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ALFRED STIEGLITZ: A LEGACY OF LIGHT

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The Montréal Review, September 2011

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"Alfred Stieglitz: A Legacy of Light" by Katherine Hoffman (Yale University Press, 2011) 

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In "Stieglitz: A Beginning Light," Katherine Hoffman focused on the early years of Alfred Stieglitz's (1864-1946) career and his European roots. Now, she presents a compelling portrait of his life and career from 1915 to 1946, focusing on his American works, issues of identity, and the rise of Modernism in America.

Hoffman explores Stieglitz's roles as photographer, editor, writer, and gallery director, how they intersected with his personal life-including his marriage to artist Georgia O'Keeffe-and his place in the cultural milieu of the 20th century. Excerpts from previously unpublished correspondence between Stieglitz and O'Keeffe reveal the fervor and complexity of their relationship as well as his passion for photography and modern art and his ongoing struggle to have photography recognized as an established artistic medium. These letters, along with his work as an editor and writer of short articles, illuminate Stieglitz's literary side. Hoffman also discusses some of his lesser-known photographs, giving a new perspective on his total oeuvre.

Stieglitz: A Legacy of Light is generously illustrated with over 300 images, among them Stieglitz's final photos of Lake George and New York City and Hoffman's pictures taken in the places where he worked. This intriguing, beautifully written book separates the photographer's true personality from the myths surrounding him and highlights his lasting legacy: the works he left behind." These words from the publisher, may perhaps help set the stage for an introduction to Katherine Hoffman's most recent book on Alfred Stieglitz. To give further background about the book, quoted below, is a section from the "Introduction" to the book.

ALFRED STIEGLITZ
"Poplars, Lake George"
ca. 1936
silver print 4
1/2 x 3 1/2
Credit: Lee Gallery, Winchester, Massachusetts

"I have been studying Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, on and off for many years since I was a graduate student in the mid-1970's. Although I have pursued other projects and interests, I have continued to be drawn to the Stieglitz Circle. Like Stieglitz, I have long been interested in clouds, painting and photographing them at various times in my career, as well as studying other artist's depictions of them. Like Stieglitz, I have returned each summer for most of my life to a clear blue mountain lake and its surrounding vistas, which continue to draw my family and friends from multiple generations as Lake George did for Stieglitz and his family. The power of place can indeed be immense. I wrote my first book on Stieglitz, Stieglitz: A Beginning Light, in the dark shadows of September 11,2001. I wrote this second volume following the controversial election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, still in the shadows of death and destruction in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Much of the manuscript was written in Memphis, Tennessee, where I was grateful to serve as the Dorothy K. Hohenberg Chair of Excellence in Art History during the spring of 2009. I was keenly aware that I was writing in a city that still suffered from racial problems, that I lived only fifteen minutes from the site of Martin Luther King's assassination, the Lorraine Motel, in downtown Memphis on that fatal 4 April 1968 day in 1968. Further more, I was writing during a significant downturn in a once buoyant United States and global economy, frequently hearing of those losing jobs, pensions,etc, along with the excesses of corporate executives in the past decade. One might ask what such details have to do with Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz fought tirelessly for the freedom to create, in an atmosphere that fostered freedom of thought and creativity; and for the integrity of artists and other individuals, who expressed their inner spirits. He also fought against excessive materialism and profit, and warned about the dangers of institutionalization and the powers associated with them. As he wrote to Guido Bruno, as early as 1916, 'The abuse of freedom is undeniably greater than the understanding of what freedom really is.'

Stieglitz's life and work may be seen as a continuum that progressed from his early work in Europe to his final photographic images taken at Lake George and from the top floors of his New York City gallery, or apartment space, as he, as an older man, contemplated the urban and rural worlds that he had known for many years. I have also included a substantial number of excerpts from letters, many published here for the first time, by and to Stieglitz, feeling that the actual words and "tone of voice" that cannot be experienced through paraphrased or summarization are important for readers. It is clear after reading numerous letters between O'Keeffe and Stieglitz, which had been sealed for fifty years following Stieglitz's death in 1946. that the art and craft of letter writing was an integral part of Stieglitz's personal life and professional work. Those letters that I read show a man of intense emotional make-up, powerful on some days, quite fragile on others. The letters record the quotidian details and activities of Stieglitz from weather observations, to what he ate, doing errands, to conversations with various visitors to his galleries and his home, to philosophical and metaphysical reflections. The letters also documents what Stieglitz was reading, his response to world events, along with exhibits or events in the art world at his galleries or elsewhere. Many of the letters are passionate, some expressing his love for O'Keeffe, or his despair following a crisis in their relationship; others expressing his passion for photography and modern art, and his ongoing struggle for the recognition of photography as a fine art. The newly opened letters along with those already available to scholars, reveal Stieglitz to be a man of 'letters' as well as a man with a camera. His work as an editor and writer of short article, along with his letters, illustrate a strong literary side of Stieglitz that balanced his visual work as a photographer and director of his galleries. Given his literary bent, I have written sections focusing on Stieglitz's literary interests and influences, as well as included sample letters from different decades. The letters may be viewed as part of the complex tapestry that made up Stieglitz's life and work.

ALFRED STIEGLITZ
"Equivalent"
1930
silver print
3 9/16 x 4 5/8
Credit: Lee Gallery, Winchester, Massachusetts

Stieglitz was a complex and complicated man, revered and idolized by a community of loyal followers, and at the same time despised and hated by some. He could be quick to serve as an advocate for those whom he believed in. Yet he could also be quick to alienate those with whom he disagreed, even those with whom he had worked closely for many years such as Edward Steichen or Paul Strand. The critic, Robert Hughes has written of Stieglitz, 'He was one of the most vivid, idealistic, stubborn, and thorny characters ever to appear in American culture. He was a battler, a moralist, an unstoppable advocate for the artists he loved, a connoisseur of the erotic, and one of the greatest photographers who ever tripped a shutter.' " In the end it is "Stieglitz's work and his tireless creative spirit that will provide a legacy for generations to come. It is for that continued sense of spirit, both inner and outer, and the freedom to create, that Stieglitz fought so tirelessly, and it is to that artistic spirit that this book is ultimately dedicated."

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Dr. Katherine Hoffman is Professor of Fine Arts at St. Anselm College, Manchester, NH, USA. She received her BA from Smith College and Ph.D. from New York University. She has written six other books, two on Georgia O'Keeffe. She resides in Peterborough, NH, USA.

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The Lee Gallery was founded in 1981 with a focus on showcasing established photographers from the 19th and 20th centuries.  The gallery  has been a member of AIPAD (The Association of International Photography Art Dealers) since 1984, and its founder, Mack Lee, served on the association's board of directors for ten years.  For more information, please see www.leegallery.com.

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