May 2010

Arts & Letters

The alchemist

By Peter Conrad
Alfred Stieglitz’s Lake George Years

Alfred Stieglitz was the kind of man that Australia, more’s the pity, has never had. Here prophets come from the desert, as AD Hope once dryly remarked, which means they’re mostly too parched to say very much when they stumble out of the scrub into our coastal cities. And would anyone have listened if some crackpot redeemer had mounted the rickety podium of a soapbox at the Domain in Sydney and preached to the new country about the redemptive value of art? An Australian Stieglitz would surely have dwindled into one of Patrick White’s visionary loonies – or into White himself, embittered by the incorrigible crassness of the society on which he trained his accusing, transfiguring gaze.

The US was luckier, or perhaps more naive. It paid attention when Stieglitz evangelised about modern painting in the galleries he ran in New York early in the twentieth century, and from his photographs it learned to take a nobler view of its national purpose. Hart Crane, in a poem dedicated to Stieglitz, described the Brooklyn Bridge as a harp and a lyre that tuned the maritime wind; Stieglitz’s photographs likewise allegorised New York. Seen by him, skyscrapers were testaments to aspiration rather than vertical stacks of lucrative rental space, and railway tracks – in a photograph he entitled ‘The Hand of Man’ – glistened with a valiant, civilising purpose. The harness worn by a draught horse, studied in close-up by Stieglitz’s camera, was an emblem of ‘Spiritual America’: honest toil was the country’s gospel and its means of assessing virtue, which is why he called the periodical he edited Camera Work.

Yet, like most prophets, Stieglitz grumpily concluded that he was unheeded or unappreciated. In 1917 he stopped publishing Camera Work and closed his gallery on Fifth Avenue. Abandoning rowdy mercantile Manhattan to its fate, he retreated for lengthy periods to his family’s summer place upstate at Lake George on the edge of the Adirondack Mountains. At first, the painter Georgia O’Keeffe kept him company there; they married in 1924, although after 1929 O’Keeffe withdrew for half of each year to the scorched, eroded landscape of New Mexico. Left behind, Stieglitz pottered around the few acres that, thanks to the photographs he took there, became his personal allotment of infinity – a laboratory for studying the cycle of the seasons and a vantage point from which he could stare at the sky and trace its meteorological moods. The exhibition that opens at the Art Gallery of New South Wales on 17 June, the first show of Stieglitz’s work to be seen in Australia, comes from this late phase of reclusion, which ended when he gave up photography in 1937. He died in New York in 1946, but his ashes were interred at Lake George, beside a pine tree with no plaque attached.

Stieglitz’s father – a wool importer, the only Jew among the toffs in New York’s Jockey Club – bought the estate beside the lake in 1886. While holidaying there, he and his clan were bothered by the stench from a pig farm upwind on a hill; when the owner refused to close down the sties and invest in sweeter-smelling livestock, they bought him out. In 1919, the gabled mansion among the trees on the waterfront was sold, and Stieglitz spent his Lake George years in the bare, exposed farmhouse, whose elevation gave him better views. An adjacent potting shed became the darkroom where he performed alchemical miracles. The Little House, as he called it, had no hot water, and after rinsing prints in a bathtub he had to string them up on a clothes line outside to dry.

Stieglitz was proud of the makeshift improvisatory skills he had to acquire in order to work here; he detested Kodak – which had its headquarters further upstate in Rochester – because its industrialised processes made photography so mechanically facile. For most Americans, photography was at best a hobby, but Stieglitz saw it as a vocation, an almost religious calling. The art he practised was meditative, a prolonged reverie, not the quick seizure of instants. He was happy to spend 20 years photographing the same stand of poplars, the same configurations of clouds overhead or the same barn (which at the start of his time in Lake George housed an elegant horse-drawn carriage and by the end billeted O’Keeffe’s sleek new automobile, her means of escape from Stieglitz and the symbol of her freedom). In 1925, he told the novelist Sherwood Anderson, “I have been looking for years – 50 upwards – at a particular skyline of simple hills … I’d love to get down what ‘that’ line has done for me – may be I have – somewhat – in those snapshots I’ve been doing the past few years.” He used the word “snapshots” with killing irony. His photography was not flickery, episodic visual journalism; it demanded insight, and he entitled his photographs of the cloud-flecked sky above Lake George ‘Equivalents’ because each image encoded a feeling and hinted at mysteries that remained invisible to the glassy, insentient eye of the camera. With the pomp of the seer he told Hart Crane that “several people feel I have photographed God”. (He had the good grace to add the mock-modest disclaimer “May be.”)

Stieglitz’s Manhattan galleries were austere temples for a new and difficult art, where visitors might be gruffly hustled out if they seemed unworthy of the masterpieces on the walls. Chairs were banned, because the viewer was expected to stand to attention. His Lake George residence was equally stark, disdaining the bourgeois comforts of his forebears: it had uncurtained windows, bare grey–white walls, and blue–white lights without shades. His friend Jean Toomer, adopting the exalted style favoured by Stieglitz’s congregation of followers, assumed that the pig farmer’s abode felt the uplifting, messianic influence of its new inhabitant. The house, she claimed, “affirmed the transformation and felt satisfied because the photographer and the painter [O’Keeffe], like the farmers before them, were producers, producers of things for America”. The notion that artists could contribute to the agrarian wealth of the nation has a certain charm, but it’s not exactly true. Stieglitz was ill adapted to country life and had to be dissuaded from shooting stray cows when they trespassed on his land. And I wonder what the weary servants or farm-workers, whom he photographed as they rested between chores, thought about the productivity of their employer. I doubt they’d have found any equivalence between an album of images and a crop of wheat or a tree loaded with apples, let alone between a cloud and God.

Stieglitz saw the photographic frame as a Manichean microcosm, where opposing forces did battle. The novelist Theodore Dreiser described the photographer’s early Manhattan nocturnes as “symphonies in grey”, but Stieglitz was happiest when arranging showdowns between the extremes of the chromatic scale. A photographer, he thought, had to answer a philosophical question by declaring “whether he believes in white or black”; he hoped that his own work would be seen as “the affirmation of light”. In his studies of the sky above Lake George, the camera risks what the human eye is afraid to do by looking at the sun. Stieglitz knew, of course, that light can only be seen or comprehended if filtered through darkness; his clouds are a filmy concealment of the truth, but without them the aerial panorama would be no more than a blazing blank. One image spies on the source of light indirectly. The sun has sunk below a western hill, leaving the line that Stieglitz described in his letter to Sherwood Anderson inkily etched. High above is an almost perfect circle of cold radiance, thanks to which we can see glints of brightness – a silvery patch of the lake, a window, some flowers rising from thick, indistinct grass – in the obscured world below; the moon, like the plate on which light inscribes images inside Stieglitz’s camera, is a reflector.

Summer folk, as the locals called them, scuttled back to the city as soon as the weather changed in September. Stieglitz sometimes remained at Lake George throughout the winter, and exulted in its blizzards because they too were a victory for whiteness, a laundering of the world. ‘First Snow and the Little House’, a photograph taken in 1925, is an exercise in irradiation. The closeted, hermetic darkroom almost disappears in a field of blinding light, although Stieglitz is able to distinguish with uncanny subtlety between the textures of objects that have been effaced by the coating of snow – the shaved boards of the building, the prickly branches of leafless trees, the soft, earthy humps of the hills beyond. Only a brick chimney and a weathervane remain as mementos of blackness.

Despite this effort to maintain what he called “a living equilibrium” between day and night, sun and moon, optimism and gloom, Stieglitz allowed himself to relax at Lake George. His photographs of friends lazing on the verandah after dips in the lake are as candid and casual as the snapshots he officially detested; his portraits of his ancient mother – who hobbles down a path through the woods or sits remembering, the occupation of old people – have a tenderness not present in his other work. A sequence photographed from the shore of the lake, as he watches a woman called Ellen Koeniger swimming, looks happily spontaneous. She romps in the water, preens with her chest thrust forward as she clambers out and even tightens her buttocks, to which her wet bathing costume clings, for the camera’s benefit. The harness on the horse was Stieglitz’s solemn symbol of ‘Spiritual America’; here the swimmer is perhaps his self-revealing glimpse of carnal America.

O’Keeffe painted at Lake George while Stieglitz photographed, but the difference between their views of the same subjects hints at the incompatibility that forced them apart. Her ‘Birch Trees at Dawn at Lake George’ gives the white, fleshy trunks the writhing elasticity of human limbs, with the shady crevice between them like a vaginal cleft. Stieglitz took a more elderly and more staunchly masculine view of the chestnuts and poplars that surrounded him: he called the trees “heroes” because of their stalwart resistance to time and the climate, and in the 1930s morosely recorded their slow death. He dealt with the lake by breaking down the view into details, each of which is a personal souvenir.

Often his shadow, or that of a building, lengthens across the view like a proprietorial signature, a token of ownership. O’Keeffe’s canvases stretch to contain the whole vista, though in the process she uproots the scenery she is painting. Her Lake George looks like the horizontal expanses of the American south-west, where she settled after Stieglitz’s death. Her version of the lakeside hills is as rusty as the Sierra Nevada and the clouds above – sculpturally solid, not wispy and fugitive like the ones Stieglitz photographed – could be a remoter range of permanently icy mountains.

Subsequent generations of photographers – Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and their successors – were wanderers who thought of the US as in a state of perpetual motion, best understood from inside a car. Stieglitz did not share their restlessness. As O’Keeffe pointed out, he never made a trip in quest of a photograph: “His eye was in him, and he used it on anything that was nearby. Maybe that way he was always photographing himself.” Lake George was his universe, in the literal meaning of the word: a fully stocked world, at once temporal and eternal, its plenitude unified by the imperious viewpoint of the artist who saw himself as its creator.

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.

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