This Day in Jewish History / The Father of Photography as Art Form Is Born

Alfred Stieglitz alienated followers and thought he'd be supported for life by his family, and kept growing to the end.

January 1, 1864, is the birthdate of Alfred Stieglitz, the American who probably did more than anyone to advance the status of photography, during its first century, as an art form, and who was himself, over a long career, an highly significant photographic artist.

Alfred Stieglitz was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, to Edward Stieglitz and the former Hedwig Ann Werner, both of them Jewish-German immigrants to the United States. At the time of Alfred’s birth (he was the oldest of the couple’s five children), Edward, a clothing manufacturer, had served for three years as an officer in the Union Army, but he soon paid his way out of military. In 1881, he sold his business and took his wife and children to Europe, where he wanted them to be exposed to fine art and culture.

Throughout his life, Alfred expected to be supported, whether by his own family or, later, by the wealthy family of his wife, Emmeline Obermeyer, whom he married in 1893. When he began studying engineering in Berlin in 1882, for example, Stieglitz received a monthly allowance of $1200, an astronomical sum for that day.

Engineering, in fact, did not much interest him, but it did serve to introduce him to photography (which had its modern origins in the 1820s), to which he immediately took. By the time Stieglitz returned to New York, in 1890, he was committed to art photography – as a practitioner, critic and mentor.

From then until 1917, he edited, at different times, several photography journals (including Camera Notes and Camera Work), ran several galleries (the Little Galleries of the Photo Secession, Gallery 291), headed several photography clubs, and produced a number of his own award-winning photographs (including what might be his most well-known image, “The Steerage,” from 1907, which, through its simple-appearing but sophisticated composition, depicts the class divisions on board a trans-Atlantic steamship) deceptively simple composition).

Obsessed with 'twin' Georgia O’Keeffe

Stieglitz began a new phase in his life In 1917, when he began a relationship with the young artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986.) The two married after his divorce from his first wife went through and, although they were often separated - O’Keeffe spent lengthy periods in New Mexico, while Stieglitz rarely left New York State – and Stieglitz had relationships with other women, she remained, until the end of his life, the muse and spiritual “twin” he had sought since childhood.

Stieglitz photographed O’Keeffe obsessively: his portraits of her are among his most striking. He also began an extensive series of highly abstract photographs of clouds.

Stieglitz befriended and mentored – and in many cases eventually alienated – many pioneering photographers, including Edward Steichen, Mark Strand and Eliot Porter, among others. Although as a curator, he saw himself as an artistic visionary, he lost touch with the avant-garde at various periods and tended to favor a small group of artists. Ultimately, however, he responded creatively to challenges and continued to grow artistically until the end of his life.

Stieglitz, who suffered from heart disease for the last eight years of his life, died at the age of 82 on June 23, 1946, following a stroke,. He was cremated, and O’Keeffe scattered his ashes near his vacation home at Lake George, New York. She also distributed his photographic estate to major museums around the U.S.

Gertrude Kasebier (Wikimedia Commons)
Alfred Stieglitz (Wikimedia Commons)
Wikimedia Commons