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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art


New Forms, New Ideas

Photography is Art

Eduard Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz

Modernism in art fully arrived in the United States in 1913 with the Armory Show, an exhibition of over 1,300 European and American works of art in New York, portions of which later traveled to Chicago and Boston and were viewed by approximately 300,000 people in the three cities. The exhibition generated great publicity and unprecedented U.S. interest in artistic modernism.

Modernism is a challenging term to define. In general, modernists—those artists practicing modernism—sought to create symbols to represent modern life, shake up perceptions of the world by using these symbols in new kinds of art objects, and encourage new ways of looking at them.

Both before and after the Armory Show, photographers Eduard Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz promoted European and American modernist painters, sculptors, and photographers at their New York galleries, the "Little Galleries of the Photo Secession" and "291." Painters included Americans Marsden Hartley and Arthur Dove, in addition to Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne, and Henri Matisse before they rose to fame.

Both Stieglitz and Steichen worked to raise the art of photography to the status enjoyed by painting and sculpture through gallery exhibitions and the journal Stieglitz founded and edited, Camera Work. The journal presented photographs as individual works of art and kept text and advertisements on separate pages. Camera Work documented the transformation of photography from the "misty and romanticized" style of the Pictorialists to the modern aesthetic of sharply focused, often-harsh images of everyday life and urban landscapes found in the unmanipulated pictures of Paul Strand.

Throughout the Twenties, Stieglitz focused on his own photography as a pure expressive art and was committed to what he called "straight photography." Like Strand, he preferred not to alter his images in the darkroom; rather he concentrated on composing a perfect shot at the time he took the photo. He contended that whether an artist's work sold well and was popular was not an indication of his true talent.

Though Steichen had long been known for his technical skill as a photographer, before World War I he had worried that modern art was too influenced by science. After coordinating aerial photography for the military in the war, Steichen fully embraced a scientific approach to photography, both in his use of photographic technique and his studies of the objects he captured on film. He strove to create completely realistic images that accurately depicted the dimensions of the objects he photographed, while also conveying symbolic meaning. In the years immediately following the war, Steichen went through a period of intense study and experimentation, which ended in 1923 due to his need to make money.

In 1923, Vanity Fair magazine praised Steichen as "the greatest of living portrait photographers." Condé Nast, publisher of Vanity Fair, Vogue, and House & Garden, offered Steichen the position of chief photographer of all of his publications. Stieglitz criticized Steichen for his turn to commercial photography, but the job provided Steichen the financial security he needed, and soon he completely embraced commercial photography as a means of artistic expression. Steichen became a pioneer in magazine and commercial portrait photography, both through his ability to capture the essence of an individual in a click of the shutter and his use of electric lighting and dramatic backgrounds. Through his innovative fashion and celebrity photographs, he helped bolster the popularity of the Condé Nast publications through the 1920s.

In 1924, Steichen also began working for an advertising agency. Here he took particular interest in producing photographs for advertisements that depicted common household goods being used by typical American consumers.

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Photographic portrait from <em>Vogue</em>'s January, 1925 issue
Photographic portrait from Vogue's January, 1925 issue
Eduard Steichen

Eduard Steichen embraced commercial photography later in his career--making many portraits of celebrities and socialites. These three portraits appeared in the January 1925 issue of Vogue.

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