Alfred Stieglitz’s influence on photography is incomparable. Hailed as the "father of pictorialism," he not only helped define the movement but helped forward photography’s place in a broader art context.
Some History, Some Terms
You might be wondering what some of these words mean? And who is this Stieglitz?
Usually, when you see a word ending in “-ism,” such as pictorialism, it means that the word describes an art movement or a philosophy.
A photograph is entrenched in reality. If something doesn’t exist, you can’t take a picture of it, can you? No, you cannot. Before Stieglitz, this was certainly the case. I mean, it was still the case afterward too. But not entirely. Pictorialism is this idea that a photograph of something can be more than just a photograph of that thing. You can use tone, color, and composition to emphasize parts or the whole of a thing so that the image of the thing is more than just the thing itself. A photograph need not merely document reality but can expand upon it.
Pictorialism is so ingrained in modern society that most of us don’t give it a second thought. If you use any semblance of pictorialism in your work, you have Stieglitz to thank!
Gear Is a Tool
Spend any amount of time in any modern photography group and you’ll run into that guy. We all know that guy. He knows anything and everything about the latest lenses and camera bodies and the what’s what of the technical aspects of photography. But his pictures are another story. He either hasn’t taken one in ages, or they are all just so bad.
Stieglitz is known to have talked about lenses, cameras, stop-baths, and chemicals. He called all these things tyrants.
It’s not about the gear. At all. But rather the images you make. You have to certainly know the ins and outs of how to use your gear, but it’s not about the latest gadget or gizmo but rather applying what you have at hand.
Gear is a tool.
Images are more than just mechanical. They need a certain life breathed into them; they need to be art. But to get to that point, you have to know your gear so well that you’re not even thinking about it. It’s second nature. And that only comes with the humility that you have more to learn, and you should always learn something with each shoot, but then, you should also take this praxis and applying it over years and years of study. It works without shortcuts. There are no shortcuts.
Where to From Here?
A lot of what I’ve written here is borrowed heavily from Alfred’s Stieglitz’s writings from circa 1899. I find it fascinating how stuck photography is to the gear that we use to make photographs. These are ideas that are still discussed ad nauseam today, nearly 120 years from the time of Stieglitz. I could be wrong, but I don’t think painters sit around talking about brushes or types of pigments that much, at least not to this degree.
Perhaps I’m in the wrong, but it really should be about the pictures. What do you think?