Alfred Stieglitz and the 19th Century

Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864–1946) tirelessly promoted photography as a fine art. Through his own photographic work over the course of a half-century, the photographic journals he edited and published, and the New York galleries at which he organized exhibitions of photographs, paintings, and sculpture, Stieglitz showed photography to be an integral part of modern art in America. In a search for artistic ancestors, he looked intently at photography of the 19th century, most notably that of Julia Margaret Cameron and the Scottish duo David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson. Their work resonated for Pictorialism, a movement that valued painterly, handcrafted images, and these earlier photographs were exhibited and reprinted for new audiences. Stieglitz’s fledgling interest to create a history of photography as an art form was also evidenced in his decision, later in his career, to revisit his own prior output, reprinting earlier images in a high modernist style.

The Stieglitz collection at the Art Institute includes several later Cameron and Hill and Adamson prints along with important works by Stieglitz himself, Edward Steichen, and other Pictorialist artists. Drawn entirely from the permanent collection, this exhibition examines how 19th-century photographs influenced Pictorialist practice. Fostering close looking at different photographic processes—from salt and albumen prints of the 19th century, to carbon prints and photogravures of turn-of-the-century reproduction, to crisp gelatin silver prints of the modernist period—it shows Stieglitz and his circle in the context of a changing photographic history.