Camera Work: An Allegiance to Photography
Today's post refers to a few different topics I haven't written about.....yet! To avoid any confusion, you will find definitions for a these terms below.
Photogravure: A photographic printing process that uses a copper plate that has a pattern laid into it. From there, a photo sensitive paper is put onto the plate and is then exposed to a film positive.What follows are highly detailed and tonally rich prints on paper.
Photo Secession: In the 20th century a group of select photographers, led by Alfred Stieglitz, formed a movement that was dedicated to solidifying photography as a medium capable of producing fine art and raising awareness of its capabilities.
Camera Club: A prestigious club of photographers aimed at nurturing new artists and exploring the camera/dark room's abilities. Started in 1884 and still running strong today.
When the camera first came onto the scene it faced an uphill battle with the fine art community. This new medium was seen as a cheap and rudimentary method used by wannabe artists who couldn't paint or sculpt trying to break into the fine art world. Still, there were those that saw the value and potential of this new technology's ability to harness and bend light into works of moving art. Alfred Stieglitz was possibly the staunchest advocate of photography's abilities and he set to prove it to the world with his magazine Camera Work.
Stieglitz, born in Hoboken, NJ, more than believed that American photography had a place at the fine art table. It was his mission to elevate the medium beyond the "liberal arts" category it kept getting swept into. For years he was a prominent member of the Camera Club and was even the editor for the club's magazine Camera Notes. However, Stieglitz was a bit of an elitist when it came to what and who should be featured within the publication. He had an extremely high bar that, in some ways, stifled the growth of the publication. This set the spark on a slow burn that led to years of friction between him and the other members of the Camera Club. It eventually led to him stepping down as the editor of Camera Notes. Stieglitz lamented that the organization had become "incompatible with the ideas and principles for which I have striven."
Dissolving this relationship hardly slowed Stieglitz down though. Over the years he had made friends with a group of elite photographers who were loyal to him and his mission. Stieglitz faced a brief period of depression over the loss of Camera Notes, but his friends were quickly able to stir up his fighting spirit. They convinced him to start a new publication. A new journal came with a clear mission statement - "Camera Work owes allegiance to no organization or clique" said Stieglitz. "The Magazine without an 'I' - fearless - independent - without favor" was how one advertisement described it. Camera Work was to be a haven for fine art schools, both domestic and foreign.
The first issue of the immaculately designed magazine was published in 1903, and what a triumph it was. The cover, designed by Edward Stiechen, stood out as an avant-garde gem. Early contributors included pictorial photography heavy weights such as Gertrude Käsbier, Edward Stiechen, and Alvin Langdon Coburn. To compliment these powerful photographs writers such as George Bernard Shaw made appearances as well. There was one final bit of special sauce that set Camera Work apart from any other photo journal - the quality of the photos. They were printed on fine Japanese paper developed from the photogravure process. This resulted in gorgeously toned photos that were the equivalent of having an original print. It put fine art prints in the hands of the subscribers and helped the world to feel just how elevated photography could be.
"Camera Work owes allegiance to no organization or clique" - Alfred Stieglitz
All of the hallmarks that separated Camera Work from other publications were thanks to Stieglitz and his editorial team's dedication to the importance of photography. They all believed in it so much, that none of them received a salary. Stieglitz, his team, and the contributors walked the publication through four distinct movements.
The first, 1903-1907, was, in a way, a continuation of Camera Notes. It focused largely on pictorial photography. From 1907 to 1910 the Photo-Secession was getting their sea legs and the publication heavily featured photographers from the movement. Stieglitz faced some flack for this because it seemed to be a publication dedicated to the movement's cause - which went directly against the mission statement. In truth, of the 473 photos printed over the 50 issues, 357 came from just fourteen photographers, many of them secessionist. Stieglitz among them. The biographer Richard Whelen put it perfectly when he said "Stieglitz was never one to hide his own light under a bushel." His own work was featured 47 times. In an attempt to assure his audience, Alfred said "...Though it (Camera Work) is the mouthpiece of the Photo-Secession that fact will not be allowed to hamper its independence in the slightest degree."
Though it took some time, the magazine did confirm his statement. From 1910-1915 Camera Work welcomed movements aside from Pictorialism Their photos reflected the new ideals from the Fauvist, Cubist, and Futurism movements. It also featured poets and writings unattached to specific photographs. The magazine was becoming a love letter to all things fine art.
While this was a time of expansion for the journal, from 1915-1917 it narrowed its focus. Modernism, embraced by Stiechen and perfected by Paul Strand, was taking center stage. It became the focus of the magazine and seemed like a natural book end to the publication. Stieglitz and others were ready to move on to other things. But, boy, was Camera Work, a great accomplishment that influenced American photography for years to come. With it, Stieglitz achieved his goal of making the rest of the world understand photography IS a credible art form.
There have been many great artists and momentous movements that have shaped photography into what it is today. Certainly two of those influences were Camera Work and the constant pursuit of recognition by Alfred Stieglitz. Like a phoenix from the ashes, the publication rose out from burned bridges and became a platform for the best photography had to offer. Camera Work further stood out from other like publications with its fearless foray into foreign artistic ideals, inclusion of other art mediums, and tactile methods of putting high quality images into the hands of its audience. Camera Work has been, and will remain, a national treasure that will influence photographers for years to come.
Check back next week as I continue my deep dive into the photo magazine with Popular Photography!
Written by Ashley Anderson
Green, Jonathan. Camera Work: A Critical Anthology.
Hoffman, Katherine. Stieglitz: A Beginning Light. Yale University Press, 2004.
Homer, William Innes, and Catherine Johnson. Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession, 1902. Viking Penguin, 2002.
Whelan, Richard. Alfred Stieglitz: A Biography. Little, Brown, 1995.
AA. “CAMERA WORK.” Bulletin (St. Louis Art Museum), vol. 12, no. 6, St. Louis Art Museum, 1976, pp. 97–103, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40716206.
Carillo, Jeffrey. “Camera Work.” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, vol. 34, no. 2, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2008, pp. 46–93, https://doi.org/10.2307/20205622.