The art of getting it right

Alfred Stieglitz was determined to make every image perfect

At the beginning of the 20th century, and for the next few decades, Alfred Stieglitz was arguably the most influential voice in American photography. He was an advocate for recognizing the photograph as an art form, a pioneer in bringing the modernist art movement to America, and the founder of the Photo-Secession group of pictorialist photographers. He published and edited the respected periodical Camera Work beginning in 1903 and throughout its 14-year run. Today, single copies can fetch more than $10,000. His New York City gallery, 291, exhibited not only photography but works by Picasso, Matisse, and Rodin decades before the opening of the Museum of Modern Art.

And all the while he was taking photographs. "When he began to photograph in the early 1880s, few people believed that the medium could be used for creative expression. When he died more than 60 years later, few doubted it," writes Earl Powell, director of the National Gallery of Art.

This massive two-volume set, "Alfred Stieglitz," published by Harry N. Abrams ($150), allows us to see more of Stieglitz's photographs than has ever been possible before. It includes 1,642 photographs, representing every mounted image in Stieglitz's possession when he died in 1946.

His wife, the noted American painter Georgia O'Keeffe, spent three years organizing his work and placing photographs in 14 museums. The National Gallery received the largest number and the only complete set, which she called "the key set."

Arranged chronologically, the initial photographs are from Stieglitz's travels in Europe, followed by his work in New York City. His most famous image, "The Steerage," contrasting first- and third-class passengers aboard the steamship Kaiser Wilhelm II, is from this period and is beautifully reproduced.

But it's by sheer numbers that this book ultimately succeeds. If you're even a novice student of photography, you'll recognize a couple of portraits of O'Keeffe; now you can see 323 more and observe Stieglitz's experiments and visual evolution. His series of clouds, titled "Songs of Clouds" and "Equivalents," are each represented by at least a hundred photographs.

A few individual images are presented in multiple prints, illustrating alternative cropping and printing methods such as silver, platinum, and photogravure. Seeing the variations all together affords additional insight into Stieglitz's sensibilities and work habits. They also illustrate his obsession with making the perfect print. My only criticism of the book is that the photographs are reproduced smaller than seems necessary for such large pages and smaller than the original prints. But gallery curator Sarah Greenough has written a scholarly and very readable 40-page introduction that's a welcome aid to exploring the photographs.

Tom Toth is the Monitor's director of photography.

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