Alfred Stieglitz - Photographs from the Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago London Monday, November 17, 2014 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Gift of Boardroom, Inc., 1992

  • Literature

    Stieglitz, 291, September-October 1915
    Camera Work, Number 36, October 1911
    Greenough, Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set (Volume One), pl. 310
    Greenough, Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and his New York Galleries, pl. 30
    Greenough, Alfred Stieglitz: Photographs and Writings, pl. 18
    Margolis, Alfred Stieglitz, Camera Work: A Pictoral Guide, pl. IX
    Museum of Fine Arts Boston and Bulfinch Press, Alfred Stieglitz: Photographer, pl. 8
    Norman, Alfred Stieglitz: An American Seer, pl. XVI
    Taschen, Alfred Stieglitz, Camera Work: The Complete Illustrations 1903-1917, cover and p. 590

  • Catalogue Essay

    Hailed as a masterpiece of early modernism, no single image better represents the work of Alfred Stieglitz than The Steerage. While Stieglitz’s youthful photographs had engaged in a dialogue of light and atmosphere borrowed from late Impressionism, this image exemplifies his transition to a new approach that expressed the changes in urban life brought on by rapid modernization. The Steerage not only depicts human migration at a time of technological change, but as an icon of 20th century art it also encapsulates photography’s coming of age as a fully modern art form.

    Stieglitz, himself the son of German-Jewish immigrants who had found success and wealth in America, photographed the scene of a departing ship, and its prominent low-cost or steerage class, while himself preparing to board for Europe with his wife and child. Edgy and dissatisfied with his upper-level surroundings (and, by all accounts, his marriage), he wandered the ship, eventually happening upon this view, which he photographed with his only available negative and a hand-held camera. In a 1942 text titled “How The Steerage Happened,” Stieglitz described the photograph as a move into vanguard abstraction, but also to the heart of his soaring feelings for freedom in art and life itself:

    A round straw hat, the funnel leading out, the stairway leaning right, the white drawbridge with its railings made of circular chains – white suspenders crossing on the back of a man in the steerage below, round shapes of iron machinery, a mast cutting into the sky, making a triangular shape. I stood spellbound for a while, looking and looking. Could I photograph what I felt, looking and looking and still looking? I saw shapes related to each other. I saw a picture of shapes and underlying that the feeling I had about life...

    Nevertheless, some years passed before Stieglitz recognised the importance of The Steerage. He first published it, in a smaller size, in the October 1911 issue of his fine art journal Camera Work, along with several stylistically transitional photographs that had transportation as their common theme: The Terminal, 1892; The Hand of Man, 1902; The Aeroplane, 1910; The Ferry Boat, 1910; and The Mauritania, 1910. In 1913 he exhibited The Steerage in a show at his gallery, 291, that he mounted to coincide with the Armory Show, the great and radical exhibition of modern art. In this show, Stieglitz again included The Steerage along with other photographs he took with a hand-held camera of contemporary urban life, but the exceptionally taut formal structure sets this one work apart. Recognizing this, in 1915 Stieglitz devoted an issue of his new avantgarde journal, also called 291, to The Steerage, offering copies of this very gravure as special inserts. It was the only time that Stieglitz reproduced a photograph in the magazine he had named after his own gallery.

    In the regular edition of 291, The Steerage was printed on a piece of opaque vellum paper. In the deluxe edition, of which this lot is an example, it was printed on semi-transparent tissue attached to a warm-coloured backing. All of the known early printings of The Steerage are thus photogravures, either small (the 1911 edition of Camera Work) or large format. The Art Institute of Chicago has in its collection an example of all three gravures, as well as an extremely rare gelatin silver print made by Stieglitz in the late 1920s or early 1930s--by which point The Steerage had been enshrined (at least in Stieglitz’s mind) as a purely modern image.

    Other prints of this image are in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film, Rochester; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Library of Congress, Washington; the Baltimore Museum of Art; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.


The Steerage

Large format photogravure on Japanese tissue, printed 1915.
33.3 x 26.4 cm (13 1/8 x 10 3/8 in.)

£9,000 - 12,000 

Sold for £11,250

Contact Specialist
Lou Proud
Head of Photographs
+ 44 207 318 4018

Photographs from the Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago

London 18 November 2014 2pm