A portrait of `Camera Work'

UMBC exhibit focuses on major photo journal

Art Review

April 24, 2003|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Every new art form has to have its champion, and in the case of photography none was more dedicated, wily or combative than Alfred Stieglitz, the American-born artist-impresario, gallery owner, editor and tireless advocate who almost single-handedly invented modern photography.

From the perspective of today's booming photography market, it is difficult to imagine how embattled Stieglitz and his tiny circle of true believers felt at the turn of the 20th century, when their struggle to win recognition of photography as an art became a messianic cause waged with the take-no-prisoners ardor of a military campaign.

In this monumental, decades-long effort, Stieglitz was the movement's indefatigable chief of staff, top strategist, press agent and propagandist, trench fighter and supply sergeant all rolled into one. He was constantly organizing and proselytizing, exhorting his troops forward with a pen in one hand and his shutter-release button in the other.

Stieglitz turned the tiny journal Camera Work, the quarterly he established in 1903 and whose circulation never exceeded 2,000, into a revolutionary house organ of international stature. Both on its exquisitely printed pages and in his voluminous private correspondence, he railed against all those - "fools" and "Philistines," he called them - who stood in the way of his quest to elevate photography's status.

Now, on the 100th anniversary of its founding, the little periodical through which Stieglitz and his followers accomplished so much during its brief but brilliant life (1903-1917) is the subject of a major exhibition at the Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

The show, 100 Years of Camera Work, draws on the Kuhn library's extraordinary collection of the complete issues of this seminal journal, and documents not only its contribution to photography but also the powerful impact it had on the development of modern art in America.

Stieglitz, the scion of a prosperous German-American family, gave up his engineering studies in the 1880s after being bitten by the photography bug.

He was already the recipient of numerous prizes and awards for his own photographic work when, in 1896, he became editor of Camera Notes, the journal of the conservative Camera Club in New York.

But almost from the beginning, Stieglitz was impatient with the club members' conventional views about photography, which tended toward a sentimental, naive realism with little regard for expanding the medium's plastic, expressive qualities.

For the next seven years, Stieglitz strove mightily, as chairman of the publications committee, to cajole and convince his readers of photography's yet-to-be explored potential. But the going was uphill and increasingly marked by opposition and resentment to his editorial policies.

In 1902, Stieglitz broke with the Camera Club and announced the formation of the Photo-Secession, a group of like-minded photographers who shared his avant-garde views and who rallied under the banner of Pictorialism as their aesthetic creed.

The group's first exhibition, held that year at the National Arts Club in New York, included works by Edward Steichen, Gertrude Kasebier, Clarence H. White, John G. Bullock and Frank Eugene, as well as Stieglitz himself.

The following year, at the urging of friends, Stieglitz established Camera Work to promulgate the group's ideas to a wider audience. The first two issues were devoted to works by Kasebier and Steichen. (Camera Notes, by the way, died three months after Stieglitz left.)

The UMBC show is divided into sections that focus on the periodical's various stages of development. It goes from the early issues that featured photographers such as Steichen and White, who would go on to establish worldwide reputations, to the magazine's evolution into a publicity organ for 291, Stieglitz's hugely influential art gallery in New York, and finally through its transformation from a purely photographic magazine into a modern-art journal that became the first American publication to reproduce the works of such European masters as Picasso, Matisse and Rodin.

There's also a section devoted to later generations of photographers whose works are indebted to the pioneering example of Camera Work. Among them is master-photographer and educator Minor White, who is represented by a stunning series of 10 prints.

Stieglitz always insisted on the highest standards of reproduction in presenting the artists he championed. The illustrations from Camera Work, superbly toned photogravure images on tissue paper individually attached to each page, are often better than the photographic prints produced by the artists themselves.

This is a show that is extraordinarily rich both in its visual content and in its wealth of ideas about a crucial period in the evolution of photography as the quintessentially modern graphic art.

100 Years of Cam era Work

Where: UMBC, 1000 Hilltop Circle, Catonsville

When: Through May 31. Gallery hours are noon to 4:30 p.m. Monday-Wednesday and Friday, noon to 8 p.m. Thursday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday

Admission: Free

Call: 410- 455-2270 or visit the gallery Web site at http://aok.lib.umbc.edu/gallery/

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