ALFRED STIEGLITZ'S "CAMERA NOTES"

[1] [2]
[3] [4]

(1) Gertrude Kasebier, "Blessed Art Thou among Women", photogravure. Photo courtesy the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
(2) Ernest R. Ashton, "Evening Near the Pyramids", photogravure, 1898.
(3) John E. Dumont, "Clarinet Player", photogravure, 1899.
(4) Alfred Stieglitz, "Mending Nets", photogravure, 1899.

by Orville 0. Clarke, Jr.

(Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara) Southern Californians will have the rare opportunity to see the art that appeared in Camera Notes from July, 1897 to December, 1903. On exhibit are all 87 photogravures and the four silver gelatin prints that were featured during the six years of it's existence in a two-part exhibition [the second half of the show opens April 18th--Ed.].

It is almost impossible to stress how influential Camera Notes was on American photography at the turn of the century. Except for the last three issues, it was edited by Alfred Stieglitz who is one of the seminal figures in the history of photography. A brilliant photographer, he was determined to have photography recognized as an art form just like painting or sculpture. It was through Camera Notes that he was to find his vehicle. Although the magazine was the house publication of The Camera Club of New York, Stieglitz did not limit his selection of featured art to club members or even Americans. He selected the best photographs to promote his concepts of this new art form which included photographers from England, France, Austria, and Scotland.

What appeared in the twenty-one issues that Stieglitz edited was the work of some of the most important names in the medium: Gertrude Kasebier, Clarence H. White, Edward Steichen, and Stieglitz himself. Stieglitz chose the intaglio process of photogravure, a relative of the etching or engraving method, to highlight his featured images, rather than the less expensive halftone illustrations. For the 800 to 1000 copies that were printed for each issue, it required this very expensive and time consuming process in which each gravure was printed by hand. The results were breathtaking, "original" works of art. Most of the gravures were full page (printed on heavy white stock about five by seven inches) and were crucial to the image and reputation of the magazine. It was the gravures that distinguished Camera Notes from other photography magazines.
Out of the approximately 350 images that appeared in Camera Notes, only 87 were gravures.

The battle over photography as an art form began in earnest in July 1888 with the introduction of the Kodak Camera. This revolutionary camera came with a new concept: roll-film. Even more remarkable, the camera and film (which produced 100 circular Sages about 2 5/8" in diameter) could be returned to Eastman's plant after exposure where it was developed, the images printed, and a new roll of film installed in the camera. Eastman's slogan said it all: "You Press the Button--We Do The Rest." Photography now became available to the masses.

Pictoralism became the answer to the "snap-shot." Dedicated amateurs, began employing this style of photography that utilized a soft-focus technique. They printed their images on exotic papers, often altering the negatives. Only someone with access to specialized lenses and a darkroom could produce these "artistic" images. By simplifying the subjects and keeping them easily recognizable, artists were able to create mysterious, symbolic, and emotional images.

Kasebier's Blessed Art Thou among Women is a perfect example of the Pictorialist style of photography which dominated "serious" photography at the turn of the century. A young girl is framed in a doorway with an angelic woman in white leaning over her, evoking an almost Biblical atmosphere that recalls the familiar prayer to the Virgin Mary. The image is dominated by soft-focus, and Kasebier utilized a simplified foreground. The contrast of the young girl in her black dress against the pale surrounding serves as the focal point.

But this is only one of many shining gravures that are on display. In addition to the better known artists, images such as Magdalen by Charles Berg, A Wet Night, Columbus Circle, New York by William A. Fraser, and A Water Carrier--Cuba by Horace A. Latimer are captivating. While Pictorialism was the dominant style of photography for years, the beauty of these images remain unknown to most and rarely exhibited in museums. This is an important touring exhibition, and the chance to see Kasebier's Blessed Art Thou among Women is by itself worth the trip.