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Creative Composites Modernism, Race, and the Stieglitz Circle

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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.

Fifth Avenue

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.

Five Points

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