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Alfred Stieglitz's 1907 photograph known simply as The Steerage can justifiably claim to be one of the great iconic photographs. It has the stillness, complexity and density of a Brueghel painting, full of characters at once in motion and yet captured forever representing so much of what defined an era or particular moment in time. Slightly more than a century after its publication Francisco and McCauley undertake to deconstruct and reappraise the image, looking at its context, its mythologies and ways in which it might be read.
There are two essays in the text, a familiar method for the Defining Moments in American Photography series to which it belongs. The first, by McCauley is more analytical, giving more attention to the historical moment out of which it emerged. She examines the mythologization of the image, beginning with Stieglitz's own account of how he came to take the photograph. He, his wife and young daughter were sailing on the Kaiser Wilhelm II, in first class cabins, far removed from steerage, when out of boredom he wandered to the prow of the boat and looked down on what he called "a picture of shapes and underlying the feeling [he] had about life". The story goes that he rushed back to his cabin for his camera, and then back to the prow where he took the photograph with his one remaining plate.
Of course, there may well be some added drama to Stieglitz's account -- who would ever know -- and the story shifted and slid over time. However, it is clear that the image was immensely important to him, not just because of its success, but also because it came to symbolize so much of that part, the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to be free part, of the American Dream. Even today it evokes emotion beyond what can rationally be explained. It is, in that sense, a sublime photograph.
McCauley goes on to examine some of the claims about the photograph -- could it really have been taken as Stieglitz claimed? Were the boat and the weather as he describes? But as she argues in the end, Stieglitz, as a son of Jewish immigrants and naturally sympathetic to the poor and struggling people he saw around him, was genuinely moved.
Francisco takes a rather different approach in his essay. It is more of a personal meditation of the image, less structured, less analytical, less historical but equally fascinating and revealing. Francisco makes you want to go back to the photograph and try to read into the experience of the women wrapped up in shawls, the babies in their arms, the pensive men. No-one, save perhaps the young girl playing on the stairs looks anything but grim, tired, and uncertain. This glimpse into the human experience was captured by Stieglitz, and for that we should be grateful.
The two differing approaches to appreciating the image are very helpful and equally intriguing. They make a good pairing and indeed can be cross-referenced both about the image itself and Stieglitz's accounts. The essays are well-constructed, not overly technical and insightful in a way that encourages the reader to go back and look and re-look at the image. Indeed, reading Francisco after McCauley makes the reader want to go back and re-read McCauley -- and should it be done the other way around I am sure that would be true too.
The book, although it is slim, under 100 pages of text, is a rich experience. It will appeal, obviously enough, to students of photography and its history. Not only was Stieglitz a major figure who was among the first to be consciously articulating the science of photography, he also conveyed the beginnings of a photographic imagination as a way of seeing the world. However, those interested in phenomenological cultural history and those who simply want to become more aware of the richness of photographic interpretation will also be rewarded. After all, The Steerage is not just an important image. It has more meaning than that. Studying it, indeed studying the art itself, illuminates the way in we see ourselves and others around us.
© 2013 Mark Welch
Mark Welch, PhD, British Columbia