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  • An American Lens: Scenes from Alfred Stieglitz's New York Secession
  • Elspeth H. Brown
Jay Bochner . An American Lens: Scenes from Alfred Stieglitz's New York Secession. MIT Press 2005. 370. US $39.95

An American Lens is a tightly focused, in-depth study of Stieglitz's life and work between 1893 and 1935 or from Winter – Fifth Avenue to his New York Series. Bochner's interdisciplinary goal, admirably accomplished, is to develop a series of synchronic 'scenes' in order to retrieve the 'responses of readers and viewers, as well as artists and writers, of the time, when modernism was born in its various guides in the new worlds of American modernity.' The project, he argues, is a version [End Page 312] of 'reception criticism' designed to sidestep more recent critical debates about Stieglitz's legacy and instead provide what Clifford Geertz might call a 'thick description' of the 'turning point in artistic consciousness' that we now call modernism. Bochner digs eight 'post holes' – specific moments and convergences in Stieglitz's career – that move the reader though well-travelled terrain (early New York images; gallery 291; the Armory Show) as well as to sites less well known to photography historians (the poetry of the period's 'little magazines,' such as Alfred Kreymborgs's Others).

In chapter 1, Blochner uses Stieglitz's 1893 portrait of a driver with horses making their way down a blustery, snowy Fifth Avenue as the central text along side of which Blochner offers a snapshot tour of 1893 America. A second chapter, 'Conservation Frames,' focuses on Stieglitz's role in curating the Albright Museum's 1910 exhibition, The International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography. Historically, the show's importance lies in its being one of the first major exhibitions of photography to be mounted in an art museum, and thus signals one of the moments when some photographic expression became accepted as 'fine art.' The chapter affords Blochner an opportunity to intervene in the recent critical debate over Stieglitz's relationship to contemporary photographer F. Holland Day. Taking issue with more recent historians' evidence concerning Stieglitz's allegedly poor treatment of Day, Blochner argues that in fact Stieglitz was a 'great deal more open-minded, generous, and disinterested than we realize from our distance.' At times throughout the book, such as this one, Blochner's tone verges on the defensive; his love for his subject requires him to act as Stieglitz's second, in a series of duels with mostly feminist critics, from Estelle Jussim to Susan Sontag.

Chapter 3 examines the famous 1913 Armory Show. Here, Blochner emphasizes Stieglitz's role in showing Rodin, Matisse, Picasso, and others who showed in the Armory exhibition at his gallery 291, in the years before 1913. Stieglitz's work at 291 'not only anticipated the Armory but supplied it with direction and specific works to hang,' Blochner argues. Chapter 4 focuses on Stieglitz's portraits of New York City in the same period, the 'new' New York, of skyscrapers and immigrants. Blochner's Stieglitz is a heroic, clear-eyed flaneur, with the unique ability to have 'freed himself from romantic projection into his work.' Chapter 5 examines the Secessionists' engagement with technology, a central element of both modernism and the machine age; here, the work of Francis Picabia figures prominently.

Moving to the years of the First World War, a chapter on 1916–17 steps away from Stieglitz proper to feature twin emphases on the work of poets Mina Loy and William Carlos Williams, read in relationship to the Society of Independent Artists' show of April-May 1917. At the very moment in 1917 when Stieglitz closed his gallery and ended [End Page 313] Camera Work, he met Georgia O'Keeffe, and Blochner's seventh chapter is devoted to Stieglitz's portraits of O'Keeffe from 1917 through 1935. Blochner argues that Stieglitz's extended investigation of a single subject over time, as in his portraits of O'Keeffe, mark the birth of the 'series' in photography, with Stieglitz as its inventor. Here again, Blochner seeks to rescue Stieglitz from the 'climate of prejudice' that judged him the patriarch and O'Keeffe the oppressed, arguing instead for...


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