In the Darkroom with Stieglitz

Exhibition shows how the pioneer photographer honed his art by chemical process

ALFRED STIEGLITZ, acclaimed as the most important photographer of his time, had a keen perception of creativity that affected not just his own work but his view of other artists, including his wife, painter Georgia O'Keeffe.

In 1905, Stieglitz opened a small gallery in Manhattan, called "291," to explore the potential of photography. It was also a cooperative center for experimentation in the arts. Until 1917, when the gallery closed, it introduced to the United States the work of Europeans such as Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse, and Braque, and Americans Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and O'Keeffe. Maurice Maeterlinck, Gertrude Stein, and Guillaume Apollinaire were published in its journals, Camera Work and 291, while photographer s such as Edward Steichen and Paul Strand and artists like Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp were also drawn to 291.

This multi-talented artist with a camera is the subject of a new exhibition, "Stieglitz in the Darkroom," at the National Gallery of Art here through Feb. 14, 1993.

Stieglitz, who was born in Hoboken, N.J., and educated in Germany as a photographer, chemist and physicist, experimented successfully with new technical processes, as the exhibition makes clear.

It's also evident that the creativity he appreciated in others was part of his credo as a photographer. The same creative impulse runs through his work, turning a simple photograph into a multiplicity of images. To create this effect, he used various cropping techniques and media such as platinum on paper (his favorite), palladium, retouching, or photogravure.

"There are instances where cropping has radically changed the meaning of a photograph," says Sarah Greenough, curator of the exhibition and author of the brochure on Stieglitz's work.

"For example, the image [`A Venetian Canal'] ... is one of three very different prints made from one negative in three years. The first one, entitled `The Venetian Canal,' really emphasizes the abstract patterns of the reflections in the water. The second one, which Stieglitz appropriately titled `Venice,' is more of a middle shot that shows the lagoon itself as well as the buildings above. And the third one, entitled `A Bit of Venice,' represents a horizontal slice across the middle of the negative...."

The 75 photographs on display are only part of the National Gallery's massive collection of l,600 works spanning his lifetime (1864-1946). They are chosen from the key grouping of photographs given by Georgia O'Keeffe in 1949 and 1980.

"This extraordinary collection allows us to explore the vanguard technique behind the work of this foremost, 20th-century photographer," says Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery.

Ms. Greenough points out that the gallery has the largest collection of Stieglitz photographs, either in the US or abroad.

The exhibition includes well-known, powerful images like his five variations on a theme: "Winter - Fifth Avenue" (1893), "Outward Bound, The Mauretania" (1910), his platinum print "Sun Rays - Paula, Berlin" (1889), and the portraits he made of O'Keeffe, some of which have not been seen in 60 years.

At the press opening, Greenough told the gathering, "First of all, [drop] any notions that you might have had about Stieglitz being a straight photographer, that is, someone like Edward Weston who completely pre-visualized the final print before he made his exposure.

"Stieglitz saw his photographs as a fertile source of material that could be mined repeatedly throughout his career," she said. "You'll see also that the meaning of a photographic image isn't a fixed or stable thing but something that could continually be reinterpreted, reevaluated, as Stieglitz changed his understanding of what photography was all about."

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