Alfred Stieglitz

Alfred Stieglitz

Alfred Stieglitz, the son of a wool merchant, was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, on 1st January, 1864. Stieglitz was sent to Europe to complete his education and was studying at the Berlin Polytechnic in 1883 when he discovered photography. He switched from mechanical engineering to photo-chemistry and began taking photographs. Stieglitz took a keen interest in the history of photography and over the next few years became a leading authority on the subject.

Stieglitz returned to the United States in 1890 where he obtained a reputation as a photographer who liked to overcome technical problems. This including taking the first successful photographs in snow and rain. He also experimented with flash powder so that he could take photographs at night.

Stieglitz was the most influential member of the Club for American Amateur Photographers. A member of the the Camera Club he joined with Clarence White, Edward Steichen, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Gertrude Kasebier in 1902 to form the Photosecession Group.

Stieglitz also edited the quarterly Camera Work(1903-17) where he passionately advocated that photographs deserved to be judged as works of art. Stieglitz opened the Little Gallery on Fifth Avenue, to promote the work of photographers such as Paul Strand and Edward Steichen. He also ran the Intimate Gallery (1925-29) and An American Place (1929-46). Alfred Stieglitz died on 13th July, 1946.

Art History News

Alfred Stieglitz has been renowned for his introduction of modern European art to America and for his support of contemporary American artists, but he was first and foremost a photographer. His photographs, which span more than five decades from the 1880s through the 1930s, are widely celebrated as some of the most compelling ever made. Alfred Stieglitz: Known and Unknown, on view at the National Gallery of Art West Building June 2 through September 2, 2002, presented 102 of Stieglitz's photographs from the National Gallery's collection. Encompassing the full range and evolution of his art, the exhibition included many works that had not been exhibited in the last fifty years. It highlighted less well-known images in order to demonstrate how they expand our understanding of the development of his art and his contributions to 20th-century photography.

The exhibition, which was the culmination of a multi-year project on Stieglitz at the National Gallery, also celebrated the publication of Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set, a definitive study of this seminal figure in the history of photography. Consisting of 1,642 photographs, the key set of Stieglitz's photographs was donated to the National Gallery by Georgia O'Keeffe in 1949 and 1980 and contains the finest example of every mounted print that was in Stieglitz's possession at the time of his death. It was the largest and most comprehensive collection of his work in existence.

The exhibition, which was arranged chronologically, provided new insights into the development of Stieglitz's art and demonstrates how he continuously investigated the technical and expressive capabilities of the medium.

Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, Stieglitz began to photograph, probably in 1884, while a student in Germany. The medium captivated and challenged him as nothing else had done before. His teacher, Hermann Wilhelm Vogel, a highly respected photographer, scientist, and professor at the Königliche Technische Hochschule in Berlin, instilled in him a profound appreciation for the science and practice of the process. At Vogel's direction, Stieglitz tackled a wide variety of subjects and exhaustively explored the relationship of light to photography.

These technical experiments, including A Street in Sterzing, The Tyrol (1890), on view in the exhibition, are among his most accomplished early works. Stieglitz was also influenced by contemporary German, Dutch, and Austrian painters, several of whom were close friends. He strove to replicate their anecdotal, narrative, and picturesque subject matter in such photographs as The Harvest, Mittenwald (1886), also on view in the exhibition.

In the fall of 1890, after nine years of study in Germany, 26-year-old Stieglitz returned to New York and quickly established himself as a leading artistic photographer. He continued to draw inspiration from contemporary painters, but his scope widened considerably to include the French artist Jean-François Millet, the German Max Liebermann, and the American James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Like other photographers of the time, Stieglitz began to use a small, hand-held camera, but he utilized every means available to him to transform his images, as he wrote, from mere "photographs [into] pictures." He radically cropped his negatives to eliminate distracting and extraneous elements from his compositions. He also often enlarged them to make prints as big as twenty-one inches wide and to retouch portions of the pictures easily. Further appropriating the materials and palette of a painter, he also made carbon, gum bichromate, and photogravure prints in charcoal gray and brown, even red, green, and blue hues. And he carefully matted and framed his finished prints so that they would command attention in the large international exhibitions.

Several of the photographs, including Winter-Fifth Avenue (1893),

and A Wet Day on the Boulevard, Paris (1894), were in their original mats and framed as Stieglitz would have presented them in the 1890s.

In 1905 Stieglitz opened a gallery, which came to be called 291 (from its address on Fifth Avenue in New York), where he exhibited the work of his elite group of artistic photographers, the Photo-Secession (founded by Stieglitz in 1902). In 1908, in order to initiate a dialogue between contemporary photographers and painters, he began to show the work of leading European modernists, including Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Constantin Brancusi. These artists introduced Stieglitz to new ideas of color, form, and abstraction that deeply influenced his art.

In a series of photographs of New York from 1910, such as Outward Bound,

and Old and New New York, Stieglitz abandoned the soft focus of his work from the turn of the century and revealed the new, bolder use of form that he had learned from these artists.

Stieglitz continued his investigation of New York in the spring of 1915 in a series of photographs made out of the back window of 291. Influenced by Picasso and Braque, he sought to eliminate a sense of three-dimensional space and traditional one-point perspective. In these precisely constructed and elegantly realized photographs, Stieglitz carefully dissected the planes of the rooftops and buildings in order to reveal both the physical mass of the city and its psychological weight.

The portraits Stieglitz made at 291 represent a significant advancement in his art and demonstrate the dialogue between modern painting and photography that he sought to construct.

In Marius de Zayas (1913)

and Georgia O'Keeffe (1917) he placed the artists in front of their own works, echoing the forms from the canvas in his own depictions of them. Fascinated by Picasso, whom he met in 1911 and exhibited that same year and again in 1915, Stieglitz photographed several friends and family in front of the Spanish artist's works, as, for example, in Kitty at 291 (1915).

Georgia O'Keeffe, 1918-1921:

The years from 1918, when Georgia O'Keeffe moved to New York, until 1937, when Stieglitz put his camera away because of poor health, were the most prolific ones in his career. O'Keeffe inspired in him a creative passion he had never known before, and within the first three years that they lived together he had made more than 140 studies of her (the key set contains 331 photographs of O'Keeffe taken between 1917 and 1937). He called his photographs of her a "composite portrait," and his aim was to document not only his understanding of O'Keeffe's personality but also the larger concept of "womanhood." Stieglitz soon applied the lessons he had learned from photographing O'Keeffe to his portraits of other people.

In his series of studies of Helen Freeman (1921/1922), for example, he progressed, as he had done with O'Keeffe, from the formal studies of face and shoulders to more intimate photographs, and he also recorded her hands as an index of her personality.

A lighthearted, playful quality, coupled with a more daring experimentation, entered Stieglitz's work in the 1920s. With the closure of 291 in 1917, Stieglitz was freed from his responsibilities as a gallery director and had more time to devote to his own art. During the 1920s he and O'Keeffe spent several months each year at Lake George--his family's summer home in New York's rolling Adirondack Mountains. Here he vigorously investigated the most amateurish aspect of photography, the snapshot. Made with his small hand-held 4 x 5 or 3 1/4 x 4 1/4 inch cameras, these casual and spontaneous compositions record the long, languid days of summer, as seen in

Georgia O'Keeffe and Waldo Frank (1920), Katharine (1921), and Rebecca Salsbury Strand (1922).

In the late 1910s and early 1920s, encouraged by the work of American artists Arthur Dove, John Marin, and O'Keeffe, Stieglitz, for the first time in his art, began to explore the rural American landscape and photographed the surrounding vistas at Lake George. It was also during these years that Stieglitz made his series of abstract and evocative studies of clouds. Using a small hand-held camera that could be easily pointed at the zenith of the sky, he made photographs without a horizon line to anchor the viewer, thus creating a sense of disorientation and abstraction. He strove to make a new language for photography that was less dependent on subject matter, more intuitive and expressive of a mood or emotional state.

In the early 1930s Stieglitz rediscovered a subject that had inspired him throughout his career--New York City--but his photographs of it from these years have a formal strength and lucidity unknown in his previous work. He was inspired by the views from his windows high up in the newly constructed Shelton Hotel, where he and O'Keeffe lived from 1925 to 1936, as well as from his last gallery, An American Place, at 509 Madison Avenue, which he directed from 1929 until his death in 1946.

At various times of the day and using different lenses, he photographed the visual spectacle of the constantly changing city as seen in his series of photographs, From My Window at An American Place, taken from 1930 to 1932. When Stieglitz exhibited these photographs he grouped them into series--two of which have been recreated in the exhibition--that charted both the growth of the skyscrapers and the more subtle but constantly changing patterns of light and shade. Once the buildings were completed, though, Stieglitz generally lost interest in photographing them for the sense of change was no longer present.

In the early 1930s, O'Keeffe reappeared as a major subject in Stieglitz's art, but the distance between them, as seen in several studies on view in the exhibition, is obvious. With their metallic sheen, deep blacks and complex geometry, these photographs are among his strongest portraits of O'Keeffe and also his most poignant. As he spent more time alone at Lake George, the farmhouse and its surrounding fields, trees, and lakes once again became the focus of his art. Like his photographs of New York from the same time, these are rigorous but also quiet and intensely autobiographical works.

The exhibition was organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington. The curator was Sarah Greenough, the Gallery's curator of photographs and a noted expert on Alfred Stieglitz. It was on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from October 6, 2002, through January 5, 2003.

A new edition of the Gallery's award-winning 1983 book Alfred Stieglitz: Photographs and Writings, which had long been out of print was also issued.

Alfred Stieglitz - History

The Alfred Stieglitz Collection and the Art Institute of Chicago

On December 9, 1949, the Art Institute of Chicago’s director, Daniel Catton Rich, wrote to his friend Georgia O’Keeffe, the well-known painter and widow of Alfred Stieglitz: “I am happy to inform you that the Trustees of the Art Institute at their recent meeting in November, accepted with great appreciation your splendid gift of paintings, sculpture, drawings, etchings, prints and photographs, to the Alfred Stieglitz Collection.”[1] Including later additions by O’Keeffe, the gift would ultimately total nearly four hundred works, including 244 photographs, 159 by Stieglitz himself. It added enormously to the museum’s holdings of modern American art and utterly transformed the collection of photographs.

Considered as a whole, the Stieglitz Collection reflects the enormous diversity of Alfred Stieglitz’s activities. Through his own dedicated photographic work over the course of a half century, the journals he edited and published (such as Camera Notes and Camera Work), and the groundbreaking exhibitions he organized at his New York galleries (including 291, the Intimate Gallery, and An American Place), Stieglitz tirelessly promoted photography as a fine art, gathering around him first Pictorialist and then modernist photographers. He was unmatched both in his advocacy of modern European painters and sculptors—including Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Auguste Rodin—and in his support of emerging contemporary American artists such as Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and Georgia O’Keeffe. The variety of his interests was on full display in his publications and exhibitions, where photography could be found alongside historical precursors and modern contemporaries in other media.

Stieglitz’s vast collection had already begun to fragment during his own lifetime. He donated twenty-seven of his own prints to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1924, followed by twenty-two photographs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1928, both gifts representing the first photographs to be accepted into either museum’s collection. However, he was ambivalent about what to do with his ever-expanding collection of work by other artists—a disordered assemblage gathered over the decades, including gifts and purchases from artists he showed at his galleries as well as works bought from other exhibitions, such as the Armory Show of 1913. As O’Keeffe put it, “He always grumbled about the Collection, not knowing what to do with it, not really wanting it, but in spite of the grumbling it kept growing until the last few years of his life.”[2] In 1933, Stieglitz had been on the verge of destroying a portion of the collection, over four hundred priceless photographic prints by his colleagues and peers, the storage fees for which had become a financial burden instead, he was convinced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to deposit them there.[3] As he grew older, Stieglitz anticipated the difficulties that future stewards of his collection would face. He told an interviewer in 1937: “I am nearly seventy-four. [W]hat is going to happen to all this if I should die tonight? There is not an institution in this country prepared to take this collection. . . . Broken up, these individual items would be interesting and valuable. But together they are more than that. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”[4]

When Stieglitz died in 1946, O’Keeffe immediately embarked on a major project to reshape and disperse the collection, assisted by Doris Bry and in consultation with Daniel Catton Rich and the curators James Johnson Sweeney and Alfred Barr of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. O’Keeffe’s decision to divide the works among public institutions was a pragmatic one, given the size of the collection. It also represented her commitment to the transmission of Stieglitz’s ideas to the widest possible audience. As she wrote, “It is impossible for me to give the Collection to any one institution and expect his ideas to be housed. The Collection ha[s] grown too large. . . . If the material is not being seen, opinion is not being formed. Having in mind that pictures should be hung, I had to divide it, as I always told him.”[5]

The task of pairing works with their respective destinations proved to be arduous, as O’Keeffe described in a 1948 letter to Rich:

It is baffling—too many things to decide. —I have been working quite steadily on the photographs. I had thought it would take about two weeks. . . . I’ve been at it about a month instead . . . I didn’t intend to have so many groups of photographs but the prints are there—it is difficult to think of selling them—I cannot keep them—they seem too good to destroy—I will be glad when it is finished.[6]

In 1949, O’Keeffe donated representative groups of works to a number of institutions including the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and several others (a complete list is below). Between 1950 and 1952, further gifts were allotted to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the George Eastman House. During this time the Art Institute’s group was enhanced with the addition of a group of autochromes. O’Keeffe chose the Art Institute as one of the recipient museums because of “its central location in our country,” but her personal connections to the museum played a role as well: she was close with Rich and his family, and she had studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago .[7] While Stieglitz’s collection as a whole reveals both his remarkable artistic career as well as his discerning eye, its distribution reflects the arbitration of O’Keeffe, who defined how and where the works would be viewed.

As Stieglitz’s chosen medium, photography comprised a special category of the collection, and the group of photographs donated to the Art Institute was second in size only to the “key set” grouping given to the National Gallery of Art, which consisted of an example of every print Stieglitz had mounted and kept in his possession at the time of his death. Of the original 231 photographs and photogravures given to the Art Institute in 1949, which at the time constituted the entirety of the museum’s photography collection, 151 were by Stieglitz himself, spanning from his early student days in late nineteenth-century Germany to his more experimental period in Lake George in the 1930s. In her 1948 letter to Rich, O’Keeffe described these photographs by Stieglitz as “very handsome.”[8] An additional eighty prints by other artists tell the story of his role as a critical figure in the history of photography. These include prints by nineteenth-century practitioners, such as Julia Margaret Cameron and David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, whom Stieglitz saw as predecessors those of Pictorialists James Craig Annan, F. Holland Day, Gertrude Käsebier, and Heinrich Kühn, as well as early pictures by Edward Steichen, all of which Stieglitz had championed in the pages of his journal Camera Work and works by Paul Strand and Ansel Adams, younger modernist photographers whom Stieglitz had mentored.

While in 1949 O’Keeffe could not have foreseen the possibilities offered by digitization, the Art Institute of Chicago’s The Alfred Stieglitz Collection: Photographs supports her intention to make the works available to as wide an audience as possible. The site also demonstrates the unique qualities of the prints in the collection of the Art Institute in particular and situates them in the larger context of Stieglitz’s sphere of influence. It is the hope of the authors that the platform introduces new pathways of understanding this seminal group of works, which was shaped as much by O’Keeffe’s foresight as by Stieglitz’s acumen as a collector.

Andrew W. Mellon Chicago Object Study Initiative (COSI) Research Fellow, 2014–15

[1] Daniel Catton Rich to Georgia O’Keeffe, Dec. 9, 1949, Department of Photography Files, Art Institute of Chicago.

[2] Georgia O’Keeffe, “Stieglitz: His Pictures Collected Him,” New York Times Sunday Magazine, Dec. 11, 1949, p. 24.

[3] Dorothy Norman, An American Seer (Aperture, 1973), pp. 235–36.

[4] Alfred Stieglitz, interview, New York Herald Tribune, Nov. 10, 1937, quoted in Norman, An American Seer, p. 200.

[5] O’Keeffe, “Stieglitz: His Pictures Collected Him.”

[6] Georgia O’Keeffe to Daniel Catton Rich, Feb. 23, 1948, Art Institute Records.

[7] O’Keeffe, “Stieglitz: His Pictures Collected Him.”

[8] Georgia O’Keeffe to Daniel Catton Rich, Feb. 23, 1948, Art Institute Records.

In addition to the photographs highlighted on this website, the Alfred Stieglitz Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago also includes paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints. Those works can be seen here.

The following institutions also house portions of the Alfred Stieglitz Collection:

Alfred Stieglitz

Sarah Greenough, &ldquoAlfred Stieglitz,&rdquo NGA Online Editions, (accessed June 30, 2021).

Related Content

Few individuals have exerted as strong an influence on 20th-century American art and culture as the photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz. Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1864 during the Civil War, Stieglitz lived until 1946. He began to photograph while a student in Berlin in the 1880s and studied with the renowned photochemist Hermann Wilhelm Vogel. On his return to the United States in 1890, he began to advocate that photography should be treated as an art. He wrote many articles arguing his cause, edited the periodicals Camera Notes (1897–1902) and Camera Work (1903–1917), and in 1902 formed the Photo-Secession, an organization of photographers committed to establishing the artistic merit of photography.

Stieglitz photographed New York for more than 25 years, portraying its streets, parks, and newly emerging skyscrapers its horse-drawn carriages, trolleys, trains, and ferry boats as well as some of its people. In the late 1910s and early 1920s, he also focused his camera on the landscape around his summer home in Lake George, New York. In 1918 Stieglitz became consumed with photographing his future wife, the artist Georgia O’Keeffe . For many years he had wanted to make an extended photographic portrait—he called it a composite portrait—in which he would study one person over a long period. Over the next 19 years he made more than 330 finished portraits of her. Beginning in 1922 and continuing throughout the 1920s, he also became preoccupied with another subject, clouds, making more than 300 finished studies of them.

Stieglitz witnessed some of the most profound changes this country has ever experienced: two world wars, the Great Depression, and the growth of America from a rural, agricultural nation to an industrialized and cultural superpower. But, more significantly, he also helped to effect some of these transformations. Through his New York galleries—the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession at 291 Fifth Avenue, which he directed from 1905 to 1917 The Intimate Gallery, 1925–1929 and An American Place, 1929–1946—he introduced modern European art to this country, organizing the first exhibitions in America of work by Pablo Picasso , Henri Matisse , Georges Braque , and Paul Cézanne , among others. In addition, he was one of the first to champion and support American modernist artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove , John Marin , Marsden Hartley , and Charles Demuth .

Photography was always of central importance to Stieglitz: not only was it the medium he employed to express himself, but, more fundamentally, it was the touchstone he used to evaluate all art. Just as it is apparent today that computers and digital technology will dominate not only our lives but also our thinking in this century, so too did Stieglitz realize, long before many of his contemporaries, that photography would be a major cultural force in the 20th century. Fascinated with what he called “the idea of photography,” Stieglitz foresaw that it would revolutionize all aspects of the way we learn and communicate and that it would profoundly alter all of the arts.

Stieglitz’s own photographs were central to his understanding of the medium: they were the instruments he used to plumb both its expressive potential and its relationship to the other arts. When he began to photograph in the early 1880s, the medium was barely 40 years old. Complicated and cumbersome and employed primarily by professionals, photography was seen by most as an objective tool and utilized for its descriptive and recording capabilities. By the time ill health forced Stieglitz to stop photographing in 1937, photography and the public’s perception of it had changed dramatically, thanks in large part to his efforts. Through the publications he edited, including Camera Notes, Camera Work, and 291 through the exhibitions he organized and through his own lucid and insightful photographs, Stieglitz had conclusively demonstrated the expressive power of the medium.

The first modern photograph?

After his 8-year-old daughter Kitty finished the school year and he closed his Fifth Avenue art gallery for the summer, Alfred Stieglitz gathered her, his wife Emmeline, and Kitty’s governess for their second excursion to Europe as a family. The Stieglitzes departed for Paris on May 14, 1907, aboard the first-class quarters of the fashionable ship Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Although Emmeline looked forward to shopping in Paris and to visiting her relatives in Germany, Stieglitz was anything but enthusiastic about the trip. His marriage to status-conscious Emmeline had become particularly stressful amid rumors about his possible affair with the tarot-card illustrator/artist Pamela Coleman Smith. In addition, Stieglitz felt out of place in the company of his fellow upper-class passengers. But it was precisely this discomfort among his peers that prompted him to take a photograph that would become one of the most important in the history of photography. In his 1942 account “How The Steerage Happened,” Stieglitz recalls:

How I hated the atmosphere of the first class on that ship. One couldn’t escape the ‘nouveau riches.’ […]

On the third day out I finally couldn’t stand it any longer. I had to get away from that company. I went as far forward on the deck as I could […]

As I came to the end of the desk [sic] I stood alone, looking down. There were men and women and children on the lower deck of the steerage. There was a narrow stairway leading up to the upper deck of the steerage, a small deck at the bow of the steamer.

To the left was an inclining funnel and from the upper steerage deck there was fastened a gangway bridge which was glistening in its freshly painted state. It was rather long, white, and during the trip remained untouched by anyone.

On the upper deck, looking over the railing, there was a young man with a straw hat. The shape of the hat was round. He was watching the men and women and children on the lower steerage deck. Only men were on the upper deck. The whole scene fascinated me. I longed to escape from my surroundings and join these people.

In this essay, written 35 years after he took the photograph, Stieglitz describes how The Steerage encapsulated his career’s mission to elevate photography to the status of fine art by engaging the same dialogues around abstraction that preoccupied European avant-garde painters:

A round straw hat, the funnel leading out, the stairway leaning right, the white drawbridge with its railings made of circular chains – white suspenders crossing on the back of a man in the steerage below, round shapes of iron machinery, a mast cutting into the sky, making a triangular shape. I stood spellbound for a while, looking and looking. Could I photograph what I felt, looking and looking and still looking? I saw shapes related to each other. I saw a picture of shapes and underlying that the feeling I had about life. […] Spontaneously I raced to the main stairway of the steamer, chased down to my cabin, got my Graflex, raced back again all out of breath, wondering whether the man with the straw hat had moved or not. If he had, the picture I had seen would no longer be. The relationship of shapes as I wanted them would have been disturbed and the picture lost.
But there was the man with the straw hat. He hadn’t moved. The man with the crossed white suspenders showing his back, he too, talking to a man, hadn’t moved. And the woman with a child on her lap, sitting on the floor, hadn’t moved. Seemingly, no one had changed position.
[…It] would be a picture based on related shapes and on the deepest human feeling, a step in my own evolution, a spontaneous discovery.


With this account, Stieglitz argues with the benefit of more than three decades of hindsight that The Steerage suggests that photographs have more than just a “documentary” voice that speaks to the truth-to-appearance of subjects in a field of space within narrowly defined slice of time. Rather, The Steerage calls for a more complex, layered view of photography’s essence that can accommodate and convey abstraction. (Indeed, later photographers Minor White and Aaron Siskind would engage this project further in direct dialogue with the Abstract Expressionist painting.)

Stieglitz is often criticized for overlooking the subjects of his photograph in this essay, which has become the account by which the photograph is discussed in our histories. But in his account for The Steerage, Stieglitz also calls attention to one of the contradictions of photography: its ability to provide more than just an abstract interpretation, too. The Steerage is not only about the “significant form” of shapes, forms and textures, but it also conveys a message about its subjects, immigrants who were rejected at Ellis Island, or who were returning to their old country to see relatives and perhaps to encourage others to return to the United States with them.

Ghastly conditions

As a reader of mass-marketed magazines, Stieglitz would have been familiar with the debates about immigration reform and the ghastly conditions to which passengers in steerage were subjected. Stieglitz’s father had come to America in 1849, during a historic migration of 1,120,000 Germans to the United States between 1845 and 1855. His father became a wool trader and was so successful that he retired by age 48. By all accounts, Stieglitz’s father exemplified the “American dream” that was just beyond the grasp of many of the subjects of The Steerage.

Moreover, investigative reporter Kellogg Durland traveled undercover as steerage in 1906 and wrote of it: “I can, and did, more than once, eat my plate of macaroni after I had picked out the worms, the water bugs, and on one occasion, a hairpin. But why should these things ever be found in the food served to passengers who are paying $36.00 for their passage?”

Still, Stieglitz was conflicted about the issue of immigration. While he was sympathetic to the plight of aspiring new arrivals, Stieglitz was opposed to admitting the uneducated and marginal to the United States of America—despite his claims of sentiment for the downtrodden. Perhaps this may explain his preference to avoid addressing the subject of The Steerage, and to see in this photograph not a political statement, but a place for arguing the value of photography as a fine art.

Alfred Stieglitz and American Modernism

American Modernism dates approximately from the first half of the Twentieth Century. For the sake of convenience and to take note of a key figure, it is possible to roughly date this period in relation to the career of Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946). The photographer returned from Germany in 1890 with a knowledge of avant-garde art in Europe and with experience in “art photography.” In America, photography was largely the province of professionals who worked commercially, but in Europe, there were groups of well-to-do “amateurs” who had the time to experiment and the income to produce fine art. In addition, New York City had no notable or current avant-garde art scene, a situation the young photographer would attempt to rectify. Stieglitz would preside over Modernism in America until his death in 1946.

The self-given mission of Stieglitz, a New York City native, was to make the American public accept photography as a fine art. He began with joining the Society of Amateur Photographers in 1891, and became the editor of The American Amateur Photographer. Resigning from this post in 1895, Stieglitz merged the Society with the Camera Club of New York and in 1896-7 published Camera Notes to put forward his own ideas. He insisted on the idea of a “picture” as opposed to a mere photograph, a term denoting an artistic, rather than a mechanical, endeavor. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Stieglitz would formulate his concepts of the nature of photography itself, based in a combination of what a camera could do—clarity of vision—and what an artist contributed—composition and design.

Photographs of America’s first photographic salon, the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts and the Photographic Society of Pennsylvania, show a rather haphazard salon style of hanging art. Stieglitz exhibited ten of his “pictures” in the exhibition, but, when he opened his own gallery, the installation style would be quite different. The New York group he had put together was a bit too tame for ambitions nurtured in Berlin. When Stieglitz met the young photographer, Edward Steichen, at the Camera Club, the two of them made a bold move. He and his enthusiastic follower started the Photo-Secession, an avant-garde movement of New York photographers who wanted to be both professional artists and progressive photographers. In the time-honored fashion of European movements, in 1901 these photographers “seceded” from the more conservative club. The “Little Galleries” of the Photo-Secession opened in Steichen’s vacated studios at 293 Fifth Avenue and soon became a beacon for the art cognoscenti of New York City.

In 1908 the gallery broke through the wall to next room at 291, a number that would become a site of a circle of American modernist artists. Until 1907, the prime intention of the gallery was to promote photography as art in terms of Pictorialism. The photographers of 291 began as fashionable Pictorialist photographers. This approach to photography attempted to align photography with “art” by emulating artistic styles and looks, such as graphic effects and painterly effects. Pictorialism was often soft in focus and the photographers built on this soft focus by drawing on the image during the developing process. The result was a photograph that looked like a watercolor or a charcoal sketch, often of picturesque subject matter or staged sentimental or narrative scenes.

But in 1907, Pictorialism was challenged by a new way of photographing called Straight Photography, that is, photography that was sharp and clear, based upon only what the camera could do, un-manipulated in the darkroom. In 1907, a year as important for photography as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was for painting, Stieglitz moved definitively away from Pictorialism with The Steerage. This seminal image was an unmediated shot of third class passengers on an ocean liner, devoid of narrative or mood. The viewer must learn to observe, not the emigrants, but the interplay of diagonals and verticals. Suddenly, “straight photography” ended the reign of Pictorialism.

Advanced photographers favored “Camera Vision,” based upon the way in which the camera sees, a mechanical statement for a technological age. Pictorialism suddenly seemed a relic of the last century, and Pictorialists, like Clarence White and Gerturde Kasebier, went their separate ways, separating from Stieglitz. In his turn the middle-aged Stieglitz took up with other younger straight photographers, Paul Strand and Charles Scheeler. Under the influences of the well-traveled Steichen, Stieglitz soon learned to appreciate avant-garde movements in Europe and expanded the repertoire of the gallery to non-photographic art. In a city where the realist Ash Can artists caused consternation, Stieglitz was the first to give artists like Picasso, Matisse and Brancusi shows in America.

During the early years of the twentieth century, Stieglitz played many roles in New York. In a city where there was little interest in progressive art, he continued his career as a photographer, ran the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, published Camera Work and promoted art photography and avant-garde art from Europe. The cover of Camera Work was designed by Edward Steichen in the popular Art nouveau style, connoting an art perspective on photography. Camera Work published seminal art writing by writers such as Sadakichi Hartmann. It was in these pages that Gerturde Stein was given her first publications, on Matisse and Picasso. The gallery 291 was a tiny room lined with storage cabinets and shelves below the wainscoting. A curtain hid the shelves and above the chair railing, the walls were reserved for the exhibition of works of art, displayed on the line, in one row. In the center of the room was a table which held a large copper bowl with the flowers of the season.

The viewer reached the gallery via a small elevator that held there people, including the operator. Once in the gallery, s/he might meet the small talkative man who lectured tirelessly, often for hours, on avant-garde art. Stieglitz was also interested in promoting American artists and American art and his efforts and “his artists” provided an important way station between American provincialism and American hegemony of the post-War period. In these early years in New York City, Stieglitz was the only source of advanced art until the Armory Show in 1913. In the last issue of Camera Work, Stieglitz featured his protogée, Paul Strand, and in the last exhibition of 291, he featured an obscure artist living in Texas, Georgia O’Keeffe.

When the 291 Gallery closed in 1917, Stieglitz opened The Intimate Gallery and later An American Place, as showcase galleries for his work and the work of his circle, a group of young men, the painters, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Charles Scheeler, Charles Demuth, John Marin, the photographer, Paul Strand, and the only woman, his lover, Georgia O’Keeffe. These artists would be the American Modernists, part of a larger group that included Abraham Walkowitz, Gerald Murphy and Edward Hopper. With their New York approach to the challenge of European modernism, this group would represent “America,” the most industrialized nation in the early twentieth century.

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Alfred Stieglitz and the Straight Photography

Since then, Stieglitz devoted to “pure” photography (straight photography). After the 1914-1918 war, many American photographers adopted the same approach. This is notably the case of Edward Steichen, Charles Sheeler or Paul Strand and later Edward Weston. Sometimes described as an immutable character, Stieglitz in fact continues to evolve in his photographic practice and artistic activism.

In February-March 1913, the Armory Show was held in New York, a major contemporary art fair very different from Stieglitz’s style. It was a large-scale event, openly commercial but without photography. Therefore, Stieglitz exhibits at the same time his own photographs at the gallery �”. He then exhibits Picabia, the only French painter who came to present his works at the Armory Show: abstract compositions inspired by New York.

Alfred Stieglitz - History

Invented by Auguste and Louis Lumière in 1903 and released to the public in 1907, read more

Carbon Print

Introduced in the mid-1850s, carbon prints are the result of a transfer process. First, a read more

Gelatin Silver Print

After being introduced in the 1870s, gelatin silver printing grew to dominate amateur and professional read more

Gum Bichromate Print

Although employed largely by Pictorialist photographers between the 1890s and the 1930s, gum printing was read more

Palladium Print

At the start of World War I, a shortage of platinum forced photographers to look read more


The earliest method of reproducing photographs in ink, photogravures peaked in popularity at the turn read more

Platinum Print

Patented in 1873 in England, the platinum printing process (sometimes known as platinotypes) enjoyed widespread read more

Salted Paper Print

The earliest commonly used method for printing photographic images on paper, salt prints were employed read more

Silver Platinum Print (Satista)

In 1913, the Platinotype Company patented silver platinum “Satista” papers to offer an affordable alternative read more


Print solarization occurs when a photograph is briefly exposed to light mid-development. This can lend read more


Toning is a technique used to alter the overall color and contrast of a photographic read more

Treated by Steichen

As Georgia O’Keeffe sorted through the photographs in Alfred Stieglitz’s estate in the late 1940s, read more

Who Were They? The Truth Behind Stieglitz’s Iconic Photograph ‘The Steerage’ Revealed

The Steerage (1907) by Alfred Stieglitz. (Photo: The Jewish Museum)

Everything you think you know about one of the most famous photographs in history is wrong.

Alfred Stieglitz’s 1907 The Steerage is famous around the world as perhaps the classic representation of the 20th-century immigrant arriving in America from Europe for the first time. In the decades since it was taken, the photo has become inextricably tied up with the immigrant journey.

Yet Rebecca Shaykin, curator of “Masterpieces & Curiosities: Alfred Stieglitz’s The Steerage” at the Jewish Museum through February 14, points out that our understanding of the photograph is largely misinformed.

Arnold Newman, Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe, An American Place, New York City, (1944). (Photo: © Arnold Newman, courtesy The Jewish Museum)

When Stieglitz took the photograph, he was actually on board a ship heading east toward Europe—dashing any possible tales of the vessel gliding historically into Ellis Island. In other words, those pictured were most likely people who had been denied entry to the U.S. and were forced to return home. Moreover, a man who appears, at fast glance, to be in a tallit, or Jewish prayer shawl—a detail which has made the image a touchstone in the Jewish community for decades—is actually a woman in a striped cloak.

Given the enduring power of the image, these details are somewhat immaterial, however. “It’s very clear that this image, and Stieglitz being a Jewish photographer, is very important to Jewish history and Jewish culture,” Ms. Shaykin told the Observer during a walkthrough of the show. “[In his memoir] he tells the story about how he came and saw the steerage class passengers on the boat. He felt a natural affinity to them. He doesn’t outright say it’s because, as a son of German-Jewish immigrants, he felt some sort of kinship to them, but it’s implied.”

In Stieglitz’s own account, he described traveling with his daughter and first wife, Emily, whom he described as more decadently inclined than himself. “My wife insisted on going on the Kaiser Wilhem II—the fashionable ship of the North German Lloyd at the time,” the photographer lamented of the journey. “How I hated the atmosphere of the first class on that ship! One couldn’t escape the nouveaux riches.”

On the third day, Stieglitz claimed, he couldn’t stand it any longer and took a walk to the ship’s steerage where, compelled by the people below and geometric architectural structures he saw, he ran to grab his camera.

‘If all my photographs were lost, and I’d be represented by just one, ‘The Steerage’…I’d be satisfied.’

“Spontaneously I raced to the main stairway of the steamer, chased down to my cabin, got my Graflex, raced back again.” (The exhibition text quotes his story of the account.) “Would I get what I saw, what I felt? Finally I released the shutter, my heart thumping. I had never heard my heart thump before. Had I gotten my picture? I knew if I had, another milestone in photography would have been reached.”

The Steerage is one of several visual milestones of the immigrant experience selected by the Jewish Museum for “Masterpieces & Curiosities”—described by the museum as a series of intimate “essay” exhibitions. Previous pieces, for example, have included a Russian Jewish immigrant family’s quilt, circa 1899, and Diane Arbus’ famed Jewish Giant, photographed in 1970.

Installation view of the “Alfred Stieglitz’s The Steerage exhibition at the Jewish Museum. (Photo: David Heald)

For The Steerage, the museum has suspended the image in a glass vitrine alongside two related pieces of artwork: Vik Muniz’s 2000 appropriations of Stieglitz’s photograph in chocolate sauce, and Arnold Newman’s 1944 double portrait of Stieglitz and his second wife, the painter Georgia O’Keeffe. In addition, there is also a small-scale replica of the Kaiser Wilhem II and various ephemera, such as postcards that were sold on board the ship.

To the left of The Steerage, a cluster of reproductions of the photograph are on display. There is a 1911 issue of Camera Work, edited by Stieglitz himself, a 1944 Saturday Evening Post profile by Thomas Craven titled “Stieglitz—Old Master of the Camera” and Alfred Kazin’s memoir. The critic, himself the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants, both owned a print of the work and used it as a frontispiece in his memoir A Walker in the City. The picture has enjoyed numerous reproductions, even appearing on the cover of a recent textbook titled The Columbia History of Jews and Judaism in America.

Vik Muniz’s The Steerage (After Alfred Stieglitz), from the Pictures of Chocolate series, (2000). (Photo: © The Jewish Museum)

“Just reproducing the images over and over again, they become part of the popular imagination,” said Ms. Shaykin. “It’s interesting to me that the first time he published it was in 1911—there was a very select group of people who cared deeply and passionately about Modern art at this time. Then, nearly 20 years after he took it, 1924, he’s reproducing it in Vanity Fair, and then again in The Saturday Evening Post toward the end of his life. He’s really pushing his work—that image in particular—into the world to become quite popular.” (The Vanity Fair reproduction was, rather misguidedly, printed alongside a satirical advice column titled “How to be Frightfully Foreign.”)

Stieglitz made no effort to hide his intentions. “If all my photographs were lost, and I’d be represented by just one, The Steerage,” he said near the end of his career, “I’d be satisfied.”

As for Ms. Shaykin, she hopes viewers will walk away understanding where Stieglitz was coming from. The photographer may have been traveling in the lap of luxury, but he chose to photograph, and document for decades to come, the travelers on a very different journey.

Like happens so often, she said, “[The photograph] has really had a life of its own beyond the original intention of the artist.”

The Jewish Side Of Alfred Stieglitz

Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) is perhaps the most important figure in the history of visual arts in America. Before him, photographs were considered items that capture moments in time – and nothing more. Stieglitz changed that. As a virtuoso and visionary photographer as a grand promoter of photography as a discoverer and nurturer of great photographers and artists as a publisher, patron, collector, gallery owner, and exhibition organizer and as a catalyst and charismatic leader in the photographic and art worlds for over 30 years, Stieglitz elevated photographs into works of art.

Stieglitz published the seminal periodical Camera Work (1903-17) and operated prominent galleries where he not only exhibited photographs, but also introduced previously unknown modern European painters and sculptors to America, including Picasso, Rodin, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cézanne, and Duchamp. He also mentored and championed many American artists, including particularly his future wife, Georgia O’Keeffe, who became his muse of sorts.

Stieglitz led what became known as the Pictorialist movement, which promoted photography as an art form similar to the traditional graphic arts of drawing and painting, but using a camera instead of a paintbrush. Indeed, the Pictorialists were known for the darkroom manipulation of their photographs, as they brought their own artistry and creativity to what would otherwise be a rote recording of a scene or subject.

But Stieglitz himself relied less upon elaborate re-touching than tapping natural effects, such as snow, steam, rain droplets, and reflected light, to create his images. Troubled by the rise of American power yet absorbed by it, and seeking to soften its apparent brutality by cloaking it in nature, he reimagined the cityscape in impressionist terms and established a novel aesthetic for urban photography, exhibiting a striking technical mastery of tone, texture, and atmospherics.

Stieglitz was born to German Jewish immigrants who settled in Hoboken (1849), became prosperous in America, and later moved to New York (1871). His father, Ephraim, who served three years as an officer in the Union Army during the Civil War, abandoned the traditional Orthodox faith of his family and became a devotee of Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of Reform Judaism in America.

Although his father characterized himself as “a principled atheist,” he continued to strongly identify as a Jew, bragging about being the only Jewish member of the prestigious Jockey Club. Changing and Americanizing his name to Edward, he was active in supporting Jewish institutions, including leading the fundraising effort to establish the Jewish Hospital (later renamed Mount Sinai).

Nonetheless, there is no evidence that he ever provided his son with any Jewish education, and Alfred and his siblings were taught to think of themselves as assimilated “ex-Jews” in fact, Alfred was educated at a “nondenominational” school dedicated to turning its students into good Christians.

Alfred began his higher education at City College of New York, but, in 1881, when public support for anti-Semitism escalated at the College, particularly in the school newspaper, his parents moved the family to Berlin, where, ironically, they believed that their Jewish son could receive a quality education unencumbered by American anti-Semitism.

Alfred enrolled in the Technishe Hochschule, where he studied mechanical engineering before becoming enamored with photography and changing his attention to photochemistry. Returning to New York in 1890, he became a partner at the Photochrome Engraving Company joined the society of amateur photographers served as chief editor of the American Amateur Photographer (1893-96) and gained recognition for his stylistically unique photographs of New York City.

Like many German Jews at that time, Stieglitz was uncomfortable with his ethnicity, even identifying his Jewishness as that which was most vexing about himself – “the key to my impossible makeup” – and, like many Jewish artists at the turn of the 20th century sensitive to prevailing anti-Semitism, he did not want to call attention to his Jewishness and avoided contact with organized Jewry.

Historians and commentators manifest a distinctly mixed view of Stieglitz’s place in the Jewish pantheon. For example, in Our America (1919), American Jewish author Waldo Frank, a close friend who knew him well, writes, “Stieglitz is primarily the Jewish mystic. Suffering is his daily bread: sacrifice is his creed: failure is his beloved. A true Jew.” When his fame began to spread, The American Hebrew wrote that he was “a Jew who had arrived.”

In dramatic contrast, Thomas Craven, a respected art critic, described him in 1935 as a “Hoboken Jew [i.e., a person wholly without class] without knowledge of, or interest in, the historical American background.” Many of Stieglitz’s critics were unquestionably motivated by anti-Semitism as but one stark example, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet John Gould Fletcher characterized Stieglitz as “an eccentric Jewish photographer” and berated him for using his “Jewish persuasiveness” in the service of “metropolitan charlatanry.”

Many leaders in American arts had adopted the emerging fascist view of abstract art as “Jewish” and “degenerate,” and high society generally blamed Stieglitz’s “brash Jewish behavior” as responsible for his disruption of the comfortable and established artistic status quo.

As a sort of middle ground, the editor of My Faraway One characterizes Stieglitz as “deeply assimilated, yet acutely aware of his identity and historical tragedy to come.” Stieglitz wrote to O’Keeffe in 1933 about that “historical tragedy” – i.e., the Holocaust – in October 1933 (with regard to news coming out of Germany): “Every hour seems to bring the world closer & closer to an abyss.”

Stieglitz’s Jewish consciousness manifested itself in various ways. He took great pride at FDR’s appointment of a Jew, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., as Secretary of the Treasury in a November 16, 1933 letter to O’Keeffe, he wrote: “I see by the paper that Alma’s brother is to be head of the Treasury! – Finally, a Jew…” (Morgenthau’s sister was Alma Wertheim, who collected Stieglitz’s work.)

In a correspondence to O’Keeffe written a month later, he expresses strong support for Frank’s New Republic article “Why Should the Jews Survive?,” notwithstanding his keen embarrassment when Frank argued that the Jews should survive because they produce the likes of Einstein, Freud, Marx… and Stieglitz. When he essentially left O’Keeffe for Jewish photographer Dorothy Norman, he cited their “shared German-Jewish heritage” as one reason.

Although Stieglitz apparently never took an overtly “Jewish photograph,” he did occasionally seem to draw on Jewish themes as, for example, in The Steerage (1907), one of the only photographs he ever took of people in a group. Traveling first class with his first wife and daughter, he hated the ostentatious lap of luxury and, seeking a respite from what he characterized as “the nouveaux riche socialites,” he descended to steerage. Stunned by what he saw, he ran back to get his camera and returned to take the historic shot. For the rest of his life, he remained firm in his belief that The Steerage was his seminal and defining work and the single greatest photograph he ever took.

The Steerage (1907)

Considered by many to be the definitive representation of European immigrants arriving in America at the beginning of the 20th century, The Steerage captured what appears to be a man at the center of the photograph draped in a tallit. This long-held view, however, has been definitively debunked by the critics.

First, it turns out that when Stieglitz took the famous photograph, he was aboard the Kaiser Wilhelm II heading to Bremen and away from America, meaning that the photo could not be depicting Jewish immigrants coming to Ellis Island. Sadly, the passengers in the photo were most likely people denied entry to the United States and who were therefore forced to return home to Europe. A noted photography expert studying the light concluded that the shot was taken while the ship was in port in Plymouth, England. Second, the “man” wearing a “tallit” turns out to be, upon closer inspection, a woman draped in a striped cloak.

Nonetheless, the power of the photo endures, and the image remains important in Jewish history, reflecting Stieglitz’s natural empathy for the wretched refuse of humanity and his kinship for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” who surely reminded him of his own German-Jewish immigrant roots.

Looking down into the steerage deck, the assimilated yet still Jewish Stieglitz was able to see both his past and the promise of his future as the son of Jewish immigrants who, no different than the teeming mass below him, had come to America seeking a better life for themselves and their families and manifesting their faith that hard work would enable them to attain that.

Moreover, in the quasi-autobiographical photograph, which marked a turning point in his career, he all but abandoned the idea of making photographs look like paintings instead, he began to focus on “straight” photography, innovating a “freeze the action in the moment” approach to capture actual events as they were occurring.

Subsequently turning to more “realist” photography, he documented the rise of the industrialized American nation, including the problems inherent in increased urbanization and the development of modern commercial culture and its attendant changes in social behavior and norms. Although photojournalism had its origins in the Civil War, Stieglitz elevated it to a new and exciting artistic form, thereby becoming renowned as “the father of photojournalism.”

With O’Keeffe away painting in New Mexico, for which she had come to develop great affection and where she spent increasing time away from her husband, Stieglitz writes this August 17, 1938 correspondence to his childhood friend, American painter Frank Simon Herrmann (“Sime”) (only the first and last pages are exhibited):

When your letter arrived I immediately addressed an envelope to you.… Laziness & procrastination I abhor yet I seem to be afflicted with both. Naturally I was shocked to hear that you were not painting [,] proof positive that physical disabilities were getting the better of you. I can see nearly any one else ill before picturing you as “down” even if only relatively so. I do hope you are painting once more – meaning thereby that you are yourself again.… I do feel like a fool myself sitting here day in and out doing nothing.… Georgia got away a week ago & is once more in her country [New Mexico]. Her arm still bothers her & she has not yet started painting. I have no desire to photograph yet it is getting on my nerves to be without my camera or cameras. It’s awful this being indecently young in spirit but otherwise ripe for the scrap-heap.… We have certainly lived and neither has a kick coming unless the kick coming to us for not having lived still harder or worked harder – I receive most pathetic letters from Eilshemius. Have been swapping letters with him for some years. He hasn’t been out of his room for years. I doubt his receiving but a bagatelle for his paintings. The dealers have to look out for themselves & theirs & Co! Same old story. Ag & Herbert arrived yesterday…

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Stieglitz had essentially ceased taking photographs in 1937, and in 1938, the year of this letter, he experienced serious heart problems, necessitating the convalescence he mentions. Over the next eight years, additional heart attacks weakened him, the last one taking his life. It is interesting to note that in 1938 – when his wife’s arm “still bother[ed] her & she ha[d] not yet started painting,” as Stieglitz writes in our letter – O’Keeffe painted one of her most famous works, Ram’s Head, Blue Morning Glory.

Herrmann (1866-1942), the person to whom this letter was addressed, was best known in Germany where he spent most of his career, but he actually grew up with Stieglitz on the same East 65th Street block in Manhattan. The two studied in Germany at about the same time, took vacations together, exchanged letters, and were lifelong friends.

He created work that embraced Beaux-Arts Academic Realism to Impressionism to the New Objectivity, and he was a founding member of two important groups of the German avant-garde centered in Munich: the Munich Secessionist Group (SEMA), which included his friend, Paul Klee, and the New Secession of German Artists, led by Wassily Kandinsky.

The “pathetic” Eilshemius referred to in the letter by Stieglitz is Louis Michel Eilshemius (1864-1941), an American painter. Trained at the Art Students League of New York and Paris’ Académie Julian, his supporters included Marcel Duchamp and Henri Matisse, but he never achieved the success he desired and, after a severely critical reception of his 1921 show, he almost completely gave up painting.

After sustaining serious injury in an auto accident six years earlier in 1932, he became a recluse (“he hasn’t been out of his room for years”), quickly ate through his family fortune, and died a pauper (“I doubt his receiving but a bagatelle for his paintings”).

Finally, the letter mentions Stieglitz’s sister “Ag” – Agnes Stieglitz Engelhard – and his brother in-law George Herbert Engelhard.

Watch the video: Alfred Stieglitz