The advent of modern photography began in the early 20th century with a group of artists who believed that photography should be considered a fine art. In the 1900s cameras had become so easy to use that some sections of the artistic community argued they were nothing more than a copying device. Into this debate came the indomitable Alfred Stieglitz, a passionate photographer who, through his experiments with light and shade and unusual compositions, revealed that a photograph could be just as much an expression of an artist’s personality and visual sense as a drawing or a painting.
Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, Stieglitz went to study in Germany under the photochemist Hermann Vogel before returning to New York to found the Photo-Secession. This was a group of like-minded photographers who placed great importance on fine photographic printing and using techniques that emulated paint and pastel. To promote their achievements, Stieglitz opened a gallery in Manhattan and published a magazine called Camera Work. The gallery, known colloquially as 291, became the centre of a vibrant avant-garde art scene, and it was here, in 1916, that Stieglitz met and fell in love with the young painter Georgia O’Keefe.
Their marriage and intense creative partnership was to last until Stieglitz’s death in 1946. He was her tireless promoter, describing her as ‘the first female American modernist’, and she in return posed for his camera. An image depicting O’Keefe’s hands sold at auction in 2006 for $1,470,000 and remains one of the most expensive photographs in the world today. Yet perhaps his best-known picture was not of O’Keefe but of an upturned urinal, taken in 1917 at the behest of Marcel Duchamp. Stieglitz’s image is the only surviving record of the infamous readymade, Fountain, and he was very proud of it, writing, ‘The “Urinal” photograph is really quite a wonder — Everyone who has seen it thinks it beautiful — And it’s true — it is. It has an oriental look about it – a cross between a Buddha and a Veiled Woman.’
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