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Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) — A Media Book by Brooks Jensen

Each Thursday Brooks records another commentary and we post it here at LensWork Online. The audio versions are found here. There is also a text version for each commentary for those who prefer to read rather than listen.

From the Author's Preface:

"I started writing this book about 7 years ago. After considerable thought, instead of publishing this content as traditional book, Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) will be published here, as a series of downloadable audios and text. Consider it a small token of my immense gratitude to all those who have pioneered this way of life that I love, and a passing-on of the invaluable contributions they've made to our creative lives." Brooks Jensen, Anacortes, Washington, 2019

A Visionary from the Past

Alfred Stieglitz — Photography as an Art Medium

There's no question that the introduction of photography in the late 1830s was momentous for the history of technology — and I'd even agree with the history of humanity in general. The impact of photography in all of our lives today is tremendous and ubiquitous. But from its very earliest days there has always been a question about whether or not photography is an appropriate medium for fine art. Of course, all of us are photographers, and so my assumption is that we would all say that unquestionably photography is a fine art medium. That has not always been the case. Here is a direct quote from Wikipedia.

"At the beginning of the 20th century photography's place in the world of fine art was still very indefinite. Although there had been major exhibitions of photography in Europe and in the United States, all of them had been judged by painters and sculptors. Photographers were not considered "real" artists, even though many photographers had won awards in international salons. Alfred Stieglitz himself had won over 150 awards throughout the world by the end of the 1890s."

It's against that background that Alfred Stieglitz decided to make a stand for photography and promote its acceptance as a viable fine art medium. He did so in a tangible and highly visible way. In 1905 he opened an art gallery originally known as "The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession" located in midtown Manhattan, at 291 Fifth Avenue, in New York City. It had a bumpy beginning and was not financially successful, but with the help of an investor, it was moved across the hallway and re-opened a couple of years later as the now famous "291."

Stieglitz had a simple strategy: to exhibit photography and painting in the same gallery, thereby promoting the idea that photography and painting are equals. Here again I'll quote from Wikipedia:

"Stieglitz used this space to introduce to the United States some of the most avant-garde European artists of the time, including Matisse, Rodin, Rousseau, Cézanne, Picasso, Brâncui, Duchamp, and others."

Clearly, Stieglitz assumed that exhibiting photographs by Edward Steichen, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Gertrude Käsebier and Clarence H. White next to these painters would encourage comparisons and — to use a term he later made famous in a different context — encourage equivalency. In retrospect, we might think this was a bit of an ego-driven strategy, as indeed I think it was; Stieglitz was never praised for his humility.

I think there are some valid reasons to think that Stieglitz was in error in his strategy to legitimize photography as an art medium by making direct comparisons to painting in both presentation and critique. I've discussed those ideas separately in an article titled, I Blame Stieglitz. That said, the very fact that he took such a bold move to attempt the elevation of photography to a fine art medium was definitely a turning point in the history of photography for which we can all be grateful. That alone is an inspiration. We can all be inspired by Stieglitz' insistence that photography is a legitimate art medium. Even to this day when that question comes up, we can refer back to Stieglitz as the great visionary of our medium.

There is another reason, however, that Stieglitz has been an inspiration to me personally, and that is, of course, the publication of his periodical Camera Work. Our name "LensWork" is an homage to Stieglitz and his pioneering efforts to bridge the gap between so-called "original prints" and a more public venue using state-of-the-art reproductions — in his case, photogravure. Our goal with LensWork and the duotones we now print is exactly the same as his was, and it if weren't for Camera Work (and to some degree Minor White's later publication called "Aperture" in the 1950s and 60s), it would never have occurred to me to attempt to follow in Stieglitz' footsteps. I can only hope that someday someone will look back at LensWork and value it as an historic and inspirational publication like I do with Camera Work and Minor White's Aperture. With Camera Work, Stieglitz' goal was to be a conduit between the artist and the public. He relished the role of mentor as well as publicist for the photographers he published. He recognized the importance of their work and through him, so did his subscribers. Needless to say, these are mighty shoes to attempt to fill, but Stieglitz' high standards and unrelenting commitment to photography as an art medium are leading lights for me still today after 27 years of publishing LensWork. I owe that to the inspiration from Stieglitz.