Sunday 16 February 2020

Photo-Secession (1904)

Photography was invented in the 1840's. Within twenty years of its invention, a vigorous debate began about the essence of photography. It was widely accepted that photography was a useful way to mechanically record images with high fidelity, but the bigger question was whether it was Art or not? This debate continues.

One person who worked tirelessly to establish photography as an art-form was the American photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946).  Stieglitz was born in Hoboken, New Jersey of German-Jewish extraction. He was educated at a private school in New York, the Realgymnasium in Karlsruhe and the Technische Hochschule in Berlin. Whilst in Berlin, he took up photography, studying both the technical and aesthetic aspects of this new medium. From 1884, Stieglitz spent six years in Germany, reading widely on photography, taking pictures and writing articles that developed his own ideas on photography as art.  In 1890 he returned to New York and began his career as a photographic artist, with strong financial support from his family.

By 1902 Stieglitz was one of the most influential photographers in the US. In that year he was asked by the National Arts Club to put on an exhibition of contemporary photographs. The exhibition was called the Photo-Secession, it was an immediate popular and critical success. In 1902 the Photo-Secession also became a movement led by Stieglitz, that aimed to;

... hold together those Americans devoted to pictorial photography in their endeavor to compel its recognition, not as a handmaiden of art, but as a distinctive medium of individual expression.
Early in 1903, Stieglitz began editing and publishing Camera-Work, a quarterly photographic journal based on the aims of the Photo-Secession. Each number of the journal had exquisite high quality photogravure images that were hand printed and then individually tipped into the pages of the journal. Between 1903 and 1917 fifty editions of Camera Work were produced, almost every single copy of which was hand finished, packed and dispatched by Stieglitz himself. The close circle of photographers that Stieglitz  habitually worked with in the Photo-Secession group, and heavily represented in the pages of Camera-Work, were amongst the best artist-photographers of his, or any subsequent, generation. This volume was published in 1904, under the auspices of the Camera Club of Pittsburgh. It has seven plates, which were taken from various numbers of Camera Works.

This image, Gables,  was included in the Photo-Secession volume. It was taken by Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966), a brilliant American photographer who from the age of 16 was producing photography of the highest quality. Coburn was a close associate of Stieglitz and other leading American and European photographers. Between 1900 and 1910 Coburn spent long periods travelling, photographing cityscapes in New York, London and Venice and taking portraits of famous Men of Mark, including Henri Matisse, Ezra Pound, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Auguste Rodin, Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt and W.B. Yeats. 

Coburn was a photographic innovator. He made great use of high vantage points to flatten perspective and obtain unusual and distinctive geometric patterns. During 1916 Coburn developed a kaleidoscope-like device that Ezra Pound christened a Vortescope. The photographs taken with this device, known as Vortographs, are strange, fractured almost cubist images that show multiple perspectives and facets. They are perhaps the very first conciously made purely abstract photographs. 

From the early 1920's Coburn became increasingly interested in religion and mysticism, by 1930 he had effectively stopped taking photographs.


Stieglitz, A. & Margolis, M.F. (1978). Camera Work: A Pictorial Guide. Dover, New York.

White, C.H., Porterfield, W.H. et al. (1920). Pictorial Photography in America. Tennant & Ward, New York.

The volume is HERE.