Reviewed by Geoffrey Wittig
I love photography books; as my wife points out, I already own too many of them. Some are just collections of pretty images I admire, while others are books of technique that have taught me something. A small handful are beautiful art objects in their own right. This is one of them.
There are many books out there about Stieglitz, running the gamut from brief summaries to dissertations to reproductions of his seminal Camera Work. Some are inexpensive paperbacks with photographic reproduction quality varying from dismal to marginally adequate. Even the pricier hardcovers often have mediocre reproductions. Part of the problem is simply the range of Stieglitz's work. All of it is nominally "black and white," but he used a wide variety of printing methods, from platinum and palladium to photogravure, and finally to gelatin silver prints. Each printing method has its own characteristic image structure, with different tonal range, D-max, and color. High quality offset book printing nowadays can do a remarkably good job of reproducing many of the subtleties of these different prints—provided the publisher and book designer have the motivation, the skill and the resources to do so. Most just don't bother; it's more profitable to crank out another $29.95 softcover with "adequate" reproductions.
This is a long-winded introduction for a book that I think represents a pinnacle of the printing arts. Alfred Stieglitz: Photographs and Writings is actually a reprint of the superb catalog of the Stieglitz photography exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The original was published by Nicholas Callaway of Callaway Editions in 1983 as a limited edition. It was no ordinary book; the designer was Eleanor Morris Caponigro, then wife of photographer Paul Caponigro. The text was printed letterpress on art paper, and the photographic reproductions were of the highest quality. It included an informative introduction by curator and Stieglitz authority Sarah Greenough. Following the plates were notes on individual images, and a selection of essays and letters by Stieglitz representative of his thoughts on art and photography.
In 1999, in association wth another Stieglitz exhibit, the book was reprinted. And here's the cool part: this is no reduced-scale offset facsimile. It is printed letterpress as a page-for-page exact reproduction, from newly set metal type, on heavyweight art paper. The photographic plates likewise are highest quality tri-tones with ink carefully matched to the tones of the original prints. The actual printing was done at Stamperia Valdonega, in Verona Italy—the printing house established by Giovanni Mardersteig, one of the truly great book printers of the 20th century. It's a large tome at 28.4 x 36.4 cm (11.2 x 14.3 inches). Such a monumental work would normally cost...well, a lot. Letterpress printing is an incredibly labor-intensive process. In a remarkable act of corporate generosity, Eastman Kodak underwrote the cost of the printing. The resulting book sold at a list price of $75, absurdly low given the care and expense devoted to its production. Here's the thing...you can still buy a new, shrink-wrapped copy of this book. As I write these words, there is a stack of them in the Eastman House bookstore discounted for $49.95! My advice: buy a copy now while you can.
This is one of the finest books I have ever seen, and I have been collecting books for 20 years. The 73 photographic plates show Stieglitz's work sequentially, moving from early pictorialist work through his better known images of New York City, portraits of Georgia O'Keefe and other contemporary artists, through his 'equivalents' and later works. Included are many of his "greatest hits," such as The Steerage (left). Having seen the exhibit, I can attest that the plates carefully reproduce the character of the original prints.
The quality of the text printing is simply stunning. Permit me a digression on this point. Essentially all modern book printing is web/offset; the text is imaged onto printing plates which pick up and deposit ink onto the surface of the page. Text looks "painted on" because, well, it is. It's fast, it's sharp, and it's cheap. Traditional letterpress printing, from Gutenberg circa 1455 until the 1960s, is very different. "Type" was made of actual metal letters in reverse, composed by the page, then inked, and pressed into the paper. The resulting text is sculpturally engraved into the page; you can run your finger down a line of text and feel the impressions. You can see the relief of the letters in glancing light. A well printed letterpress page seems almost to shine out from the paper; it has a three dimensional quality utterly lacking from offset printing. Alfred Stieglitz: Photographs and Writings is set in Monotype Bembo (one of the best "classic revival" metal typefaces) and expertly printed letterpress by one of the worlds' finest printing houses. I can say without fear of contradiction that you will never find another book of this artistic quality for such a fire-sale price. To give you some perspective, new volumes printed letterpress for the collector market typically start at $700 and escalate from there.
The contents of the book are up to the quality of the printing. Greenough's introductory essay nicely explains Stieglitz's importance to the evolution of photography as art in America. The selection of essays and letters following the plates is also judicious. Stieglitz was erudite and determined; he could also be smug and condescending. The writings reproduced here nicely demonstrate both sides of his personality.
If you own only one book on Stieglitz, this is the one to have**. Scholars and devotees may prefer the monumental Key Set, a two volume $150 boxed set reproducing all of the prints in the possession of Georgia O'Keefe after Stieglitz's death. The Key Set has over 1600 images in chronological order with extensive notes on the printing processes used, and is a priceless resource for those who want to look deeper. It includes many alternative prints made from the same negative, hence providing a look at how Stieglitz worked to interpret an image. It also has extensive commentary by Greenough, and its photographic reproduction quality is quite high. As an example of the book arts, however, it's not quite in the same league as Photographs and Writings.
Geoff Wittig is a small town family physician with a passionate photography obsession. He spends most of his free days hiking and photographing—mostly rural landscapes—and sells enough prints to pay for ink and paper.
*This title has only recently gone out of print; you may still be able to find copies at bookstores, by mail order, or even at remainder tables. I have not been able to find a source online. It's worth a search: I have the 1983 first edition, which now sells for between $350 and $600 depending on condition; the value of this reissue, too, will only go up as time passes. —MJ
**I definitely second this judgment. —MJ
Featured Comment by Ken Tanaka: "Thank you for this write-up, Geoffrey. Alfred Stieglitz is probably the most studied, debated, publicized, and generally ruminated photographer in history. Of course the impact of his own photography almost pales when it's compared to the impact he made on contemporary art in general and modern photography in particular through his exhibition initiatives. While I am not a goggles-on fan I never seem to tire of looking at his work or reading about him. While we're on the subect of ol' Al, I recently bought a DVD of the American Masters series on him. It's really quite good. The photography looks terrific, Georgia O'Keefe interviews are featured throughout the piece, and the narrative is engaging."
Featured Comment by Milo47: "Just ordered one from the Eastman House book store. They still have that stack in stock. Call (585) 271-3361, dial 0 for the operator, and ask for the "museum shop." If you get voice-mail, leave a message; they'll call back. $57.95 with shipping to Georgia."