers to adopt a new method and subject. Self-consciously opposing reforming photographers like Riis, who wanted New York's immigrant neighborhoods to assimilate established norms, Hartmann called for artistic photographs that would frame those same neighborhoods as picturesque and celebrate American identity as plural.
Hartmann, reviewing Stieglitz's 1897 portfolio Picturesque Bits of New York and Other Studies, extended his consideration beyond darkroom retouching to praise Stieglitz's photographic process and method. Stieglitz did not pose subjects as a studio painter might but instead waited patiently (possibly "for years") to make a single exposure at the exact moment when he found the composition's components in chance alignment. Hartmann again commended Winter-Fifth Avenue for its "expression of an everyday occurrence of metropolitan life under special atmospheric conditions, rendered faithfully and yet with consummate art." Describing the mundane scene depicted, Hartmann acknowledged the photograph might not seem pictorial to a painter. Yet precisely that difference from expressions in other media set it above other images in the portfolio, made it "more original and individual than the others because it reminds one of nothing else." Sarah Greenough, in her catalogue Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set, speculates that Stieglitz turned his focus to urban scenes in response to Hartmann's effusive praise. The sparsely populated, mysterious street scene represented a departure from the image that had catapulted Stieglitz to the center of the international photography world, his 1887 photograph A Good Joke (Figure 5), depicting a group of laughing peasant children in Venice, which had won first prize in a contest judged by Peter Henry Emerson. Hartmann's review celebrated the originality of Winter-Fifth Avenue but dismissed another of Stieglitz's award-winning European photographs, The Letter Box (Figure 6), an image of two German peasant girls whose compositional techniques resembled those of A Good Joke. Hartmann deemed The Letter Box "merely a genre study, an attempt at storytelling that arouses no special interest." Winter-Fifth Avenue, in contrast, used the medium itself to turn a quotidian urban scene into an artistic expression impossible by any other means. Hartmann declared that photography's new artistic direction, its "special interest," would derive from original compositions and methods, rather than from replicating the narrative content of genre painting.
Other critics agreed with Hartmann's enthusiastic assessment of Winter-Fifth Avenue as a new kind of photograph and image of the city. Charles McCay, for example, stated that "Mr. Stieglitz is opening up new vistas" for photography and with his winter street scene had achieved "success in a pioneer effort." The critic's metaphor invoked the western pioneer facing the hardship of winter weather and the photographer as his equal, clearing vistas in the city like a frontiersman felling trees. Stieglitz's own much-repeated tale of the making of Winter-Fifth Avenue reinforced those analogies to the frontier as a model for his photographic struggle. The photographer claimed to have taken his brand new hand camera (a small device recommended by the manufacturer for quick snapshots in full sun) into the cold, where he lingered for hours during a blizzard until he got the perfect shot. Describing his own self-reliant hunt for the single instant of alignment in Winter-Fifth Avenue (which was neither posed nor shot randomly), Stieglitz made the medium of photography a frontier exploit in which the urban pioneer patiently stalked his image in hazardous conditions.
Given that Stieglitz titled his portfolio Picturesque Bits of New York, we can surmise that Winter-Fifth Avenue, the composition he pursued, was intended to be picturesque. At its most basic, picturesque describes a scene that looks like a picture or is worthy of being pictured. The picturesque as an aesthetic category was first formulated in late eighteenth-century England to celebrate the British rural landscape, which occupied the aesthetic ground between the beautiful (calmingly serene) and the sublime (threatening and awe-inspiring). Its visual pleasures were variety, roughness, and irregularity. Yet, as the art historian Ann Bermingham has pointed out, the picturesque in Britain, which idealized "hovels, cottages, mills and the insides of old barns," as well as "gypsies and beggars," elevated an aesthetic that "seems to be calculated precisely on poverty and misery." The picturesque sentimentalized and aestheticized the upper class's voyeuristic experience of the working classes; in England its celebration of variety and irregularity memorialized the passing of a way of rural life at the same time that it justified an efficient transformation of the countryside. Relying on both aesthetic and social distance, the picturesque, Bermingham notes, differed from earlier understandings of universal beauty because it was "an exclusive taste shared only by those sensitive enough to appreciate the priceless and irreproducible." How did Stieglitz's picturesque bits envision New York for sensitive art world audiences?
Winter-Fifth Avenue pictured New York's bustling commercial thoroughfare transformed into a frozen landscape. As a winding stream leads the eye into a picturesque landscape, tracks in the snow in Stieglitz's photograph take the eye to the most important part of the image: the cab and coachman driving toward the viewer. Stieglitz's written account reveals his symbolic identification with the difficult, heroic labor of New York's working class in the parallels he drew between the driver's struggle through snow and his own as the photographer of the scene. In his photographs of New York in harsh weather (as well as others taken at night), Stieglitz created a new way of seeing labor in the city. Unlike Riis, who in the images published in his 1890 book How the Other Half Lives relied on the explosive flash pan to exaggerate the dirty and disjointed qualities of urban life to promote reform, Stieglitz, in Winter-Fifth Avenue, used a long exposure in snowy haze to produce a picturesque soft-focus landscape and darkened central figure. Stieglitz also shifted the subject from slum dwellers to genteel hansom cabs on Fifth Avenue. His composition shared a setting with the cityscapes the American impressionist Childe Hassam was simultaneously painting, such as Fifth Avenue in Winter, circa 1892, which featured hansom cabs and their drivers in difficult weather conditions (Figure 7). Stieglitz, however, isolates and abstracts the coachman, while minimizing and obscuring the pedestrians in the middle ground at right, a shift in focus that may remind viewers that the coachman belonged to the working class even if a member of the gentry owned the hansom cab. Unlike Riis's pathetic and/or shockingly criminal slum dweller, however, Stieglitz's cabman in Winter-Fifth Avenue idealizes the laborer as a frontier hero: the cab's silhouetted outline suggests the western stagecoach, visualized perhaps most famously by Frederic Remington in illustrations such as his 1901 nocturne The Old Stage-Coach of the Plains (Figure 8). Although Remington painted that work after Stieglitz had completed his photograph, as the art historian Alexander Nemerov has pointed out, Remington's nocturnes belong to a period visual culture idealizing frontier hardships as a nostalgic escape from the challenges of the modern city. In Winter-Fifth Avenue Stieglitz struggled for a means to represent the urban worker in a picturesque image, drawing on representations of pioneers whose frontier hardships ensured their assimilation, shifting the issue of labor away from that of urban diversity.
Unlike Stieglitz's genre scene The Letter Box, whose subjects dressed in their regional costumes, Winter-Fifth Avenue's shadowy, abstracted, and idealized driver lacks particular characteristics or nationality. Stieglitz linked the figure-a black silhouette against the white sky-to himself in his written account and to heroic drivers of western stagecoaches in his composition, obscuring any ties his image might have to the contemporaneous debate about immigrant versus native-born workers. Books offering guidance to gentlemen eager to start their own stables declared, "Good foreign servants are better than the democratic born talent." And in 1893, the year Winter-Fifth Avenue was taken, black leaders worried publicly that immigrant whites would replace native-born blacks in service jobs. The snow drifts at the edges of the photograph operate as a reminder of additional labor, that of New York's municipal workers, who cleared the snow. In an uncropped print of the image, three men in the same plane the coachman occupies work on either side of the street, shoveling the snow (Figure 9). Although these men, whose faces are barely discernible, appear abstracted and anonymous to twenty-first-century viewers, during the 1893 blizzard newspapers reported that snow removal would be done by "400 extra men, mostly Italians." If Stieglitz's final picturesque bit of New York cropped these extra Italians from Fifth Avenue to focus on a heroized individual enduring hardship, a pictorial convention plucked from accounts of the American West, still the uncropped version of his photograph shows a different street scene, and a new image of urban labor. Perhaps other pictorial conventions might emerge so that these workers on temporary duty shoveling snow could also represent the picturesque city.
Unlike Hartmann, whose immigrant biography challenged national and racial categories, Stieglitz was a part of New York's elite, an economically secure, socially respectable, assimilated first-generation German immigrant who belonged on Fifth Avenue. His father had stopped practicing his Jewish faith when he immigrated to America. That rejection has often been characterized as reasonable and open-minded on the part of Stieglitz's parents, unable to abide the narrow religious doctrine, but it also served to separate these uptown, assimilated German Jewish immigrants from the many new Russian and eastern European Jews settling in Lower Manhattan during the 1890s. The presence of established Germans and poverty-stricken eastern Europeans created tension in American Judaism. The influx of the "new" immigrants made the older, once problematic, groups seem comparatively American. Stieglitz's eventual father-in-law, for example, owned a brewery, but whereas earlier stereotypes of German immigrants had presented their drinking habits as an affront to puritanical values, now the profitable business gave the family entry into New York society. However much he belonged on Fifth Avenue, Stieglitz claimed that when he returned from Europe in 1890, he had succeeded in "finding myself in relationship to America" only by wandering with his camera in the immigrant slums.
Stieglitz recalled leaving the offices of his floundering New York printing business to stroll near the East River, past the Tombs (the city's jail) and into the city's most notorious nineteenth-century immigrant slum, Five Points. Stieglitz, who captured some of his earliest images of America during those wanderings in New York's poorest neighborhoods, remembered that he had "loathed the dirty streets" but also been "fascinated." In the poor he saw compositions ready-made. Using a romantic language in his written account similar to the one he employed in his photographs of European peasants (A Good Joke and The Letter Box), Stieglitz noted that on his walks, "Wherever I looked there was a picture that moved me-the derelicts, the second hand clothing shops, the rag pickers, the tattered and the torn." Stieglitz connected with individuals and sites through his camera, viewing them as pictures that stirred his emotions. Rather than respond with indignation or pity (like Riis and Hine), or even with the sense of identification he had experienced with the struggling, hardy cabdriver, Stieglitz recalled envying the group of urban derelicts, idealizing the poverty-stricken subjects around him as "better off" than he was, because "there was a reality about them lacking in the artificial world" of businessmen in which he was forced to live. In his narrative of the "realness" of the working classes, Stieglitz begins to suggest how a pluralist and picturesque celebration of difference could become distressingly close to primitivism's essentializing of otherness.
Although Stieglitz would become the founder of modern American art photography, his early attempts to develop a relationship to his native country resulted in ambiguous and unwieldy images. In the photograph he took in Five Points, he departed not only from nineteenth-century sensationalist accounts and Riis's views, but also from the writings of those who celebrated such neighborhoods, like Lincoln Steffens, who found in the Lower East Side ghetto what others had found on the western frontier, "adventure, perils, brawny comrades." Stieglitz found it difficult to position his images of Lower Manhattan's working classes in his larger oeuvre. His 1893 photograph of the slum Five Points, New York (Figure 10), for example, although important enough for inclusion in the 1934 book America and Alfred Stieglitz, was first exhibited nearly forty years after its taking, in 1932. Stieglitz included in his portfolio Picturesque Bits of New York neither Five Points, New York nor any of the other photographs made on his wanderings in immigrant neighborhoods. That he considered these images, retrospectively, the foundation of his "relationship to America," suggests that Stieglitz recognized them as important works of his early career, even if (or perhaps because) they could scarcely be called picturesque bits.
Stieglitz made his photograph Five Points, New York in the same year he captured Winter-Fifth Avenue and barely three miles southeast of the corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-Fifth Street, the site he photographed in the snow. But the two works present images of urban life worlds apart. Certain episodes in Five Points seem to aim at the same picturesqueness as the other work-the little girl whose path through the soot-covered snow and mud align formally with the slanting shadow in the lower-left foreground, or the wash hanging from balconies in the alley that stretches diagonally off to the right. But, those vignettes are quickly foreclosed and the picturesque remains out of reach in Five Points. The young girl turns her back to the camera, running away from the viewer to join an undifferentiated human mass, a row of mostly men bundled against the cold. Their nearly identical dark coats stretch in a horizontal line to block any view down the alley and prevent the viewer from entering the scene. Moreover, although the faces of a few passersby are visible in profile, the men in the central group stand looking away from the camera and into the darkened space of the clothing house, perhaps anxious about what they see. No face looks out toward the viewer. Even the snow, a pleasant white haze in Winter-Fifth Avenue, in Five Points is a dirty, trampled undifferentiated gray mass the length of the image, mimicking, compositionally, the line of pedestrians. With its nearly motionless orderly scene, Stieglitz's Five Points avoided stereotyping the area as a den of iniquity and a hotbed of vice. But what pictorial conventions did Stieglitz substitute? How are we to understand this image? Resolutely unpicturesque, the composition bars the viewer as if the community and its possible contribution to American life would always be inaccessible to both photographer and audience.
What made photographing Five Points so important but difficult for Stieglitz? Whereas Fifth Avenue connoted privilege, Five Points suggested the impoverished slum of recently arrived immigrants, an association Stieglitz made explicit in an alternative title for the image-A New Importation. Contemporaneous movements in painting offered a model for depicting New York's working-class urban life. But, as I note in my introduction, Stieglitz called the "line, form, and color" of the American realist paintings of the Ashcan school "mediocre," saying of works by the group that he "could not feel committed to what was mere literature, just because it was labeled social realism." Although his own early narrative European scenes, such as A Good Joke and The Letter Box, actually resemble the Ashcan school's vignettes, a comparison of Five Points with George Luks's 1905 painting Street Scene (Hester Street) (Plate 1) demonstrates how far Stieglitz went to eliminate traces of narrative in his depiction of a nearly identical scene. An anonymous crowd fills the street in the upper portion of Luks's painting, yet briskly rendered foreground vignettes (including a top-hatted man demonstrating a toy to a crowd of children in the painting's center, a conversation between a butcher and his female customer at right, two bearded Jewish men strolling and conversing at left, and a man watching the scene in the painting's foreground) inject narrative and humanize the subjects. In Five Points, Stieglitz seems to represent his struggle to discover his own relation to America by eliminating such posed constructions of narrative.
With human figures turned away from the camera in Stieglitz's photograph, its most dynamic and commanding element is the large sign above the crowd at left. The dark space below it, into which the crowd disappears, highlights its wording. Five Points is Stieglitz's only photograph to give such attention to an advertisement, to the extent that it seems to title the image. The sign raises questions: What relation to America did Stieglitz find in this part of the city? Did he identify with Sol. Fineberg the Jewish merchant, urging us to give him a try? Or does Stieglitz, an assimilated German Jew, mock Fineberg and his cheap place as new eastern European importations?
Five Points must be considered in the context of the debate about modernizing Manhattan in which many, including Jacob Riis, called for razing the Five Points neighborhood, a plan carried out in part in 1897 with the conversion of Mulberry Bend into a park. Stieglitz's depiction seems not to agree with Riis's, but it is ambiguous. Stieglitz's textual account celebrates his experience in Five Point, but what of the image? It neither demonizes its subjects as dirty deviants nor heroizes them as tough individuals. By barring access to the scene, Stieglitz's image exposes the potential shortcomings of pluralism (perhaps against its author's intentions) as it deflects any understanding of otherness. Read in relation to Winter-Fifth Avenue, Five Points suggests the gaps in picturesque straight photography's ability to visualize the role of this "new importation." It does not remake its subjects in the model of Stieglitz's images of European peasants, nor does it use the narrative conventions of social realist painters or the style of Impressionist painters or illustrators of the West. Instead, the pictorial resistance and moral ambiguity of Stieglitz's photograph provoke questions of how and why to visualize the unique diversity of new urban populations.
Pleading for New York's Picturesqueness
Hartmann, in his essay "A Plea For the Picturesqueness of New York" of 1900, called on photographers to focus on neighborhoods like Five Points. In this piece, first published in Camera Notes, the journal Stieglitz edited for the New York Camera Club, Hartmann, like other modernists, celebrated the speed and crowds of the city. But for him the true goal of the photographer was to "give art the complexion of our time." Focusing on the varied, irregular, and picturesque neighborhoods most recalcitrant to modernization, Hartmann suggested that there, where the Old World crashed into the new, the medium of photography could produce unique representations of the composite nation and city. Hartmann catalogued the diverse settings available in New York, including "Paddy's market on Ninth Avenue or the Bowery"; the North [Hudson] and East Rivers with "graceful four-masted East Indiamen that anchor"; slums with almost Parisian qualities in "Jewtown"; and the Fulton fish market, "at its best on a morning during Lent," when mobbed by Catholic immigrants from Italy and Ireland. In locating the artistic photographer in these urban neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan, Hartmann implied that the straight photograph would create art precisely by capturing picturesquely the subjective uncertainty and anxiety about the "complexion" of twentieth-century America. Speaking with all the authority he had gained in Greenwich Village's bohemian scene, Hartmann guided his Camera Notes audience of white native-born, upper-class amateurs into New York's diverse immigrant neighborhoods to make photographs that were artistic, American, and straight.
In a following Camera Notes article, Hartmann advised photographers to take "journeys of exploration" with their cameras "into all the different foreign colonies of our metropolis," calling the alleys and tenements of Lower Manhattan "one of the most picturesque sites the city affords." Hartmann's celebration of immigrant neighborhoods as both foreign colonies ripe for exploration and New York's most picturesque sites seems initially counterintuitive. Carrie Tirado Bramen and other authors have pointed out, however, that the picturesqueness of immigrant neighborhoods was a common trope in representations of the late nineteenth-century city that diverted anxiety over foreignness into the less threatening category of the picturesque. In Hartmann's articulation foreign neighborhoods were tamed by the picturesque even as they were sites where the New York artistic photographer would most likely find distinctive subjects. Hartmann acknowledged that most artistic photographers, "still addicted to studio photography and long exposures," would find it threatening to explore the metropolis. Moving artistic photographers out of their studios and into the city, however, and shifting them from techniques requiring long exposure to those of the instantaneous snapshot were essential in establishing a language specific to photography.
The tasteful discernment of New York's own picturesqueness that Hartmann was attempting to inculcate in the artistic photographer worked in direct opposition to both studio photography and "the official camera of the Tenement House Commission." In offering artistic, picturesque photography in opposition to the official camera, Hartmann, provocatively, sets the artistic exploration of immigrant ghettos he proposes against the documentary accomplishments of reforming photographers like Riis, whom he sometimes mentions by name. Riis's photographic exposé of tenement conditions in the slums, including images he produced with the recently invented dazzling electric flashlamp while he accompanied police making raids, epitomized for Hartmann the work of the "official" camera. He proposed the use of an "artistic" camera to celebrate the picturesque pluralism and variety of the urban immigrant slum (rather than to provoke discomfort or outrage, like the "official" camera).
Riis, a Danish immigrant, who photographed New York's Lower East Side, saw the communities there as an un-American "queer conglomerate mass of heterogeneous elements ... [as] the once unwelcome Irishman has been followed in his turn by the Italian, the Russian Jew, and the Chinaman." Riis's negative characterizations of the neighborhood's mixture suggest that behind campaigns for assimilation through progressive social change, American reformers were troubled as much by ethnic and racial diversity as by social and economic inequality. Hartmann suggested that successful artistic photographs would create an alternative visual language to celebrate difference. That characterization would prove vital in defining straight photography and its potential for cultural work. But neither the putative picturesqueness of urban difference nor the essentialist celebrations of ethnic groups (rather than groups defined by some other difference) are flawless or faultless alternatives to reform photography's project of assimilation.
Hartmann's 1902 essay "Picturesque New York in Four Papers: The Esthetic Side of Jewtown" continued his argument for the pluralist urban picturesque, but its focus on a single immigrant group exposed the essentializing that the category produced. Although the article was intended to introduce a series, only this essay was published, in the penultimate issue of Camera Notes. Complicating matters still further, Hartmann wrote the essay under his new pseudonym, Sidney Allan, inspired, perhaps, by the initials of his friend Alfred Stieglitz, in reverse. Hartmann picked the name just when Stieglitz left Camera Notes and the New York Camera Club to found the Photo-Secession, and Hartmann wrote the technical articles about photography, for which Stieglitz was initially known, as Sidney Allan. As Stieglitz built his Photo-Secession group, he began to distance himself from Hartmann, who chose not to soften his criticism of other members of the Photo-Secession, such as Käsebier. Hartmann may even have designed the essentialist generalizations on "Jewtown" to make his Jewish photographer friend uncomfortable. In any event, Stieglitz had left Camera Notes by the time that journal published "The Esthetic Side of Jewtown."
Hartmann began his exploration of the Jewish neighborhood with a series of questions addressed to his Camera Notes readers: "What strange part of the city have we strayed to? Are we really in New York, at the beginning of the twentieth century, or have we suddenly been conveyed to some European town of the medieval times?" After dislocating the reader both spatially and temporally, Hartmann suggested further confusion in the sight of Hebrew letters and the sound of Yiddish, "the queer jargon of the street." The critic seems to have exaggerated the aural strangeness; as a native German speaker he probably understood much of the Yiddish he heard. Imagining the scene from the perspective of Camera Club members, Hartmann described their reaction: "To the Gentile, the aristocratic uptowner, this scene is like a nightmare. It reminds him involuntarily of some cheap dining-room of vast dimensions, which being open night and day is still warm and greasy from the previous meal, its huge tablecloth in the form of paving stones covered with remnants and refuse. A restaurant, where the orders to clear away are never given, and where a broom and clean linen are unknown things."
In likening the ghetto to a nightmarish restaurant, Hartmann suggested that visitors could use photography to master and consume the neighborhood (although he cautioned that the meal might not agree with them). Crowded and strange, with unhygienic sights and sounds, Jewtown "threatens to reach the neighboring districts and inundate all New York"-to spill over its borders and into the domain of the upper-class Manhattan of his readers. What could possibly protect them?
Photography was available precisely to mediate and tame the area's overwhelming effects into a picture. In the pages that followed, Hartmann described the Jewish neighborhood as "the most picturesque part of New York City, i.e., the one which lends itself most easily to artistic interpretation." Rather than evoke the neighborhood's filthy confusion (caused in part by substandard city services there), he hailed its "esthetic side," urging those who visited only Baxter and Ludlow Streets, where Riis had concentrated, not to overlook "the settings for a picture [that] are ready at every moment of the day. They surround you on all sides. You never need to wait for a composition. The crowd takes care of that. You only need to look into your finder and let the restless stream of humanity pass by." In phrasing that recalled the Eastman Kodak Company's slogan about the photographer's needing only to push a button to make a picture, Hartmann recast the neighborhood's ominous disorder as the variety and irregularity of a naturally picturesque milieu for the artistic photographer. New York's Jewish neighborhood was the perfect subject for the photographer, who could capture the "instantaneous fragments of life" there and "conquer this domain" by representing it visually. Artistic photography, unlike Riis's "official" photography, was about creating images that invite viewers to appreciate difference in the pluralist city. Although many progressives embraced tenets of pluralist variety at the turn of the century, Hartmann's artistic photographer, appropriating and exploiting the Jewish neighborhood's inhabitants to represent their difference as worthy of appreciation, shows how pluralist celebration could also act to frame the limits of acceptable difference.
Hartmann drew some attention to the shortcomings of pluralism and the picturesque in his narrative tour of the Jewish neighborhood. He pointed to the men delivering goods to sweatshops as representatives of the "dark side of Jewtown," exposing problems that neither law nor philanthropy had solved. But he quickly returned to the (now destabilized) role of aesthetic guide, writing breezily that "we have no time to follow them to the qualmy rooms of the sweatshops, the pictures there are too dreary and we are only in search of the picturesque." Hartmann implicitly acknowledged the shortcomings of the picturesque, but chose not to explore them. For him, because the pleasant picturesqueness of Jewish life, captured in the artistic photograph, could shape middle- and upper-class perceptions of the neighborhood, finding that picturesque mattered more than expressing the actual conditions. Hartmann used picturesqueness strategically to carve out a new space for the immigrant as part of the nation and for photography as part of the art world.
Further aestheticizing perceived difference, Hartmann posited that the persistent "dinginess and squalor" of the initially repulsive Jewish neighborhood emerged in the straight representation as a harmonious pictorial generalization. "Filth," Hartmann wrote, "is the great harmonizer in the pictorial arts, the wizard who can render every scene and object-even the humblest one-picturesque." Crediting that idea to great artists including Rembrandt, Hartmann made a rare reference to what photography could take from painting. His citation of the Dutch master had special relevance to early twentieth-century American art: the progressive Stieglitz circle critic Charles Caffin would celebrate Rembrandt as a realist who had rejected the academic grandeur of the Greeks and Italians in favor of "the real types of poor Jews in the Ghetto, or Jew-quarter, of Amsterdam." Hartmann referred to Rembrandt to urge photographers to go into the streets of New York's Jewish quarter to capture picturesque types with their cameras, suggesting that the American photographer, in emulating Rembrandt, might rival his artistry.
Although he began his case study of a picturesque New York neighborhood by describing its refuse-covered streets, Hartmann, in his aesthetic references, distilled the neighborhood's "real types" (even if they were dirty). He argued that straight photography-simply looking through the finder to still and abstract an image from the flow of humanity-was an ideal tool of cultural and aesthetic pluralism. Only outside the studio would photographers see, capture, and celebrate the unique qualities of both the neighborhood's inhabitants and the medium of photography itself. Neither Stieglitz's heroic abstracted individual-his Fifth Avenue cabman-nor his resistant image of Five Points satisfied Hartmann's plea for New York's new picturesqueness, but in leaving the studio for the street, the photographer instituted a new method and subject for artistic photographers. Reading Hartmann's discomforting praise of urban voyeurism and picturesque filth, however, serves as a reminder that acts of looking and acts of representation exert power; Hartmann and Stieglitz's artistic camera was not, in itself, politically "better" than Riis and Hine's official camera. Both were socially engaged in a larger debate. Hartmann, in distinguishing between the official camera and the artistic camera, described two ways photography could engage with difference in the social sphere at the turn of the century.
Creating and Critiquing the Photo-Secession
Stieglitz, in contrast to Hartmann, focused on building an inclusive (and ambiguous) notion of straight photography for the Photo-Secession in his new publication Camera Work. He positioned his journal as the new independent voice for his group, with a strict publication policy and a focus on "modern photography." In his attempt to advance the group's artistic credentials, he celebrated the photography of Käsebier in the inaugural issue, suppressing the debates about her work that had been staged in Camera Notes in 1899, when Stieglitz had pitted laudatory articles against negative criticism by Hartmann. Stieglitz introduced Käsebier's images by noting they had been "produced from the original negatives, which, by the way, are absolutely straight photography, being in no way faked, doctored or retouched." In that description of straight, Stieglitz used the phrase "by the way" as if to raise the troublesome issue casually, focusing exclusively on the photographic negative and ignoring the imagery, which Hartmann had criticized for following the precedent of painting in both subject and method. Hartmann had complained that Käsebier's work in the studio failed to fulfill the most basic principle of photography: that its images originate in the observation of a scene and the unposed figures within it. He lamented that "nothing that is going on around her in this great city seems to interest and excite her," noting that whatever encouraged photographers such as Käsebier to prefer "their lurid, stifling studio atmosphere to the urban environment outdoors" was not any lack in the city, "but an intense tediousness in the seer." Käsebier, controlling all elements of the photograph in her studio-including the costume, pose, and expression of her sitters-indiscriminately and nostalgically mimicked precedents in painting. In his vigorous criticism of Käsebier's confusion of media and use of the studio, Hartmann departed from Stieglitz, who celebrated Käsebier as a painter, hoping that her work and that of other artists would lead to the acceptance of photography as art.
Although Stieglitz proclaimed Käsebier's work straight, like his own, her photographs were also excellent foils for his recent experiment. Although it may now seem self-evident that modernist photography would focus on the modern city, two photographs showcased in the first issue of Camera Work, Käsebier's Red Man (Figure 11) and Stieglitz's Hand of Man (Figure 12), demonstrate radically different conceptions of artistic straight photography in the early Photo-Secession. Stieglitz's urban train yard differs dramatically from Käsebier's staged studio portrait of a Native American man, inspired by her frontier childhood memories. Scholars have disagreed on the implications of her Indian portraits: Are they empathetic, patronizing, or even racist? Juxtaposing her straight photography with Stieglitz's, however, suggests that Käsebier's fault in the eyes of prescient avant-gardists like Hartmann lay in her use of her studio to avoid the city and nostalgically remake modern performers from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show into her own frontier characters. With hindsight, Stieglitz's and Käsebier's photographs in Camera Work's first issue indicate the eventually irreconcilable ideas of the medium's appropriate uses and limits that led to Hartmann's more comprehensive (and restrictive) definition of straight photography and eventually to the demise of the Photo-Secession.
The Red Man
Käsebier was already a well-known photographer when Stieglitz chose her to be the inaugural artist featured in Camera Work. The five photogravures of her work that opened the first issue-four posed portraits of white women, including two characteristic images of mothers in flowing white gowns, Blessed Art Thou among Women (Figure 13) and The Manger (Figure 14), and one of a Native American man, The Red Man (Figure 11)-showcased the two subjects for which she was most famous. Käsebier traced her interest in and aptitude for photographing women and Native Americans to her biography. Born Gertrude Stanton to an old American Quaker family in Fort Des Moines, Iowa, on May 18, 1852, she traveled with her family eight years later into the newly opened Colorado Territory. The journey west was marked by repeated Indian attacks, but when they arrived in Colorado, Käsebier's granddaughter records, Gertrude became "the first white child that had ever been in that state, and she was made much of." Käsebier fondly recalled one playtime with Native Americans who borrowed her, the novel white baby, from her parents. Her family relocated to Brooklyn during the Civil War, when Gertrude was twelve, but she later claimed, "I was born and brought up among the Indians and never got over it." As she became a professional artist, both Käsebier and the press used her frontier heritage to frame both her personality traits (the independence necessary to start a lucrative business as a female photographer) and her interest in Native Americans as photographic subjects. Käsebier used her Western genealogy to bolster her position as an aesthetic frontierswoman, tracing her artistic inspiration to her grandmother, whom she described as a "splendid, strong, pioneer type of woman." Scholars have examined Käsebier's role as a woman in the Photo-Secession, and I draw here on their work to explore Käsebier's identity as a self-conscious "pioneer type," born on the nation's western frontier.
Käsebier publicized her frontier memories in a 1901 article devoted to her Native American portraits in Everybody's Magazine. The long essay, most likely written by Käsebier herself, explained that the photographs had been inspired by a "'Wild West' parade" that had passed in the street below her New York studio, stimulating her memories of childhood among "the bands of roving red men, still free to come and go at will, with never a thought of 'reservations.'" Käsebier remained in her studio (she did not rush down the stairs to capture the urban parade), lamenting that her view of the procession was quickly cut off by the "inexorable brick walls" of the city. Her nostalgia, however, impelled her to write Buffalo Bill Cody, asking if "some of his Sioux braves might be allowed to pay a call on an old friend of their tribe." Although the article first describes the images Käsebier had created during the resulting visits as a "new phase of the Sioux," the narrative resorts to such stereotypes of Native Americans as "naïveté and cunning simplicity," even quoting Käsebier on her nostalgic desire "to see a real raw Indian for a change ... the kind I used to see when I was a child." Full of what the historian Laura Wexler has called "unconscious condescension," Käsebier's essay concludes by urging other artists to look for "material," not in the modern lives of Native Americans, but in the "fast-vanishing life and customs of Western tribes." Käsebier positioned her photographs as portraits of a vanishing race she remembered from her childhood, suppressing the complications of her sitters' status as performers of difference, brought to New York by a showman.
Many of Buffalo Bill's performers came to Käsebier's studio to be photographed, but as her granddaughter recalled, "They never wholly relaxed when the camera was there," because of their "superstitious fear" that "the soul left the body and was transferred to the picture" during the making of a photograph. That discomfort, according to Käsebier, had made it difficult to capture the Native American personality as well as she could capture that of her white sitters, more accustomed to being photographed. Of her many Native American portraits, she deemed The Red Man the most successful. In it, after many uninspiring visits by the performers, "finally, one of them, petulant, raised his blanket around his shoulders and stood before the camera. I snapped and had it." The formal qualities of the resulting image-the close cropping, tight focus, and even the white stripe of the blanket that continues down the subject's forehead and nose, bisecting the picture plane-seem to mark it as an archetypical modernist straight photograph. Käsebier's story also implies that the photograph was a candid snapshot. Although she described how training and patience had figured in the success of her image, much as Stieglitz had in his narrative of Winter-Fifth Avenue, Hartmann, comparing her work with photographs of Native Americans taken by Edward Curtis on his travels through the West, pointed out that Käsebier's differed in its reliance on the studio as a site where she controlled the depiction of her subject.
Even before Käsebier's work appeared in Camera Work, Hartmann had faulted her use of the studio to control her sitters, complaining that "they are not allowed to reveal the secrets of their existence or to lead the lives they live outside, they are simply transformed into pictorial visions" dreamed up by Käsebier. Photographs like The Manger, which was not shot in a studio, he argued, were nonetheless hampered by "the stifling artificial atmosphere in which Mrs. Käsebier places them." Käsebier, in dressing the women she photographed in long flowing white robes, and in choosing other visual details, such as the print in the background of Blessed Art Thou Among Women, followed the example of William Morris's nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts movement. Hartmann, however, attacked Käsebier's use of such costumes and props: "Such people as Mrs. Käsebier depicts are very scarce on our streets, and whenever they appear they do it to the great sorrow of the rest of humanity. Why should a respectable citizen be transformed into an eye sore?" Dismissing visual tropes of symbolism drawn from past artists, he urged photographers not to look backward, arguing, "Our modern life is beautiful enough, and our modern garb in no way less picturesque or absurd (just as you like) than that of Holbein's or Velasquez's time." Advocating direct observation of modern life, Hartmann disapproved of Käsebier's use of the modern camera in the studio to control her subject and to regress in time, eliminating the urban landscape's "inexorable brick walls" to depict her own nostalgic fantasy of childhood playtime on the frontier. Hartmann had counseled photographers to take to the city even for their portraits of Native Americans, pointing out that among the many "foreign colonies" of New York was a "small Indian settlement at West Broadway" with residents-including "Sioux and Iroquois chieftains in war dress, and their bead-embroidering squaws"-who could be photographed "at studio prices for fifty cents per hour." Rather than observe Native Americans directly, on the street of a pluralistic city, or even admit the financial enticements studio photographers offered, Käsebier credited her frontier childhood memories and her mysterious "psychic powers" for her ability to connect with and photograph Native Americans.
Käsebier's claim of psychic connection did not prevent the separation of The Red Man, when it was included in Camera Work, from her images of white women. Käsebier's biographer, Barbara Michaels, notes that four portraits and scenes of white femininity, printed on fragile white Japanese tissue, constitute the opening pages of the journal, whereas The Red Man follows, separated from the group by a blank page and reproduced on a heavy tan paper. Michaels calls the choice of different paper "compatible" with the different subjects, but it can also be read as a mechanism for maintaining and emphasizing visual separation. Pyne points out that Käsebier, unlike influential male pictorialist photographers, was herself a white bourgeois mother: she embodied the feminine "refinement and civilization" pictured in her photographs. In Annunciation and Nativity scenes, such as Blessed Art Thou among Women and The Manger, two of the images included in Camera Work, she figured the anonymous white woman as "the universal mother." Wexler has linked Käsebier's emphasis on white motherhood with period worries about so-called race suicide, the decline of Anglo-Saxon birth rates in relation to those of other groups, especially immigrants. Seeing in Käsebier's Native American portrait a reenactment of the Sioux's defeat at Wounded Knee, Wexler suggests how the formal separation of the women's portraits from The Red Man helps to contain whatever sexual threat the Native American might pose and reinforces his position in the nostalgic past of Käsebier's childhood. In Camera Work's first issue, The Red Man defines the limits of whiteness, linking the white women of Käsebier's photographs and setting them as a group against the Native American.
The art historian Elizabeth Hutchinson argues that the extensive coverage of Native American performers' visits to Käsebier's studio in women's magazines of the period underscores the shift in standards of female behavior, demonstrating how Käsebier, in her studio, could remake the world and exert there a power of looking that preceding generations of women had often been denied. According to Hutchinson, Hartmann's attack on Käsebier's use of the studio was motivated by sexist and anticommercial biases. Beyond his possible prejudice against her gender and class, however, Hartmann also saw Käsebier's remaking of the world in her studio as a retreat from photography's appropriate focus on the urban present, an escape enabled by her backward turn to varied historical precedents, from the American frontier to European Arts and Crafts. In addition to exploring Käsebier's control of her photographic subjects in her studio, Hutchinson connects her Native American portraits with social work on behalf of Native American causes, which empowered the women who undertook it. Other art historians have also read The Red Man as an appeal for aid; Pyne, for example, views the bright face framed by darkness as a call for "the protection of those who have transformed them into mere spectacle and mass entertainment." Käsebier's image certainly does not follow the visual conventions of Riis's or Hine's, but the analyses of her photograph discussed here return us to Hartmann, who opposed the official camera, which was used to foster assimilation, to the artistic camera, which could reveal characteristics in difference worth celebrating in a pluralist nation. Käsebier, in the studio, used photography to re-create and tame her nostalgic memory of difference rather than to produce shocking representations of difference in the present. But the images she produced, like those of Hartmann's official photographers, defined American identity as one characterized by assimilation to a single dominant norm. I do not mean to claim here that the "reality" Stieglitz found in the working classes of Five Points was more truthful or less exploitive of its subjects than Käsebier's photographs. Rather, the status of both as exemplary straight photographs (made from "original negatives" that were not "faked, doctored or retouched") demonstrates the range of meanings straight photography connoted and the medium's variety of acceptable practices in the early years of Stieglitz's Photo-Secession.
The Hand of Man
Stieglitz found his straight photographic image of man, not in a studio, but in a locomotive and branching track he photographed in a New York train yard. He described the photograph in Camera Work as "an attempt to treat pictorially a subject which enters so much into our daily lives that we are apt to lose sight of the pictorial possibilities." Like Käsebier's Red Man and his own Winter-Fifth Avenue, however, Stieglitz's Hand of Man can be situated in the pictorial history of the expanding American West. The dark plume of smoke recalls an earlier trope in American painting, exemplified by George Inness's Lackawanna Valley (Figure 15), which used railroads to dramatize the gap between the pastoral and the industrial, the past and the future. Stieglitz's image departed from that tradition, however, by depicting only the urban present, marked by crisscrossing electrical lines and buildings encroaching from either side. The rail yard in Long Island City that is the subject of Stieglitz's photograph further emphasized the pictorial break between his straight photography and such painted images.
With its symbolic, even biblical title, The Hand of Man has been read both as a celebration of progress and a condemnation of the increasingly industrialized landscape of human life. A close reading of the representation and the narrative of its making reveals the work as depicting humanity's impact on nature and as visualizing straight photography's entry into the art world-the black locomotive racing into a darkened urban foreground. Although not everyone would have recognized the rail yard, Long Island City was best known, among Stieglitz's affluent artistic peers, as the West End terminal, where passengers arriving by ferry from Manhattan boarded the trains to artist colonies on the eastern end of the island. The Long Island City train terminal was considered the beginning of an aesthete's vacation from the city, not an artistic destination in its own right. Artists who vacationed on Long Island, including Stieglitz's fellow pictorial photographer Edward Steichen, who would create famous atmospheric landscapes on the island's eastern end a few years later (Figure 16), waited for scenes traditionally considered pictorial. In The Hand of Man Stieglitz instead used straight photography to explore the new possibilities offered by common experiences in urban modern life.
In The Hand of Man Stieglitz used dirt, filth, and the locomotive's black smoke to eliminate "pictorial discord," just as Hartmann had advised. Stieglitz's image of the metropolis, however, eliminated human subjects entirely, ignoring Hartmann's urging that straight photography capture the spirit of new types of urban inhabitants as well as their industrial landscape. The expanding railway heralded by Stieglitz's image was intended to transform Long Island City, the center of the borough of Queens (which was incorporated into New York City only in 1898), into a destination for Manhattan workers fleeing the problems of the tenement house-or so a 1903 study of the New York housing problem suggested. When the rail tunnel, begun in 1902, the year The Hand of Man was created, replaced the undependable ferry across the East River, "very cheap lands in Queens" would be within commuting distance of Manhattan. That would help to alleviate part of the tenement house problem, an issue considered "intimately connected" to immigration, by allowing some better-paid workers to leave Manhattan's densely populated buildings for small suburban houses. Thus Stieglitz's image, photographed in Long Island City just as plans for this new commuter tunnel began circulating, can be seen to forecast the coming of immigrants, the spread of the city, and a new model of the urban picturesque.
Stieglitz discussed The Hand of Man briefly in a tutorial he wrote on photographic composition, advising photographers that only their own "originality" would save them from "machine-made work." Stieglitz's use of the phrase "machine-made" is instructive in the context of this photograph, for by embracing and remaking the train yard's mechanical landscape, by taking the photograph from the moving train, Stieglitz negotiated the terms of his "mechanical art" and revalued them as "straight." Stieglitz's brief note on the verso of the railroad image-"original negative 4 x 5 made from back of train / Long Island City 1902"-sheds light on this much discussed picture and helps explain what prompted Stieglitz to call this new photograph a "milestone." In photographing from a moving train, Stieglitz eliminated much of the method celebrated in Winter-Fifth Avenue. Stieglitz could not wait hours for the perfect shot to compose itself, but had to ride along a fixed railroad track at a speed he could not control. The Hand of Man thus implied the possibility of using a mechanical production-the straight photograph-to still the overwhelming and expanding mechanized urban landscape so that it could be understood. Unlike Käsebier, who looked back to her childhood and the western frontier in her studio photograph The Red Man, Stieglitz used photography to define a new image of the American landscape.
"Picture-like Qualities" or "Pictured Vision"
Although the definition of straight photography in Hartmann's 1904 manifesto "A Plea for Straight Photography" is now read as congruent with that of Stieglitz and his Photo-Secession, the essay actually led to the critic's spectacular break with the group. Hartmann presented his plea, the first explicit theorization of straight photography, in a review of the Photo-Secession's exhibition at the Carnegie Institute, in Pittsburgh, asking whether the group was "not doing injustice to a beautiful method of graphic expression, and at times debasing the powers which sixty years of photographic research and progress have established." Hartmann explained part of the sixty-year history, noting that in pursuing pictorial photography, which had emerged as a "revolt from conventional photographic rendering of sharp detail and harsh contrasts," the Photo-Secession had recently gone too far in the other direction, to fuzzy prints. Much of what Hartmann wrote in his plea followed from his early praise of Stieglitz's photographs and the complaints he had been making for years against Käsebier.
Hartmann faulted photographers who "overstep all legitimate boundaries and deliberately mix up photography with the technical devices of painting and the graphic arts" in their "striving after picture-like qualities and effects." Instead of using techniques of other media to achieve the "picture-like," photographers should "rely on your camera, on your eye, on your good taste and on your knowledge of space division, [and] patiently wait until the scene or object of your pictured vision reveals itself in its supremest moment of beauty. In short, compose the picture so well that the negative will be absolutely perfect and in need of no or but slight manipulation." Any "slight manipulation" or retouching should be in keeping with "the natural qualities of photographic technique"; there should be no recourse to "the brush, to finger daubs, to scrawling, scratching, and scribbling on the plate," and no "blurred effects." Although the manipulation of the negative Hartmann rejected is now often viewed as the decisive factor in straight photography, Hartmann sketched a more important distinction between "picture-like qualities" and the artist's "pictured vision" in his definition. In privileging the camera, as well as the photographer's eye, taste, training, and patience, Hartmann defined straight photography as a process of realizing a "pictured vision" that went far beyond the absence of handwork on the negative.
Hartmann compared photography to etching, a medium sometimes used to copy other arts that also had its own qualities of sketchy linearity, which true masters of the medium explored. He reasoned that legitimate straight photography would become a "great expressional instrument" only if true artistic photographers would likewise rely upon and cultivate their own medium's characteristics and process. He intended by his criticism to right the course of artistic photography (carried astray by pictorialism), encouraging new methods of photography that would be "more artistic, but only in legitimate ways." Photography's acceptance into the pantheon of fine arts, he argued, would "only be accomplished by straight photography." Photographers, to become artists, had to make a distinct contribution of their own, by speaking in the native language of photography.
Stieglitz reprinted Hartmann's review of the Pittsburgh show in the April 1904 issue of Camera Work and, in the same issue, published an article, signed "Klingsor, the Magician" but written by Hartmann, entitled "A Pilgrimage to the Secession Shrine at Pittsburgh." Taking the Photo-Secession to task under his own name in yet another essay in that issue of Camera Work, Hartmann wrote a poem entitled "A Monologue" that opened by asking, "To paint or to photograph-that is the question," and proceeding then to mock Käsebier and other pictorialists. The photographer Curtis Bell, who was forming a group he hoped would rival Stieglitz's, recruited Hartmann, who then wrote letters and published articles in a variety of publications directed at photographers, explaining why he was fed up with Stieglitz. Tempers flared on both sides; Joseph Keiley, a juror of the Photo-Secession's Pittsburgh exhibition and Stieglitz's close friend, wrote Stieglitz that Hartmann was "an ingrate, blackguard and cowardly cur." Hartmann, only briefly Bell's ally, soon exiled himself from the Photo-Secession and toured the United States, lecturing on, and crusading for, straight photography and American art. In early 1908, however, Hartmann resumed his working relationship with Stieglitz and again published essays in Camera Work. By then, the feud over photography's proper role had been resolved in his favor.
Käsebier's relations with the Stieglitz circle chilled permanently in 1907 as the divide widened between those who embraced Hartmann's definition of strictly straight photography and those who favored pictorialism, created in the studio or effected by manipulating the negative and the print. Charles Caffin, a critic who had praised Käsebier's photographs in Camera Work's first issue, made fun of her in an article of October 1907, portraying himself as the victim of a thinly disguised Käsebier-type who transformed him as sitter into "a victim of gum-emotionalis"-that is, a subject infected with a strain of delirious emotional disease by his depiction in gum-bichromate (a photographic material used to produce layered painterly effects). In Caffin's barbed and humorous assessment, the manipulation of sitter, studio environment, negative, and final print for which Käsebier had become famous no longer transformed her subjects into symbols of refinement or proof of photography's artistry; now she made them mentally unstable caricatures.
Käsebier's friend (and Hartmann's enemy) Joseph Keiley wrote in the same issue of Camera Work to defend the pictorialist photographer against Caffin's attack. He described Käsebier's vision of the Native American as that of "a child ... who came to look upon the Indian as part of that wild nature whose beauty she knew, whose brutality she was too young to grasp." Keiley, who hoped, with the somber celebratory tone of his article, to offset Caffin's barbs, also implied that Käsebier's photographic vision of her life on the frontier had begun to seem naive and nostalgic even to sympathetic critics. The peaceful and playful memory she drew on to photograph Buffalo Bill's Native American performers in her studio idealized and sanitized the actual violence of frontier encounters. In both Caffin's and Keiley's articles, Käsebier's use of the techniques from her training as a painter seemed, misguidedly, to cover up the real personality of the individual and the brutality of history. Käsebier was no longer the ideal representative of photography as an art.
Scholars have noted how Stieglitz, in pursuit of a more masculine modernism, began to distance his group from the self-consciously refined, feminized pictorial photography Käsebier represented. Changes in the Photo-Secession's definition of the role of photography responded to period concerns about race and ethnicity in addition to those about gender and class. Differences of opinion about gender and commercialism undoubtedly played a part, but the split was rooted in the new assumption that photography was best used to capture a "pictured vision" of the urban present directly, rather than to re-create "picture-like qualities" in posed studio invocations of other artistic media that looked back to previous constructions of American identity. The locus of a photograph's straightness and purity passed from the original negative to all elements of the photographer's subject, method, and rhetoric.
In the spring and summer of 1907, as Stieglitz was in the midst of distancing Camera Work and himself from Käsebier and pictorialism, he took a trip with his family to Europe. Sailing from New York, he took the photograph titled The Steerage, an image that has become a landmark in the history of photography, frequently celebrated as a modernist masterpiece and the exemplar of straight photography (Plate 2). Shutting the door on painterly photographs, Stieglitz wrote that The Steerage had "opened up a new era of photography, of seeing." In making this image Stieglitz rejected even the minimal, accepted, intervention of cropping, as the small hats floating at the bottom of the frame indicate. This image of the steerage-class passengers occupying two decks of a transatlantic steamer responds to both of Hartmann's calls-to photograph immigrants and to shoot them straight.
In 1942 Stieglitz wrote "How The Steerage Happened," recounting how he came to take the photograph. In this piece, he downplayed the content of the image and stressed its formal relations. Scholarly reconsiderations of this textual work have unraveled the factual and conceptual problems in Stieglitz's retrospective account. Rather than dismiss Stieglitz's late-life recollection, I argue that a new understanding of The Steerage emerges from a close reading of its disjoints and breaks. Stieglitz, inspired by desires similar to those that had prompted him to escape the artificial world of New York business (and had resulted in the earlier photograph Five Points, New York), began his narrative by describing the oppressive atmosphere in first class aboard the "fashionable" ship his wife had "insisted upon." He claimed to have sat for three days in his steamer chair, his eyes closed, feeling "completely out of place" in first class with "those voices and that English." In search of other voices and languages, Stieglitz wrote of walking "as far forward on deck as I could" to flee first class. At the very limit of the first-class deck, he "stood alone, looking down" at "the men and women and children on the lower deck of the steerage." Stieglitz was "fascinated" (as he had been when making Five Points), wishing to "join those people," but he noted the forbidding bridge, "glistening in its freshly painted state.It was rather long, white, and during the trip remained untouched by anyone." As Allan Sekula argues, this passage in the text converts the image to "pure symbolist autobiography," a scene made up of two worlds, one that entraps and one that liberates and the bridge that separates them. Whereas in Five Points the viewer is visually barred from the image, the easily entered pictorial space of The Steerage requires the supplement of Stieglitz's story to make the bridge an instrument of separation.
The photograph is often interpreted as a portrait of immigrants arriving in the United States, but the fashionable Kaiser Wilhelm II, on which the Stieglitzes sailed, was actually returning its passengers to Europe. Although those depicted might have been turned away at Ellis Island, that possibility, statistically, is unlikely: only about two percent of all immigrants were denied entry in 1907. An estimated quarter of the sixteen million immigrants who arrived to the United States between 1900 and 1930, however, returned, by choice, to their home countries during the same period. The frequent sailings of relatively comfortable and speedy steamships had made it possible for skilled artisans to commute in two-year cycles between Europe and America. In 1907, the year Stieglitz photographed The Steerage, the U.S. Congress established an Immigration Commission to examine how new phenomena such as reverse and temporary migration had changed the character of immigration. After a three-year study that cost approximately a million dollars, the commission produced forty-one expansive volumes with tables and charts explaining the new phase of immigration. Stieglitz reacted differently.
He recalled being "spellbound" before the shipboard scene of working-class subjects on their way to Europe. When he narrated the experience, he gave a much-quoted list of its formal elements-the shape of a circular hat, a funnel, the stairway, the mast, and so forth-which became equivalents of his feelings: "I saw a picture of shapes and underlying that the feeling I had about life." In Stieglitz's narrative, the photograph's formal structure contains the immigrants who are its subject matter. But the image belies Stieglitz's narrative subordination of passengers to shapes and inanimate structure, for if Stieglitz, in his story, describes the structure of the photograph as the ship's inanimate elements, the compositional triangle created in the image by the mast (which he highlighted in his text) is inverted by another triangular shape created by the heads of the three infants onboard. The structure of the ship and its human element, the passengers, are intimately linked, playing against one another and in concert. Stieglitz seems to have found in the composition of The Steerage solutions to the challenges of Five Points. The hanging wash and the girl at lower right playing on the ladder seem to mimic the picturesque vignettes of Five Points, but in The Steerage those figures turn toward the viewer to create a scene with many more such episodes: interaction between mothers and children, conversations, and even solitary contemplation-for example, by the man in the boater hat on the upper deck gazing at the blond-haired woman below. Human figures in The Steerage have space to make their own world, facing forward, looking at each other and toward the viewer. Although Stieglitz's narrative points only to the man in the boater looking down at passengers, the gaze of every passenger on the upper deck of the steerage is just as interesting, as they look inquisitively and authoritatively back at Stieglitz and his camera. Whereas in the slum of Five Points Stieglitz made the immigrants an undifferentiated mass with the image's relentless horizontal sameness, the scene in The Steerage unfolds on two levels, creating a dynamic vertical composition in which empathetic subjects interact with each other, with the photographer, and with "us," the viewers of their image.
The figures in The Steerage manage, in spite of their stillness, to transcend the strange static quality of those in Five Points. The calm of the image differs from that of Winter-Fifth Avenue, in which a fast-moving object was hunted and captured by the camera. Stieglitz, in his account of The Steerage, recalled noticing the scene and then racing to his cabin to retrieve his camera, fearing that someone would move and change the shapes of the scene but returning to find (perhaps incredibly) that "seemingly no one had changed position." Stieglitz here did not wait patiently for the image, as he had in Winter-Fifth Avenue, but built instead-on the deck of one of the largest and fastest new transatlantic steamers-on the lessons he had learned while carried along a fixed railroad track photographing The Hand of Man, using the structure of the modern machine to set the limits of his straight photograph. With the addition of the human element in The Steerage, Stieglitz was forced to rely on the steerage-class passengers, figures who, by remaining in place, seemed to participate in making their own image. Indeed, Stieglitz's image and narrative imply that these very passengers had been waiting to be photographed by him as much as they were waiting to arrive in Europe.
As Stieglitz narrated his decision to get his camera so that he could "try to put down this seemingly new vision," he wrote that at just this moment-at the cusp of deciding to capture his feelings and the subject in an image-"Rembrandt came into my mind and I wondered if he would have felt as I was feeling." Initially, Stieglitz's thinking of Rembrandt at the moment of his new modernist photographic vision seems contradictory. The Steerage, lacking the lighting effects and rich brown tones for which the Dutch master was so famous, does not seem especially Rembrandtesque. Scholars have explained Stieglitz's invocation of Rembrandt only in relation to the photographer's strident denial that cubism or any other modern art movement had influenced his own modernist equation of formal elements in the scene with his emotions. Yet the invocation of Rembrandt points Stieglitz's reader/viewer to straight photography's medium specificity; to Hartmann's belief in the pluralist mission of the straight photograph (and his celebration of the urban filth of New York's immigrant neighborhoods as characteristic and delightfully Rembrandtesque); and to Stieglitz's own earlier image of Five Points. In mentioning Rembrandt, Stieglitz reveals that his 1907 modernist image originated as another attempt to transform the lessons learned from the painter into a straight photographic language to depict the conditions of immigrants and to show the possibilities of cultural and aesthetic pluralism.
The narrative drama of Stieglitz's race to his cabin with Rembrandt on his mind continues with his statement that (although he was just beginning his journey) he had only one plate left, one chance to photograph the scene. Even after he had exposed the plate and recorded the image, the photographic process remained fraught, with Stieglitz searching for a darkroom in which to develop his image on arriving in Paris (difficult, somehow, even though he had come there to visit the photographer Edward Steichen). Having located a darkroom, Stieglitz discovered "the negative was perfect in every particular. Would anything happen to it before I got to New York?" After protecting the image during his four months of travel, he claimed that even on returning to New York, he had been "too nervous to make a proof of the negative." Although this extension of narrative drama to all aspects of the artistic process may strain credulity, it serves to emphasize the photograph's straightness.
Stieglitz extended the account from the discovery of the image to its framing and then to the transportation, development, and printing of the plate to emphasize the layered honesty of the straight photograph. The challenges Stieglitz recounted in his 1942 story of The Steerage became the version of straight photography celebrated by younger modernist photographers, such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, who positioned themselves as Stieglitz's artistic inheritors. When Edward Weston argued that "photography is basically too honest a medium for recording superficial aspects of a subject," he repeated the moral objections to artifice that had motivated Hartmann's attacks on Käsebier but rejected the relation between photographic honesty and pluralist urban subjects to concentrate on form for its own sake. For mid-twentieth-century modernist photographers, a photograph's formal qualities-from its precise recording of fine detail to its lucid brilliance of tone-defined its honest straightness; this formalist emphasis, which Stieglitz's narrative of The Steerage participated in, advanced photography's status as a modernist medium in the dominant art world language of Clement Greenberg's medium specificity.
At the very end of his account of making The Steerage Stieglitz explained why he did not show or publish the photograph until 1911, recalling how he had been disappointed by the unenthusiastic reaction of the first person to whom he showed the image-his friend Joseph Keiley (one of Hartmann's most impassioned enemies), who had protested, "But you have two pictures there, Stieglitz." Although it seems unlikely that Stieglitz would have hidden his image simply because his friend objected, Keiley's comment perceptively describes The Steerage. His critique seems aimed at the separation of the upper and lower decks depicted in the image, the formal bifurcation that has come to be seen as the very evidence of the photograph's modernist viewpoint. Yet Keiley's declaration operates on several registers: The Steerage is effective on Hartmann's terms as a straight photograph of American immigration because it is two pictures-a photograph depicting its subject, its maker, and its medium as poised between past and future, foreign and familiar, common people and upper class, Europe and America, technical rhetoric and empathetic subject. While many authors have seen irony in an image of the immigrants' journey to America that actually depicts their return to Europe, perhaps Stieglitz's willingness to foster the misunderstanding was instead strategic. The way for Stieglitz, as an artistic photographer, to picture immigrants was to photograph them when they were no longer immigrants at all, no longer compelled to chose between assimilating and becoming citizens or remaining tied to their native land. Positioned precisely in the ocean between two possibilities, during a pause in the narrative, lacking the stereotypes of regional identification that were the studio photographer's stock-in-trade, Stieglitz's image presages a modern, pluralist, transnational citizen. In fact, the progressive author Randolph Bourne, who coined the term "Trans-national America" in 1916, celebrated dual citizenship and called for the "free and mobile passage of the immigrant between America and his native land." Bourne focused on the positive effects of those immigrants in their native and adopted countries; Stieglitz showed the moment and means of their physical transportation, leaving their ultimate impact much less clear.
Stieglitz's Steerage and Hartmann's definition of straight photography have become accepted in the history of photography as the apolitical formal and technical terms celebrated by photographers in the mid-twentieth century. A cultural disagreement about the value of immigrants to the nation also lies at the root of the historical discourse on photographic medium specificity. The success of Hartmann's plea-that photography become an art form central to the art world by developing its own native language instead of one adopted from other media-has made it difficult to imagine the negotiations and pressures in the turn-of-the-century American movement for artistic photography. Situating Stieglitz's image and Hartmann's text in the context of period debates about the role of photography restores their essential engagement with the national struggle between assimilation and pluralism as modes of grappling with difference.
Hartmann's definition of straight photography engaged the social sphere, but his pluralist vision of the art world also entailed the propensity for reduction to formalism that was subsequently associated with straight photography. Heeding Walter Benn Michaels's caution on the hazardous tendency of cultural pluralism to reduce all difference to the stereotypes of racial difference, we must also be aware of the danger of a pluralist view of medium in the art world. Just as Hartmann, in calling attention to New York's picturesqueness, celebrated only the diverting difference of immigrants, so also his plea for straight photography essentialized all difference between media in formal terms-a methodology of medium specificity that would be carried further in the midcentury modernist aesthetics of Clement Greenberg.
Recovering the larger history of Hartmann's pluralist argument for photography as an art distinct from all prior art forms and his vision of Käsebier's pictorialism as an assimilation of the norms of painting, this chapter reframes relations between the formal and social dimensions of artwork and art theory. While Hartmann's pluralist vision of media ultimately has much in common with Greenberg's reductive formal purity, the chapters of this book that follow lay out other historical possibilities for answering period questions about social difference and modernist medium specificity articulated by Stieglitz and his New York circle. That negotiation did not pause in mid-Atlantic in the making of The Steerage.
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