Alfred Stieglitz "Treasures' at the Art Museum

A legend in his own mnd: The overblown Alfred Stieglitz

'Equivalents' (1923): The emperor's new clouds?
'Equivalents' (1923): The emperor's new clouds?

Curators periodically prefer to take the path of least resistance and mount exhibitions culled from their own institution's vaults rather than pursue the more exhausting and expensive enterprise of assembling works from far-flung sources. Apart from the time and money saved, there is surely some appeal in the notion of seeing what's in the basement rather than racking one's brain to come up with an original idea.

A prime example of this approach is "Treasures of the Alfred Stieglitz Center: Photographs from the Permanent Collection," currently at the Art Museum.

Curator Peter Barberie never sets out to offer a comprehensive survey of the museum's vast, rich holdings. Instead, we are informed, these works are "highlights" purporting to "trace the medium's history as an art form."

He should have racked his brain.

Cavalier approach

Certainly any responsible museum rotates its permanent collection now and then. But if an underlying organizing principle lies behind the decision, it deserves more than a casual exposition. The challenge with these didactic shows quite often lies as much in the accompanying materials and wall labels as in the concept.

Curators shouldn't be cavalier just because they have unlimited treasures at their disposal. A little effort is required to elucidate, not just illustrate. In this instance, visitors unfamiliar with the history of photography won't glean much from this highly abridged edition; nor has any serious attempt been made to help educate them.

The famous (William Henry Fox Talbot) and less well known (Charles Aubry) are represented here, employing the earliest methods (paper negatives, daguerreotypes, albumen and collodian wet plates) up to the most current.

Protégé and lover

A wide variety of styles and movements are also on view, including but not limited to architectural records of the ancient world, street photography, portraiture, still life, etc. Again, the work ranges from the famous (Robert Frank) to the not so famous (Joachim Koester).

At the exhibition's core we find a series of works by Alfred Stieglitz and Dorothy Norman, a Stieglitz protégé as well as his lover and keeper of the flame, whose generous donations in the late '60s helped establish the Stieglitz Center. Stieglitz's work has long belonged to the canon; Norman's work has not. Nothing displayed here will change that circumstance.

No reputation in the history of photography has been more inflated than that of Stieglitz. Had he been only a promoter and gallery owner, his championing of photography and modernist art would have sufficed to secure his reputation; but Stieglitz was a photographer of enormous energy, if not talent, who had a way of mythologizing his efforts.

Blizzards and rainstorms

It's sacrilege not only to suggest that he talked a better game than he photographed. But worse, the failure to genuflect in front of works such as "The Steerage" or his badly exposed and printed "Equivalents" is grounds for derision by the photographic community.

"The Steerage" has often been cited as photography's own Cubist apotheosis rather than the matter-of-fact image it is, while the "Equivalents" may take the heavens for their subject but remain earthbound for all that.

Stieglitz innovated insofar as he took lots of pictures under difficult circumstances, like blizzard conditions and driving rain. These labors presented serious challenges, and he answered them all. But the images themselves rarely rose above the level of snapshots.

Provocative O'Keeffe

The exceptions to his overblown and overwrought oeuvre were his photographs of Georgia O'Keeffe, Norman's predecessor. These include a number of powerful images whose subject's own provocative life ensured their renown. For these, Stieglitz was justifiably well known. They don't merit his beatification, however.

Stieglitz's portraits of Norman are another matter altogether. They pale in comparison to those of O'Keeffe. Perhaps the fault lay in the subject's stardom, not in the photographer. Norman was no O'Keeffe in most respects, temperament in particular. She was lovely and adoring, and in the end perhaps that was all that mattered…to Stieglitz.

Meanwhile, Norman's images pale on their own merit. Nothing about them meets the exhibition's criterion to "trace the medium's history as an art form," let alone qualifies them as highlights of the collection. They appear only out of politeness.

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