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An American LensReview - An American Lens
Scenes from Alfred Stieglitz's New York Secession
by Jay Bochner
MIT Press, 2005
Review by Dan Cavedon-Taylor
Jun 12th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 24)

In An America Lens, Jay Bochner presents the reader with eight 'scenes' or 'close-ups' (chapters) focusing on the life and work of one of the most important figures in early twentieth-century visual art: Alfred Stieglitz.

Stieglitz is principally celebrated for three things: introducing the French Modernists to American audiences, promoting photography as an art-form, and relatedly, his own photographs. As an artist and impresario of the visual arts (he also managed a gallery and edited the photography journal Camera Work), Stieglitz managed to exert an influence upon the history of art from both the inside and out.

Stieglitz believed that what was required in order to legitimize photography qua art-form was a move away from pictorialism with its soft-focus and painterly techniques, and towards 'straight' photography. In 1902 he formed a group known as the Photo-Secession devoted to just this end. Stieglitz's desire to strive for 'straight' or 'documentary' ideals can be understood as a drive towards the thesis which has come to be known as 'medium-specificity'. At the same time, however, and as An American Lens makes clear, Stieglitz was deeply opposed to the idea that all the image-maker does in the production of a photograph is simply press the shutter release. So although Stieglitz held that photography must make itself distinct from painting, appealing to the medium's 'autonomism' (i.e. lack of significant input on the part of the image-maker) was not, he believed, the right way to do this. 

Bochner's series of close-ups on Stieglitz are breathtakingly rich in their detail; be that biographical detail, art-historical detail, or, in the case of the first 'scene', their socio-economic detail. The scenes run chronologically from 1983--1935, and begin with a discussion of Stieglitz's photogravure of a New York snow-storm: Winter--Fifth Avenue, with Bochner making a case for this photograph itself being a symbol of Modernism's "coming storm". It is odd, however, to find Bochner write that "The ability of this photograph to radiate its meanings towards the other arts is precisely what gives it its special importance" (p. 1). This claim is puzzling because if what makes this photograph important is that it serves to direct our attention towards other art-works, then this surely only serves to rob Winter--Fifth Avenue of any real and genuine importance. For if what makes a photograph important is that it channels or directs our interest towards something else (be that another other art-form, or reality itself), then such a  photograph becomes a mere surrogate, and risks not being valuable or important in its own right (worries such as these are well-known to  analytic philosophers who theorise about photography).

The rest of An American Lens runs as follows: Chapter 2 concerns Stieglitz's drive to put the photograph on display in museums and art galleries. Chapters 3 and 4 detail the famous Armory Show and Stieglitz's role in its organisation. This exhibition was one of America's first encounter with Modernists such as Cézanne, Duchamp, and Matisse, and it is in these chapters that the book excels as an account of what was going in the art-world at such a pivotal moment in its history. In chapter 5 Bochner explores the work of Stieglitz, the Photo-Secession, and details their socio-politically influenced modernist ideals. Chapter 6 deals principally with the arrival of modernist poetry and The Society of Independent Artists' 1917 show. It was this exhibition from which Duchamp's infamous ready-made Fountain was rejected. This chapter ends with Bochner tracking the demise of the avant-garde Secessionists as America entered World War I. Chapter 7 discusses the series of photographs Stieglitz took of his wife: the artist Georgia O'Keeffe. These portraits propelled Stieglitz and O'Keeffe back into the public eye and here Bochner provide the reader with a real insight into their rich and complex relationships as, e.g., husband and wife, fellow artists, champions of each others work, muses, and so on. Chapter 8 details Stieglitz's quest into abstraction and back: his celebrated photographs of clouds and then the city sky-scraper series that followed. Whilst appearances suggest that these works are polarised from, and are of a fundamentally different kind than, the portraits of O'Keeffe, Bochner skilfully highlights and teases out their shared motifs.

As mentioned above, An American Lens comprises of  eight chapters (or 'scenes'). That each of these can be read in isolation, and that few of their themes connect up with one another, can sometimes make reading An American Lens a fairly disjointed affair; one lacking in unity and focus. Motivation for writing American Lens as a series of stand-alone 'close-ups' is particularly unclear outside a somewhat superficial analogy with photographs. Moreover, readers with only a passing interest in Stieglitz and the history of twentieth century art and photography may find An American Lens more than just a little hard going. Having said this, there is no doubt a case to be made that such readers may find their interest developed and piqued by such a thorough and detailed work as this. Those with a serious interest in Stieglitz and the history of art and photography will doubtlessly find An American Lens to be an enjoyable and extremely rewarding read. 

 

© 2007 Dan Cavedon-Taylor

 

Dan Cavedon-Taylor is nearing completion of his M.Phil in Philosophy at Birkbeck College--University of London. In September 2007 he begins his Ph.D on the aesthetic and epistemic value of photographic depiction. Although his philosophical interests lie principally within aesthetics, he also has strong interests within the philosophies of mind and psychology, metaphysics, and epistemology.


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