There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Known and Unknown”
At the National Gallery of Art to Sept. 2
Photography and Modernism”
At the Phillips Collection to Aug. 18
Until now, the National Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection had mounted exactly one pure photography exhibition between them since the dawn of the millennium. Now they’ve decided to offer a double dose of photography—and the photographers they’ve selected are…Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, two of the best-known and most-studied photographers of all time. Done ironically, such fealty to the modernist canon might rate a hearty chuckle. Unfortunately, it’s straightfaced.
Stieglitz (1864-1946) is thought by many to be the finest photographer ever—the man who took an art form notable for its fuzzy-focused romanticism and molded it into bold, newfangled modernism. Weston (1886-1958), who as a young photographer trekked from California to New York to seek out Stieglitz’s advice, eventually perfected the art of sinuously surreal close-ups and crisply focused landscapes.
It’s not as if these guys are historical ciphers. About a decade ago, the National Gallery mounted “Stieglitz in the Darkroom”; last year, it followed up with “Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries.” In 1995, the Phillips offered a show about Stieglitz’s artistic circle. Weston has been a little scarcer in these parts—he’s always been identified more closely with the West and Southwest—but he still ranks among the most reproduced photographers of his era. And the relationships that Stieglitz and Weston had with Georgia O’Keeffe and Tina Modotti, respectively, have only served to broaden their popular fame.
To be sure, any exhibition of photography, no matter how familiar the work, provides value: Actual prints always communicate more detail, and different tonal ranges, than reproductions in even the most lovingly crafted art books. The National Gallery’s “Alfred Stieglitz: Known and Unknown” demonstrates this axiom with its display of Sun Rays—Paula, an image that features a woman sitting at a desk, lit by sunlight through a grid of Venetian blinds. The version viewers are most likely to have seen—reproduced in Beaumont Newhall’s standard textbook, The History of Photography—emphasizes, to bracing effect, the stark contrast between light and dark bands. The version at the National Gallery, printed by Stieglitz 27 years after he took the picture, is much muddier and, as a result, infinitely moodier.
But how much fresh understanding will educated viewers take away from either exhibition? Some—but not nearly enough.
The Stieglitz show seems virtually an afterthought to curator Sarah Greenough’s jaw-droppingly beautiful—and, at roughly 18 pounds, almost comically comprehensive—catalog. The two-volume, $150 slipcased set contains gorgeous reproductions of Stieglitz’s “key set”—the 1,642 finished prints that O’Keeffe donated en masse to the National Gallery in 1949. If the catalog is akin to an ultradeluxe CD boxed set, the show is more like a greatest-hits collection: suggestive but not especially challenging.
The five-room exhibition features 102 of Stieglitz’s prints—a number that initially sounds high, but really isn’t when you realize that it works out to roughly two images per year of Stieglitz’s photographic career (which ran, more or less, from 1886 to 1937). For a man who experimented with everything from nudes, portraits, and candids to architectural images, landscapes, and cloud pictures—even the occasional color image—102 pieces doesn’t exactly dig deep in the vaults.
Of course, there’s no denying that Stieglitz’s good stuff is good indeed. Seeing full-sized prints of Stieglitz’s most famous images infuses them with immediacy: the crush of passengers in The Steerage (1907), the fog of horse breath in The Terminal (1893), the slush-covered street in Winter—Fifth Avenue (1893). Some of Stieglitz’s lesser-known images are equally striking: the organic forms made by light reflecting off wet pavement in Savoy Hotel, New York (1897) and A Wet Day on the Boulevard, Paris (1894); the amorphous blob of locomotive smoke in The Hand of Man (1902); the meandering cracks in the facade of a skyscraper in Water Tower and Radio City, New York (1933); and the inspired design of From “Room 303″—(Intimate Gallery)—New York (1927), an architectural image taken 45 degrees off horizontal and hung that way, in an homage to the painter Piet Mondrian.
Other choices by Greenough, however, are less illuminating. Ten of the images date from Stieglitz’s youth, when he traveled in Europe—probably twice as many as is necessary to get the gist of his juvenilia. Another 10 or so are portraits of artists who frequented 291, Stieglitz’s first New York gallery. The catalog explains in some detail how the composition of these portraits relates to the artistic styles of the sitters—but unexplained, such context is lost on the casual viewer, and the rather dark images are hard to gauge. (The fact that they feature such now-obscure personages as J. Nilsen Laurvik, Marius de Zayas, George F. Of, and Hodge Kirnon doesn’t help matters.)
Greenough has also included multiple versions of architectural images taken from the back window of 291 and a later Stieglitz gallery, An American Place; they’re smartly made, but one or two would have been sufficient. The exhibit also includes eight of Stieglitz’s cloud “equivalents”—photographs taken of the sky during varied atmospheric conditions, often rotated by Stieglitz 90 degrees when mounted. The series is praised for its attention to the sky’s diaphanous textures, but when viewed as a group, the prints quickly become an indistinct blur; one is tempted to conclude that photographing clouds is a more interesting concept intellectually than artistically.
Then there are Stieglitz’s photographs of O’Keeffe. Yes, it’s affecting to follow her aging over time, as well as the arc of her relationship with Stieglitz, as she morphs from emotionally distant to comfortably nude and back again. And yes, it’s an intriguing cubist puzzle to mentally assemble her image from the various disconnected body parts that Stieglitz photographed over the years. But does she really merit one-quarter of the exhibition’s images? Having seen the tantalizing examples included in the show, I, for one, would have rather scrutinized a few more landscapes from Stieglitz’s cabin in Lake George, N.Y. And including additional candids of his visitors swimming and frolicking in the sun—there are lots in the catalog—would have leavened the impression of Stieglitz’s often dour, even clinical, aesthetic.
The catalog suggests additional paths that could have been gainfully pursued. Greenough could have done an educational service by including multiple versions of the same print. Winter—Fifth Avenue offers perhaps the best potential. Different versions of this image reproduced in the catalog feature varied tones and cropping choices; at one point, Stieglitz even removed, rather brazenly, some metal bars in the snow that he thought marred the composition. Like alternate takes of a jazz solo, such variants would have been enlightening. Or the exhibition could have plumbed Stieglitz’s sexuality more deeply. It could have, for instance, included one example from his O’Keeffe-holding-a-phallic-sculpture series.
Perhaps the greatest pleasure might have derived from the opportunity to see some of Stieglitz’s color photographs, which are rarely if ever reproduced. These mostly casual images, made by the “autochrome” process decades before color film became commonplace, make the most of their format’s dreamily grainy texture. Including even a sampling would have allowed the exhibition to deliver much more about the second part of its title: the “unknown” Stieglitz.
Unlike the Stieglitz show, which is rigorously chronological and, where appropriate, thematically arranged, the Phillips’ Weston exhibition is abysmally organized. I kept wandering around looking for cues about where to begin—and finding none. Fortunately, despite its grating haphazardness, the exhibition’s broad sweep—it includes about 140 images, also all black-and-white—helps it succeed in ways that the Stieglitz show does not.
For one thing, “Edward Weston: Photography and Modernism” does a much better job of placing its subject within an artistic context. Though the curators don’t provide much in the way of explanatory comment, the simple act of placing paintings by such ubermodernist colleagues as Arthur Dove, Willem de Kooning, and O’Keeffe next to Weston’s photographs offers powerful visual resonance, often in the form of organic shapes that recur in both media. The exhibition also features well-chosen photographs by such contemporaries as Imogen Cunningham and Weston’s son, Brett.
Equally important, the curators of the Weston show seem to have been more adventurous in their selections. I found more Westons—mostly from late in his career—that were both unfamiliar and revelatory than I did Stieglitzes. The exhibition includes several fascinating, absurdist images that Weston made in MGM Studios’ back lots: a collection of staircases that go nowhere, a faux riverboat, a storage area for rubber dummies. It also offers several inspired images made during Weston’s travels through the South, including an amazing picture of an eccentric’s collection of bottles stuck haphazardly on poles, set against a rigid grid of a clapboard barn.
Of course, Weston’s more familiar images form the core of the show, and these are displayed in all their glory. The eroticized green peppers, shells, cabbages, and radishes are all there. So are the boldly geometrical images of palm trees, the splayed nudes, the pitch-perfect landscapes. (Don’t miss Weston’s wonderfully geometric Tomato Field, which is not officially in the show but is mounted on a wall close to the museum’s entrance.)
Perhaps the most striking thing about seeing Weston’s work up close is noting his midcareer decision to forgo toned palladium and platinum printing in favor of the crystal-clear silver-based technique. Even Stieglitz’s most modern images, while lovely, were never printed in the crisp style of Weston’s apex; seeing Stieglitz’s and Weston’s images in quick succession makes Stieglitz’s seem positively old-fashioned by comparison. Jumping from the platinums and palladiums to the silver prints is like watching a fog lift, as a degree of detail unknowable in earlier photographs emerges with brilliant intensity.
Consider the images of an aqueduct made by Weston in 1924. Both present looming, angular, geometrically textured forms that are unquestionably modernist. Yet the print quality is far less distinct than that of later photographs Weston would become famous for: the curved, clearly defined lines of Dunes, Oceano (1936) or the pinpricks of light reflecting off the sea in Seaweed, China Cove (1940).
Like the Stieglitz show, the Weston exhibition could have been improved by inclusion of additional context. For instance, it helps in understanding the head shot Galvan Shooting (1924) if one knows that its subject, a Mexican senator and general, is pictured at the precise moment he fires a gun, thus embodying the idea of machismo. (The photograph is so closely cropped that Galvan’s shoulders—and certainly the gun—can’t be seen.) It’s helpful to know that Weston’s rounded shapes, including his nudes and his single-object still lifes, were inspired in part by the art of Mexico’s ancient Aztec culture. And it adds poignancy to an image such as Dead Rabbit, Arizona (1938) to know that Weston made a similar image—not in the show—of a dead man on the desert floor, presumably killed by the heat.
Still, despite its lapses, Weston’s show is ultimately the more viewable of the two, thanks largely to the photographer’s wry sense of humor. Would Stieglitz have posed a nude in a gas mask, as Weston did in Civilian Defense (1942)? Would he have done a whole series on children’s toys in Mexico, including penguins (El Pinguino, 1926) and monkeys (Changos, 1926)? Unlikely. Stieglitz’s aesthetic trailblazing made Weston possible, but the protege is the one who animates us still. CP