Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946)
Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946)

The Steerage, 1907

Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946)
The Steerage, 1907
photogravure on Japan tissue, printed 1911
image: 12 3/4 x 10 1/8 in. (32.4 x 25.7 cm.)
sheet: 16 x 11 in. (40.7 x 28 cm.)
Sotheby's, New York, April 6, 2011, lot 36.
Alfred Stieglitz, Camera Work, New York, no. 36, October 1911, pl. IX.
Frank Waldo et al., America & Alfred Stieglitz: A Collective Portrait, The Literary Guild, New York, 1934, pl. XXVII-B.
Dorothy Norman, Alfred Stieglitz: An American Seer, Random House/Aperture, New York, 1960, p. 65.
Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present Day, The Museum of Modern Art/George Eastman House, New York, 1964, p. 112.
Doris Bry, Alfred Stieglitz: Photographer, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1965, pl. 8.
Sarah Greenough & Juan Hamilton, Alfred Stieglitz: Photographs & Writings, Bulfinch Press/National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1999, pl. 18.
Sarah Greenough, Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and his New York Galleries, Bulfinch Press/National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 2000, p. 140, pl. 30.
Sarah Greenough, Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set, Volume One 1886-1922, Abrams/National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 2002, pp. 190-94, cat. nos. 310-14.

Lot Essay

A century since its creation, Alfred Stieglitz’s The Steerage remains an icon in Modernist photography. Taken while on trip with his wife Emmeline in 1907, the image represents a crucial departure from Stieglitz’s earlier championing of Pictorialism. Ever the advocate for photography’s recognition as an art form and not merely a documentarian tool, Stieglitz, through his pioneering ‘291’ publication, heretofore had promoted the propagation of painterly devices that blurred the lines between photography and fine art. The Steerage, however, became a pivot in Stieglitz’s personal oeuvre and subsequently shaped his approach to photography. Gone were the foundations of Pictorialism: a central subject, a clear horizon, staged compositions, soft focus and feathery printing. The Steerage rebukes each of those, whereby a series of sharp diagonals energetically slice through the seemingly chaotic scene and converge into a striking and sharp congregation of lines of shapes. Of that experience, Stieglitz later noted, 'A round straw hat, the funnel leading out, the stairway leaning right, the white drawbridge with its railings made of circular chains – white suspenders crossing on the back of a man in the steerage below, round shapes of iron machinery, a mast cutting into the sky, making a triangular shape. I stood spellbound for a while, looking and looking.'

The image became hugely popular, and following continuous requests for prints, Stieglitz, following the advice of Paul Haviland and Marius De Zayas, in 1915 decided to print The Steerage on two different types of paper: Japan vellum for the regular (and less expensive) edition of ‘291’, and a finer, thinner Japan tissue for the deluxe edition. The current lot is of the latter printing. Beyond the 100 subscribers to the regular edition and the 8 subscribers to the deluxe edition no further prints were purchased. Dismayed, Stieglitz destroyed most of the remaining prints, adding to the rarity of prints made on Japan tissue paper (Dorothy Norman, Alfred Stieglitz: An American Seer, p. 127).

In Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set: The Alfred Stieglitz Collection of Photographs, Sarah Greenough locates three other versions of this print in institutional collections: The Art Institute of Chicago, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo.

More from Modern Visions: Exceptional Photographs

View All
View All