By Jennifer Glickel
UPPER EAST SIDE — One hundred years ago, the thought of hosting an entire exhibition composed solely of photography would never have crossed the minds of the curators at the prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Fast forward a century and visitors can peruse a new exhibit at the Met featuring the work of three early 20th-century American photography masters who hoisted their medium into an accepted art form.
"Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand," which opens Wednesday at the Met, puts on display the groundbreaking photographs of Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946), Edward Steichen (1879–1973), and Paul Strand (1890–1976).
Although these three giants of early twentieth-century photography each flourished at a different moment and with a style distinctly his own, their stories are interwoven.
When George Eastman created the Kodak camera in 1888, the medium was considered too widespread, democratic and accessible to constitute high art.
But Stieglitz, the photography world's taste maker at the time, guided and influenced both Steichen and Strand to help shape photography into a fine art. Through his gallery "291" and his journal Camera Work, Stieglitz became renowned as a crusader for the acceptance of photography alongside the traditional fine arts. Stieglitz was an influential artist, as well, with his photographs that captured views of New York City, the clouds above Lake George, and his many portraits of painter Georgia O’Keeffe, whom he married in 1924.
"We see O'Keeffe clothed, nude, her hands, feet, neck, breasts in Stieglitz's photos," said Malcolm Daniel, the exhibit's curator, of the artist's famous portrait series of more than 330 images of his wife.
"He's looking to capture the whole range of emotions that one person can express and he didn't think one picture could serve as a full portrait," Daniel added.
Steichen, who was Stieglitz's protégé and gallery collaborator, created photographs that achieved what Stieglitz believed was the most important goal for the medium in the beginning of the 1900s: to be able to hold their own on the gallery walls alongside paintings.
In particular, Stieglitz praised Steichen's famous photograph The Flatiron (1904), which the photographer developed three different ways with different colorations.
"When looking at the three prints together, they look like they capture the Flatiron Building at successive moments of twilight," Daniel said. "The photos feel like paintings — and were as large, colorful, and expressive as the paintings they were meant to rival."
Strand was just a decade younger than his contemporaries Stieglitz and Steichen, but represented a generational shift in the style of photography from painterly prints to graphic depictions of street life in the machine age.
Strand was able to candidly capture the gritty reality of a blind beggar on a New York City street in Blind (1916) using a hand-held camera fitted with a special lens that allowed him to point the camera in one direction while surreptitiously taking a photograph at a 90-degree angle. Stieglitz published Strand's seminal image in Camera Work, and it quickly became an icon of the new American photography.
"Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand" opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Wednesday, Nov. 10 and runs through Apr. 10, 2011. The Met is located at 1000 Fifth Avenue.