Portrait of Stieglitz captures a rich life, negatives included

Preview: `American Masters' tells the story of the man who turned photography into art.

April 16, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Alfred Steiglitz almost single-handedly invented modern photography. Before Stieglitz, photography had been an amateur pastime, a commercial business and a sometime scientific tool. After him, it was an art as well.

How that happened is the story told by "Alfred Stieglitz: The Eloquent Eye," the PBS "American Masters" series biography that airs tonight at 10 on channels 22 and 67.

Stieglitz, born into a wealthy German-Jewish family in Hoboken, N.J., in 1864, was a phenomenon, a force of nature with a temperament as Napoleonic as his ego. He felt constantly embattled in the "fight" for photography's acceptance as art, which he waged with the relentless, take-no-prisoners determination of a military campaign.

Each time he won a victory he dashed off congratulatory messages to friends and supporters recapitulating his successes, using the little magazine Camera Work as the movement's revolutionary house organ. And when he suffered setbacks, as he invariably did, he complained bitterly and lugubriously in print of traitors, ingrates, Philistines and fools.

He was a rebel with a cause, but the cause kept changing, too. In the 1890s, when American photography was sunk in Victorian complacency, he championed the Photo-Secessionists, an arty group of pictorial photographers whose gauzy, soft-focus images coyly imitated the look of painting.

The Photo-Secessionists won their struggle in the first decade of the 20th century, but by then Stieglitz had already decided they were old-fashioned. He stopped showing their pictures in his little gallery at 291 Fifth Ave. in Manhattan and (to their great consternation) started showing European moderns like Rodin, Picasso and Matisse instead.

The critics heaped abuse on him and his new proteges, but he persevered. Yet hardly had European modernism won its first tentative victory at the 1913 Armory Show in New York, which for the first time introduced large numbers of Americans to the movement, than Stieglitz set off on yet another tack, this time to win acceptance for still-unknown American modernists like Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Paul Strand and, perhaps most famously, Georgia O'Keeffe.

And so it went throughout his life. He was as adept at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory as vice versa. Nor were Stieglitz's domestic affairs any less turbulent than his public persona.

In 1893, at the insistence of his businessman father, Stieglitz made a conventional marriage to a wealthy heiress. But he lost interest in his new wife almost as quickly as he earlier had tired of his engineering studies in Germany, where he had first caught the photography bug.

The marriage tottered along for more than two decades until Stieglitz met the young O'Keeffe, 23 years his junior, in 1915, and fell passionately in love with her. Stieglitz left his wife for O'Keeffe, and later married her, having taken hundreds of photographs of the artist that remain one of the great serial portraits of all time.

And yet, perhaps inevitably, other women would come between Stieglitz and O'Keeffe, notably Dorothy Norman, who by the 1930s had begun to supplant O'Keeffe as Stieglitz's muse and helpmate. Though they never divorced, O'Keeffe and Stieglitz increasingly led separate lives, he in New York, she in New Mexico, until Stieglitz's death in 1946.

The PBS biography - which includes charming archival footage of turn-of-the century New York as well as an interview with O'Keeffe conducted shortly before her death in 1986 in which she recalls the great man with a mixture of tenderness and, after all these years, a still barely concealed rage - makes no attempt to gloss over Stieglitz's human foibles and failures.

Instead, it accepts them as part of the complex personality Stieglitz's was, one in which light and darkness commingled as mysteriously, and as fruitfully, as they do in the moody cityscapes and brooding cloud pictures through which he so eloquently expressed himself and his age.

'Alfred Stieglitz'

When: Tonight at 10

Where: PBS (Channels 22, 67)

In brief: An unretouched look on "American Masters" at the photographer's art and his life.

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