Masterpieces & Curiosities: Alfred Stieglitz’s The Steerage

Masterpieces & Curiosities: Alfred Stieglitz's The Steerage focuses on Stieglitz’s enduring 1907 picture of steerage-class passengers aboard the ocean liner Kaiser Wilhelm II. This image has often been regarded as evidence of the poor conditions under which many immigrants arrived in America; however, Stieglitz took the photograph on a voyage to Europe. As such, it is a document of people who were likely denied entry and citizenship to the United States. Stieglitz's concerns, however, were largely aesthetic rather than social-minded: he was moved more by the picture's formal qualities than its subject matter. Stieglitz considered the work to be his greatest triumph in a long, illustrious career as a photographer, stating later in life, "If all my photographs were lost, and I’d be represented by just one, The Steerage, I’d be satisfied."
Alfred Stieglitz's The Steerage demonstrates the artist's ceaseless promotion of the image, from its reproduction in Camera Work, Stieglitz’s high-minded art journal, to popular magazines such as Vanity Fair. The exhibition will also feature Stieglitz's own account of its creation, in which he recalls:

How I hated the atmosphere of the first class on that ship. One couldn’t escape the nouveaux riches. I had to get away from that company. As I came to the end of the [deck] I stood alone, looking down. The whole scene fascinated me. I longed to escape from my surroundings and join those people. I saw a picture of shapes and underlying that the feeling I had about life. Should I try to put down this seemingly new vision that held me - people, the common people, the feeling of ship and ocean and sky and the feeling of release that I was away from the mob called the rich? Here would be a picture based on related shapes and on the deepest human feeling, a step in my own evolution, a spontaneous discovery.

The exhibition further explores the discrepancy in experience between those, like Stieglitz, traveling in first-class, and those in steerage. An exact model of the Kaiser Wilhelm II demonstrates the sheer scale of this impressive ocean liner, while vintage postcards depict the lavish interiors of its first-class cabins. By contrast, Edward A. Steiner’s On the Trail of the Immigrant, published in 1906, provides an unsparing account of the wretched steerage conditions aboard the same ship.

Despite the fact that The Steerage shows people leaving, not coming to, the United States, by the mid-twentieth century The Steerage came to be viewed as the quintessential image of immigrants en route to America. The image resonates on a personal level, especially with Jewish Americans, who often mistake one of the figures in the foreground for a Jewish man mid-prayer (at a quick glance, the striped cloth looks like a tallit, or prayer shawl). Perhaps for this reason above all, The Steerage has become the textbook image for Jewish immigration (it even appears on the cover of The Columbia History of Jews & Judaism in America, published in 2008).

Two related artworks from the Jewish Museum’s collection are also included in this exhibition: Arnold Newman’s 1944 double portrait of Stieglitz and the artist Georgia O’Keeffe (whom he married in 1924), and Vik Muniz's contemporary rendition of The Steerage, which he recreated in chocolate sauce in 2000.