Alfred Stieglitz (American, Hoboken, New Jersey 1864 - 1946 New York)
A Bit of Venice, Negative 1894; published 1898
Printed text on recto, pencil notation on verso1
Image: 7 x 4 3/4 in. (17.7 x 12 cm)
Mount: 11 3/8 x 8 1/4 in. (28.9 x 21 cm)
Gift of Marilyn W. Grounds, 1981
A Bit of Venice was photographed in the early summer of 1894 and published in New York several times later in the same decade. The striking photograph summarizes the results of Stieglitz's nine years of study in Europe and represents the moment when the impact of his crusade on behalf of photography as an art form was first being felt in the United States.
The photograph was taken during Stieglitz's four-month European honeymoon in 1894 and his first trip to Venice since 1887.2 Shortly after his return to New York, Stieglitz created this photogravure from the negative. Clearly satisfied with the result, he published the image four times between 1897 and 1899 in influential photography magazines and books. In 1897 it appeared in the magazine Camera Notes3 and in Stieglitz's book Picturesque Bits of New York and Other Images.4 The Oberlin print is from The Photographic Times of 1898.5 The photogravure was also included in an 1899 portfolio published by the Camera Club of New York.6
In its careful composition, use of soft focus, and straightforward printing methods, without manipulation or retouching, A Bit of Venice epitomizes the qualities sought in pictorial photography. At the forefront of circa-1890 European photography, pictorial photographers recognized that, while much was to be learned about composition and point of view through the study of contemporary painting, they could achieve effects with their cameras unattainable in any other medium. In his Venetian photographs, Stieglitz presents a point of view not unlike that to be seen in James McNeill Whistler's much-discussed Venetian etchings (1879-80), but in A Bit of Venice he captures a damp mystery that could be suggested only with a camera.7
The influence of European painting always lurks in Stieglitz's images from the Venice honeymoon trip. Also evident, however, is the impact of New York City, where Stieglitz currently was working. Excited by the modern city growing around him, Stieglitz was also challenged by the absence of strong pictorial traditions and the possibility for photography to assume a significant leadership role in the city's vision of itself. The most ordinary everyday activities--for example, steaming horses turning a trolley around on a freezing day depicted in The Terminal (1893)--became the basis for memorable images presented from an unsentimental pictorial point of view.
The photographic negative provided Stieglitz with the raw material for the final photogravure. "My hand camera negatives are all made with the express purpose of enlargement and it is but rarely that I use more than part of the original shot," Stieglitz wrote in 1897, adding that "prints from the direct negative have but little value."8 His change of attitude over the years is evident in his reuse of the 1894 negative in the early 1930s in a gelatin silver print.9 Revealing that the 1897 photogravure represented only about a quarter of the original negative,10 the later more complete image lacks the mysterious quality of the photogravure. For example, one hardly notices the unsettling presence of the man coming through the distant arch at the right.
A charismatic leader, Stieglitz quickly gathered around him a group of distinguished photographers who published their work in his two magazines, Camera Notes and the later Camera Work. The brilliance of A Bit of Venice exemplifies the standard of illustration he insisted upon in these magazines.
Alfred Stieglitz was the eldest child of highly cultured and prosperous parents. The family of eight spent winters in New York City and summered on the shores of Lake George in upper New York State, as did Stieglitz until his death in 1946. The family went abroad in 1881, where Alfred pursued advanced training in Germany, first as an engineer, and after 1883 as a photographer. By the time he returned to New York in 1890, the quality of his work and the originality of his technical research had earned him a considerable reputation and he soon became widely recognized as one of America's leading artists in photography. Through publications such as Camera Notes (1897-1900) and Camera Work (1903-17), and his active role in photography exhibitions, he played a pivotal role in introducing to Americans the idea that photography, far from just a means of providing a mechanical record, was an art form with its own aesthetic qualities and standards.
In the years before and during World War I, Stieglitz exhibited the work of many of Europe's leading avant-garde artists, as well as emerging American artists and photographers, at the Photo-Secession Gallery, 291. In a succession of galleries thereafter he supported such distinguished American artists as Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Gaston Lachaise (1882-1935), and Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986).
The thought processes behind Stieglitz's ongoing crusade can be best understood by studying the successive issues of Camera Notes, which he edited for the Camera Club of New York, and the even more famous Camera Work, the organ of the so-called Photo-Secession society. Thanks to the wide circulation of these magazines in informed circles, America came to be recognized an an international leader in the field of photography.
Homer, William Innes. Alfred Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession. Boston, 1983.
Peterson, Christian A. Alfred Stieglitz's "Camera Notes". Exh. cat., The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1993.
Whelan, Richard. Alfred Stieglitz: A Biography. Boston, 1995.
Collection Paul F. Walter, New York
Collection Marilyn W. Grounds, New York, by whom given in 1981
The Photographic Times: An illustrated monthly magazine devoted to the interests of artistic and scientific photography. New York, 1898.
Printed on medium-weight wove paper, this photogravure has a sliced and torn edge to the right of the image (indicating its removal from The Photographic Times). There is some slight linear abrasion of the image and a "compression wrinkle" on the lower left quadrant. There is slight surface soiling, small handling dents throughout, and slight yellowing of the three unbound edges.
1. Printed on recto lower left below image: GRAVURE-PHOTOCHROME ENG. CO. N.Y.; lower right below image: A BIT OF VENICE/ By Alfred Stieglitz; pencil notation on verso: The Photographic Times/1898.
2. The caption to a later reprint of this image (Alfred Stieglitz, Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum [exh. cat., Malibu, 1995]) suggests that the photograph's somber mood may reflect Stieglitz's "first realization that he and [his wife] Emmeline [Obermeyer, who had loathed the stench of the canals and the shabbiness of the people who most interested Stieglitz as subjects] were motivated by quite different priorities." The marriage in fact lasted until 1924.
3. Camera Notes 1, no. 2 (October 1897), p. 45. A monthly publication of the Camera Club of New York, Camera Notes proselytised the notion of photography as fine art. Each of its twenty-four issues included two high-quality photogravures and several halftone photographs. See Christian A. Peterson, Alfred Stieglitz's "Camera Notes" (exh. cat., The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1993).
4. Alfred Stieglitz, Picturesque Bits of New York and Other Images (New York, 1897), as A Venetian Canal.
5. The Photographic Times: An illustrated monthly magazine devoted to the interests of artistic and scientific photography (New York, 1898). The Photographic Times began publishing a monthly photogravure in 1895.
6. American Pictorial Photography, Series I.
7. Stieglitz's Laundry, Venice taken on the same trip is even more Whistlerian in spirit; reproduced in William Innis Homer, Alfred Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession (Boston, 1983), p. 22, fig. 14.
8. Alfred Stieglitz, "The Hand Camera: Its Present Importance," American Annual of Photography and Photographic Times Almanac for 1897, p. 19; quoted by Richard Whelan in Alfred Stieglitz: A Biography (Boston, 1995), p. 119.
9. Los Angeles, Calif., The J. Paul Getty Museum, inv. 93.XM.25.55
10. Stieglitz recognized from the outset that different printing techniques could change the effect of an image. "The platinum print [as well as the gravure] has an indescribable charm, suggesting atmosphere, though the negative printed in another medium may be entirely devoid of this valuable pictorial quality." From "Platinum Printing," in Picture Taking and Picture Making (Rochester, 1898), p. 88; quoted by Richard Whelan in Alfred Stieglitz: A Biography (Boston, 1995), p. 108.