Chapter Two: Stieglitz’s “Machine”

 

In 1923, Hart Crane sent to the photographer Alfred Stieglitz the outline of an appreciative essay Crane proposed to write on Stieglitz’s work. Crane saw Stieglitz’s photography as embodying a series of significant paradoxes: the speed of the shutter and the motionless passivity of the camera; the quickly fading moment frozen as timeless image; the perfection of mechanism permitting nature to “mirror itself” in Stieglitz’s lens. The essay, Crane hoped, would be “fairly comprehensive.” He planned to deal not only with Stieglitz’s art but with the man himself, to discuss “what I consider to be your position as a scientist, philosopher or whatever wonder you are.” 1

Crane did not write the essay. Perhaps it came to seem to him too ambitious an undertaking, or too presumptuous, considering his junior status among Stieglitz’s admirers. Whatever the case, Crane was not alone in regarding Stieglitz as one of the greatest of living men. If Whitman was a sort of favorite remembered grandfather to many of the artistic rebels of the 1910s, then Stieglitz was for several of them a father-figure and indispensable presence. To such writers and painters as William Carlos Williams, Paul Rosenfeld, Waldo Frank, Lewis Mumford, John Marin, Marsden Hartley and Sherwood Anderson, Stieglitz was an example and symbol, the incarnation of the art spirit persisting bravely in an inveterately hostile American environment. At one time or another all of these men wrote tributes to Stieglitz, almost all of which stressed the remarkable fact that Stieglitz used a camera, a mechanical instrument developed by a machine civilization, to create art. As Harold Rugg, a civil engineer and educator, expressed it, Stieglitz employed “Mechanism to reveal Organism.” 2 Another admirer, the critic Herbert Seligmann, observed that in America, this “button-pusher’s paradise” (a reference to the Kodak slogan “you push the button, we do the rest”), there was one man who used a camera and yet was no mere button-pusher. Stieglitz had taken that “despised box,” the camera—despised, that is, by traditional artists—and in his portraits of friends had somehow illuminated their inner selves. 3 To Paul Rosenfeld, Stieglitz was a “magician of the developing room,” an alchemist of the spirit who used base materials—film, photographic paper, and chemicals—to produce haunting images. 4

It was not only Stieglitz’s work as a photographer which suited him for high symbolic office. He was, all art historians agree, the most important single figure in the promotion of the modern movement in American painting, taking it far beyond anything contemplated or desired by Robert Henri and his school. 5 In 1905, Stieglitz opened the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, or “29l,” as the place soon became known from its Fifth Avenue address. In 1908, five years before the famous Armory Show, Stieglitz began to mount works of European post-Impressionist painters along with the photographs of his colleagues in the Photo-Secession movement. Works by Rodin, Cezanne, Mattisse, Rousseau, and Picasso appeared on the walls of “291” in those years. 6 Most New York newspaper critics found these’ drawings and paintings barbaric, repulsive, or incomprehensible. Stieglitz reprinted their reviews in his expensively produced and elegant magazine Camera Work, both as earnest of his grim determination never to be intimidated and as a measure of the hostility and ignorance against which the struggle for the new must be waged in America.

But it was as a patron and promoter of the new in American painting that Stieglitz attained his full historical significance. At “291” such American abstractionists as Max Weber, Alfred Maurer, Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Abraham Walkowitz first displayed their work to an American public. 7 The Stieglitz inner circle of artists, however, consisted of Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Arthur Dove, and Georgia O’Keeffe. The mutual loyalty that existed between these artists and Stieglitz was intense and long-lasting. If through the three decades after 1910 a gallery visitor wished to see a Dove, a Hartley, an O’Keeffe, or a Marin, he went to “291” and its successors, The Intimate Gallery and An American Place.

During the exhibiting season Stieglitz virtually took up residence in his showrooms. Day after day he would be there, always talking, capturing each visitor in the net of his monologue. His tone. as Edmund Wilson wrote, was “rather casual,” but the “ribbon of talk was as strong as a cable.” 8 His monologues were loosely organized around the twin subjects of American philistinism and the neglected genius of his protégés.

Stieglitz scorned the appellation “dealer”. There were no “openings” at his galleries. Publicity was often dispensed with and notices not sent out. Dorothy Norman, Stieglitz’s adoring disciple in later years, wrote proudly that his last gallery, An American Place, was not even listed in the telephone directory. “Only if it is really needed, deeply needed,” she said, “will it be found.” 9 By the 1930s, Stieglitz’s battle had been fought; in the aftermath, there was piety. To some, An American Place, with its immaculate white walls and its stillness, was a shrine to art in the very heart of commercial Manhattan. They were initiates in a beautiful cult, Stieglitz was high priest and confessor, and the old bound copies of Camera Work displayed on a corner table formed the reliquary.

But if there was piety, it was only belated tribute paid to an astonishing artistic original. Stieglitz, almost singlehanded, brought modern photography into being. By the early 1890s, around his thirtieth year (he was born in 1864), Stieglitz had come to the conviction that photography was a wholly new art and must not emulate painting. He spurned the tricks to which his contemporaries often resorted to make a camera portrait look like a Rembrandt or a photograph of a landscape like a Pissaro—the dark studio ;interiors, the employment of light for chiaroscuro effects, soft focus, uncorrected lenses, and even the tinting and scratching of negatives. Stieglitz’s photographs were as technically honest as the pictures by those documentary photographers of the time like Jacob Riis and Lewis W. Hine who were concerned only with recording life truthfully. Like them, Stieglitz went out into the city streets to find his subjects; in his photographs of Broadway omnibuses and horse‑car terminals, art photography confronted American urban life for the first time.

In the early days of Stieglitz’s struggle for the acceptance of photography as an art, one argument tirelessly used by photography’s detractors was that at most it required only a technician’s skill and a modicum of aesthetic sense. Certainly it could not be “art” as painting was art: it was machinery. Stieglitz could not understand, he would later recall, how artists could at once praise his work as better than their paintings and yet “in the same breath, decry it because it was Machine-Made—their...’art’ painting—because Hand-Made—being considered necessarily superior...” 10 Then and there he began his fight for the recognition of photography as a new medium of expression.

From defending the machine-made as being just as good as the hand-made, it was only a step to the suggestion that in some ways photography was superior to painting, or at least more appropriate to an industrial age. J. Nilsen Laurvik, a photographer who exhibited at “291”, wrote in 1911 that Stieglitz’s photographs were eloquent refutation of the “oft-repeated statement of painters and many writers on art that nothing worthy of the name can possibly be produced with a machine.” Laurvik would “simply throw out the observation that the highest expression of the imaginative and inventive genius of our time, especially the best creative minds of America, is the machine, in all its beautiful simplicity and coordinate complexity; in it we find our sonnets, our epics, and therein lies expressed eloquently the true greatness of our age.” 11

Stieglitz, however, saw little value in associating his work with the spirit of the machine age. From the beginning, he categorically rejected the idea that photography was in any sense “machine made”. While he refused to concede any superiority of the hand-made over the machine-made, he also refused to grant to the camera or the developing process any agency in the creation of the photograph. He insisted that however many prints might be obtained from a single negative, only one of them could be uniquely right. 12 And although he permitted reproductions of his work to appear in Camera Work and elsewhere, he was opposed to the idea of reproduction on principle. “My photographs,” he would say imperiously, “do not lend themselves to reproduction.” The “quality of touch in its deepest living sense” was inherent in them. “In the reproduction it would become extinct—dead.” 13 The claim that one perfectly unique print possessed a quality imparted by the artist, “touch,” made a Stieglitz photograph a hand‑made thing; like any traditional

masterpiece it had the attribute of irreplaceability. Stieglitz, one supposes from this, would have been content to see the term “photographer” absorbed by the word “artist.”

But Laurvik’s essay, with its subtle inflation of the importance of the camera’s “machine” nature, served to indicate the direction which later meditations on the meaning of Stieglitz’s work would take. Stieglitz’s younger colleague Paul Strand brought out fully the cultural and even mystical implications of the camera-machine equation in an essay published in 1922. Strand, then thirty-two, had for some years been deeply interested in exploring the machine age through photography and film (an interest perhaps due in part to his early training with Lewis W. Hine). 14 In addition to his collaboration with Charles Sheeler on the film Mannahatta, Strand photographed machine parts, iron scrap, automobile fan‑belts, camera mechanisms and the riveted plates of tramp steamer hulls. To Strand, camera art, and especially Stieglitz’s camera art, was a symbol and portent of a healthful reconciliation of man and machine. There was a new Trinity in the world, he wrote, “God the Machine, Materialistic Empiricism the Son, and Science the Holy Ghost.” Stieglitz had “taken to himself a dead thing unwittingly contributed by the scientist” and through the conscious use of it had revealed “a new and living... vision.” Stieglitz had not only used the machine, but had shown perfect respect for its qualities. The photographer should never evade the fact that the camera’s vision is an objective vision. Stieglitz’s vision, too, was objective. His work represented “the beginning of a penetration of the scientific spirit into the plastic arts. On the other hand, as an artist, Stieglitz made of the machine “an instrument of intuitive knowledge” and a means by which to demonstrate “the eternal value of the concept of craftsmanship.”

Thus, in Strand’s view, Stieglitz had achieved in his photographs a fusing of traditional opposites. His pictures were the result of a dialectical synthesis of objective vision and intuitive expression, of scientific intelligence and artistic passion, of modern technics and traditional craftsmanship. All of this was prelude to a fervent appeal reminiscent of Whitman. “What,” Strand asked, “is the relation between science and expression?” Were they not both “vital manifestations of energy, whose reciprocal hostility turns the one into the destructive tool of materialism, the other into anemic phantasy, whose coming together might integrate into a new religious impulse? Must not these two forms of energy converge before a living future can be born of both? 15

Twelve years later in a collective tribute to the photographer, America and Alfred Stieglitz, Waldo Frank mounted by degrees to a similar affirmation. “The significant feature in the photographs of Stieglitz,” he said, “is that a man has accepted the factual world, which a recording machine gives him, to make beauty.” Stieglitz’s art represented the “unification of his vision and the objective world.” Moreover, in the act of taking a picture, Stieglitz “transfigured” the objective world, and thereby exerted control over it, for “to know ... means to ‘control.’” 16 Convergence, acceptance, unification, transfiguration, control: the words reveal the high hopes that Stieglitz’s followers and allies shared, and something, too, of their unease. Frank’s claim that the world was somehow changed by having its picture taken indicates just how perilous this venture in affirmation could become.

The most tortured attempt to make of Stieglitz’s career and example a text upon which to propound hopeful doctrine was made by the critic Paul Rosenfeld, one of Stieglitz’s closest disciples, in a 1924 essay. Rosenfeld had been a colleague of Frank and Van Wyck Brooks on the staff of the Seven Arts. During the twenties he wrote the “Musical Chronicle” section of The Dial, where he warmly encouraged the younger American composers—Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, Roy Harris and Carl Ruggles. He also contributed reviews and essays on poetry, the novel, painting, sculpture, the dance, and educational methodology to a number of leading periodicals. In temperament Rosenfeld was intensely romantic. His critical method—a risky procedure in some circumstances—consisted of subjecting himself to a work of art, of immersing himself in the experience of it—a sort of emotional bath—and then describing the experience in a rich and sometimes overwrought prose. He loathed anything faintly low-brow (George Gershwin’s music, for example), but at his best Rosenfeld was an acute critic, quite as tough and often more penetrating than others who shuddered at his style and prided themselves upon their rigor. 17

Rosenfeld’s critical essays of the twenties reveal the conscientious and even gallant determination of a highly cultivated and sensitive man to be “open” to the industrial landscape. In one essay Rosenfeld wrote that because Carl Sandburg had in his poems accomplished the feat of “feeling life through the smokebanks and silos and gashed palisades” of Chicago and the West, “we ... dare, in turn, approach these harsh forbidding things.” Rosenfeld was not prepared to say that Sandburg’s poetry was really first-rate; he simply thought Americans would need poets like him as long as they “walk[ed] by skyscrapers.” 18 In soberer moments, however, Rosenfeld could not suppress the feeling that industrial civilization was not only ugly to look upon but was opposed to truly human values and purposes. American progress, he wrote in one essay, was like “the accelerated spinning of the unapplied wheels on a derailed locomotive.” 19

Rosenfeld’s conception of Stieglitz’s significance was rooted in this view of America as mean and puritanical, and in Rosenfeld’s sense of Stieglitz as essentially a European, a man only a generation removed from the “humid soil” of the old world. (Rosenfeld, like Stieglitz, was the son of immigrant German Jewish parents; in his autobiographical novel A Boy In the Sun, he has Mamma saying that “it took three whole generations out of Germany to make a genuine American”). 20 In Stieglitz’s work, then, the “ancient religiosity of the old world” was expressed, “the cathedral upreared itself in shrill American day.” Stieglitz represented the infusion of new world technics with old world spirit. He had “cast the artist’s net wider into the material world” than any man before him, not excluding Whitman. When one looked upon a Stieglitz photograph, “a weight like all the metal tons” of the world lifted from one’s shoulders, and with it the burdensome conviction that “man will remain slave always to the terrible machines.”

Talk of machines gave way to the sexual. “Before the lens of Stieglitz’s camera,” the “moveless heavy woman, American life,” had “thrilled as from the touch of a wizard’s wand,” and had “spoken from her womb.” Stieglitz, with his “almighty passion to penetrate,” had “gone deep into his earthly circumstance... in religious, lover’s reverence.” Stieglitz’s camera—fructifying, redemptive—was wizard’s wand and divine phallus. Would America respond to such godly potency?

She would not. Rosenfeld concluded his essay with a rapturous passage on the cloud photographs that Stieglitz had lately taken at his summer place at Lake George , New York . These pictures, Rosenfeld said, represented the flight of spirit “from the shattered, ashen world... to seek confirmation for what it has dreamt amid the mechanization of the earth.” 21 In the end, Stieglitz’s spirituality was not equal to the eternal, sullen materiality of America . The artist who had cast his nets wider into the world than any before him had retreated heavenward, leaving industrial America behind, unredeemed.

 

II

 

The editors of America and Alfred Stieglitz took a directly opposite view of Stieglitz’s significance. In an introductory statement it was asserted that “all creative work in the United States ” derived directly or indirectly from the “Pioneer-Puritan culture,” and that Stieglitz’s work could only be understood in terms of that cultural continuum. 22 The book’s first essay was by William Carlos Williams, who nine years before had written In the American Grain. In his essay in the Stieglitz volume, Williams spoke of two traditions in the American past, two “cultural elements” which had struggled for supremacy throughout the nation’s existence. They were opposites, “native and borrowed, related and unrelated, primary and secondary . . . and occasionally... true and false.” While Williams thought American culture had been enfeebled by a neglect of the primary element, he was no nativist: the imported European element, always suspect to be sure, was nevertheless essential. Thus Stieglitz’s role as a promoter of the new in painting was to bring these elements together. “Realizing the fullness and color in French painting,” he had worked “to push forward something that would be or that was comparable in America .” 23

But what was it that was native, primary, and true in Stieglitz’s work as a photographer? Williams did not address that question directly, but probably his answer was to be found in his comment on Benjamin Franklin. “His talent,” Williams said of Franklin , was “primarily technical, with the bearing which all technical matters have upon the immediate.” This took him “quite apart from his will” in the right direction, for “ America has approached the cultural plateau from this necessitous technical side.”24 Stieglitz, too, might be said to have approached his own plateau from the technical side, becoming an artist only after he had mastered all phases of photography. So one must infer. That Stieglitz, in carrying photography forward as an art, was acting in response to distinctly American urgings is, in any case, the only explanation which accords with the editors’ statement, the first place given to Williams’ essay and, indeed, with the title of the volume.

In Williams’ essay an explanation of American cultural development is adumbrated which was later to be extended and fleshed out by Constance Rourke in her study of the art of Charles Sheeler (a close friend of Williams) and in John A. Kouwenhoven’s brilliant Made in America. 25 But how well did such an explanation fit the case of Stieglitz, and if, as would seem at first glance, the fit was something less than exact, why was such an explanation put forward? The answer would seem to be that in placing Stieglitz at the center of a national technical tradition, the contributors to America and Alfred Stieglitz were putting him in a position to redeem that tradition. Thus the constant references to Stieglitz’s camera as a “machine,” an employment of the term which certainly did not reflect everyday usage. These writers, one must suspect, were not unconscious of the metaphorical uses of the word “machine.” In several essays, Stieglitz’s machine came to represent The Machine—machinery in general—and even matter, and when that point had been reached large meanings indeed might be extracted from the simple fact of Alfred Stieglitz clicking a shutter and producing art.

          So far we have seen Stieglitz as Old World spirit and as American technician. There was yet a third way of seeing him. To Sherwood Anderson, a close friend of the photographer, Stieglitz represented the old craft tradition which had been rendered almost extinct by mass production. Anderson was himself caught in the throes of ambivalence over the machine. He had worked in factories and was fascinated by machines, and at times was capable of responding to them with the admiration of the proverbial Yankee who thinks nothing in the world is so delightful as a contrivance ingeniously made to move. He spoke with wonder of the “dance” of the looms in cotton mills. “God, man,” he wrote to a friend in 1930, “if I could

get you... into the loom room of a big cotton mill at night. Why, it is a Niagara Falls of steel, of dancing lights, of power.” 26 But this very splendor was a fearsome thing. Anderson could not rid himself of the suspicion that machines must eventually displace and dehumanize man. At the root of his fears there was a sort of principle of the conservation of vital energy. Greater power and beauty in machines meant the sapping of human, and particularly of masculine, power, of potency in a specifically sexual sense. 27

To Anderson , Stieglitz therefore represented a kind of “maleness” that had “something to do with the craftsman’s love of his tools and his materials.” In an age when almost all men had turned “from that old male love of good work well done,” he said, “and have vainly hoped that beauty might be brought into the world wholesale, as Mr. Ford manufactures automobiles, there has always been, here in America, this one man who believed in no such nonsense... fighting... for... the right to make what is sound and sweet in himself articulate through his handling of tools and materials.” Against this skyscraper civilization with its institutionalized ugliness there stood alone the figure of Stieglitz, a throwback to the patient wood craftsmen Anderson had known as a boy, and, perhaps, a promise that they and their like might someday “come back into their own inheritance.” 28

What relation did these contradictory glosses on the meaning of the photographer’s career have to Stieglitz’s own conception of his self and his role? Did Stieglitz believe, for example, that the Puritan-Pioneer tradition provided the only source for authentic American expression in the twentieth century? It would have been strange if he had. The family in which he grew up was German in its cultural interests. 29 After acquiring a substantial fortune in the woolens trade, Stieglitz’s father took his entire family, including young Alfred, back to Germany so that the children might be properly educated. Alfred dabbled in engineering at the Berlin Polytechnic and there took up photography. He did all of his early work in Europe and won his first prizes there. in adopting the name Photo‑Secession for his first gallery, Stieglitz claimed common cause with the Jugendstil movement in Germany . Camera Work was an international magazine both in content and readership. All of Stieglitz’s early efforts at “291” were directed toward promoting the modern movement in the visual arts, a movement which knew no national boundaries.

All the same, there was good reason for the nationalist emphasis of America and Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz’s true objective, it became evident by 1910, was to promote a specifically American modern movement. After the task of introducing European art to America had been accomplished, the work of Europe an artists was shown with decreasing frequency until by the late twenties Stieglitz had settled into a routine he would maintain to the end—annual shows for what might be called “the Four”: Marin, O’Keeffe, Dove and Hartley. As he wrote to Rosenfeld, by the 1930’s Stieglitz had identified himself so completely with the cause of a national art, and the cause of a national art with the Four, that, as Robert Coates wrote, “his interests narrowed until at times—in conversation at least—he was almost chauvinistic in his distrust of anything foreign.” An American Place was not idly named. 30

Even Stieglitz’s tireless denunciations of American stupidity and greed may be seen as the expressions of a bitter and unrequited love. Here he would stay, Herbert Seligmann remembered him saying, “to fight the unequal battle for the creative spirit against machine industrialism.” 31 As that remark would indicate, Paul Rosenfeld had good reason to think of Stieglitz as an implacable foe of the machine civilization; he was only taking the old man at his word. But this was the old Stieglitz, scarred by many battles and, it may be, a prisoner of the conventions of his role as heroic loner.

As a young man he had felt differently. When he returned to New York from Europe in 1890, as Dorothy Norman records, he had been “enormously exhilerated” by the idea of the new world. 32 Stieglitz responded ecstatically to the Flat Iron Building , then the tallest on the New York skyline, when it was completed in the winter of 1903—and even indulged a romantic wish to have his ashes strewn from its roof. 33 He later recalled that as he set up his camera in the swirling snow of Madison Square to photograph the new building, it looked to him “as though it were moving toward me like the bow of a monster ocean-steamer—a picture of the new America that was still in the making.” “That building,” he told his skeptical father, “is to America what the Parthenon was to Greece .” 34 The painters whose work Stieglitz supported felt the same way about this new America in the making, as Charles Demuth’s “My Egypt, “ John Marin’s watercolors of the Woolworth Building , and Georgia O’Keeffe’s portrait of the American Radiator Building testify.

But in later life, Stieglitz took a much more severe view of the “skyscraper civilization.” For one thing, from the time of his return to the United States until around 1903, when he photographed the Flat Iron Building, that civilization in its embryonic form had been his major subject; in those years he was a photographer primarily of city streets, taking pictures in all weather—in blizzards, after spring rains, and at all times of the day and night. Some of his finest pictures, in fact, were taken at night. One reason his night views of the city, such as “Icy Night,” taken in 1898, seem particularly fresh and fine still, really astonishing for their time, is that they were among the first that any photographer had taken of any subject after sundown and outdoors; another is that while the daytime photographs of fashionable streets perhaps unfairly suggest similar and earlier paintings of Paris by the French Impressionists, these night views have no real equivalents in painting: they reveal not only great originality, controlling passion in  the artist to make his equipment surrender to him the effects he demands from it, and as well to see the city as it has never been seen before.

The photographs of the Flat Iron Building represent that dual commitment to the medium and the city at its most intense. Thereafter, Stieglitz photographed New York far less frequently. For seven years or so after the Flat Iron Building photographs, he seems to have taken none at all, and then took two memorable photographs in 1910 that mark the beginning of an emotional withdrawal, a pulling back from engagement to critical detachment. In the first of these, “Old and New New York,” we see a line of two- and three-storey row houses and small Civil War-vintage office buildings, and looming behind these, the skeleton of a new skyscraper. “City of Ambition ,” a photograph of the same year, apparently snapped from the end of a pier or from the deck of a ferry, takes in the lower Manhattan waterfront, a vista of ferry slips, sheds, and skyscrapers, the new Singer Tower tallest among them. The water of the river shimmers in the sun, and white smoke from half a dozen chimneys plumes upward past the dark buildings into the sparkling midday sky. The view is splendid—it suggests certain shots in Sheeler and Strand ’s Mannahatta ten years later—but as the title suggests, the photographer’s admiration for the scene is tinged with irony. “City of Ambition ,” when contrasted to the Flat Iron Building photographs, suggests H. G. Wells’ comment on the New York skyline in 1904:

 

There is no sense of accomplishment and finality in any of these things, the largest, the finest, the tallest, are so obviously no more than symptoms and promises of Material Progress, of inhuman material progress that is so in the nature of things that no one would regret their passing. 35

 

After 1911, Stieglitz did not take another photograph of New York until the late 1920’s, when he began a series of city photographs taken through the windows of the Shelton Hotel apartment in which he and O’Keeffe lived after their marriage in 1924. In this series, which continued through the mid‑Thirties, we see a city of great buildings, of monumental granite shafts, illuminated by the low rays of the sun in that last brilliance just before dusk. The photographer’s detachment is complete. He shows us, as Harold Clurman wrote at the time, a city “built up now to a pyramidal splendor, crowded, immutable, and terribly, terribly deathlike.” 36 It is Hugh Fennies’ city, viewed after the financial collapse of the capital of the boom years of the twenties, and the dreams that sustained it, its cold beauty seen through an equally cold eye, and with contempt. Yet even as Stieglitz withdrew from New York , he could still be stirred by the wonder of a tall building. ‘ New York ,” he wrote to Anderson from the Shelton in 1925, “is madder than ever. The pace is ever increasing.” 37

 

But Georgia and I somehow don’t seem to be of New York —nor of anywhere. We live high up in the Shelton Hotel.... The wind howls and shakes the huge steel frame—We feel as if we were out at midocean. All is so quiet except the wind, and the trembling, shaking hulk of steel in which we live. Its a wonderful place.

 

III

 

Strangely, there was little or nothing in what Stieglitz said and wrote to support the idea that he was a Merlin of the machine age. He attributed no mystical significance to the fact that he used a camera. He may have invited the reverence of his followers, but if he did so, it was as a man and an artist, not as Man mastering the Machine. Nor did he think there was anything peculiarly or particularly American about possessing a knack for machinery. When it came to the kind of machinery which, naturally, concerned him most, photographic equipment, Stieglitz admired German products for their quality and, design, and complained endlessly about the shoddiness of the Eastman‑Kodak line. He had a craftsman’s sensitivity to the look and feel of things, and in this respect his view of himself was closer to Anderson ’s view of him than to Frank’s or Strand ’s, but he did not see his own work and example as a rebuke to mass production. When he said he had fought American industrial civilization all his life, he seems to have meant he had fought philistinism, rapacity, careless workmanship and indifferent design. Every time he saw a Model T Ford, he wrote to Anderson , something in him revolted. It was a useful car, he conceded, and that was a merit, “But ye Gods Can’t usefulness go together with some sensibility[?]” 38

If there was nothing in what Stieglitz said to warrant the idea that he was the master of machinery, nothing to support the notion that he held the future of America in his hands, nothing, probably, to give anyone leave or reason to see him as the embodiment of European spirit, or contrarily, as the latest flowering of American technical genius, nothing, in short, except that he was a great artist (and this, of course, he did not say; he simply was, and acted the role every day) , then why did his younger friends hold these views of him, and embroider their texts year after year until there developed a Stieglitz hagiography? It must have been because he was the perfect repository of all their vague and clashing hopes for the triumph of art in industrial America —a symbolic vessel waiting to be filled. Stieglitz, in his own way, assisted in these endeavors. He wrote little for publication, spoke in an oracular manner, and was reluctant, as Whitman had been with his followers at Camden , to discourage or contradict the enthusiasts. Thus, room was created for the most extravagant flights, such as Waldo Frank’s comparison of Stieglitz to Saint Paul, Confucius and Karl Marx as a figure of world-historic importance. 39

That Stieglitz had been there, a solitary fighter for the coming revolution in the arts back in the mid‑Nineties when most of these men were small children—and in the case of Crane, not yet born—was a cause for wonder. That in spite of all the odds he had so wholly succeeded was a cause for awe; he might really be, for all anyone could say, the first of that race of redemptive American poets whose coming Whitman had prophesied. Add to this that the means of his poetic expression was the camera, an instrument they had associated with family photographers and artists manqué, that through Stieglitz’s efforts photography had won full acceptance as one of the major arts, and that this success was—the work of Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Edward Weston, Paul Strand and Man Ray considered—so much an American success, and the near deification of him was irresistible. Stieglitz, like the dancer Isadora Duncan, seemed to work not just for the advancement of a particular discipline or cause, but in behalf of creation itself, and Stieglitz and Duncan were the only American artists of prominence in the 1910’s to receive the dubious tribute of worship. Almost all of the members of the Stieglitz circle were of that younger generation of the 1910’s, the years when the cause of American art elicited in many a missionary zeal, and the years when an example such as Stieglitz provided was most needed. As Frank wrote in 1919—and here he perhaps spoke no more than the truth—without Stieglitz and “291”, the “present brilliant generation” was unthinkable. 40

 

NOTES

 

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