Reviewed by Kenneth Tanaka
As anyone who has studied any art or photography history probably knows, Alfred Stieglitz was perhaps the most prominent early figure in getting photography admitted into the world of art. As a somewhat elitist, self-anointed connoisseur and relentless promoter of photography (and other modernist works) Stieglitz became point-man for the medium in the influential American East coast art world.
What you may not know about Stieglitz is that he also became a major art collector. By his death in 1946 he and his wife, the renowned American artist Georgia O’Keeffe, had amassed a collection of photographs, paintings, and sculptures so large that no single public institution could absorb its totality. It was left to O’Keefe to organize and allocate segments of the collection to various public and academic museums throughout America. In 1949, as one of 13 institutions to receive collection allocations, the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) acquired over 400 works from the collection, 244 of which were photographs (159 by Stieglitz). It was a transformative event for the museum’s then-budding photography collection. Many of these pieces have since been among the museum’s most viewed and exhibited photographs.
Fast forward to 2016. Thanks to grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation, the AIC’s Department of Photography was able to undertake a very ambitious project to fully digitize the 244 photographic works in the museum’s Stieglitz Collection. This was a far more extensive effort than simply putting images onto a website. In addition to full conservation analysis reports, each object’s research would be updated and centralized along with condition reports. The end result of this work was to be not only extensive object documentation on this collection but also an organized, easily-approachable presentation of this information freely available to the general public anywhere in the world.
And that’s exactly what the project team delivered. Recto and verso views of each object, mounted and unmounted, are just the start. Full conservation analysis reports, object research, exhibition histories and cross-references with other collections are presented for each object. It was a stunningly successful deep digitization project, among the best that any art museum has ever produced. A tremendous resource that serves scholars as well as high school paper-writers and hobbyists.
I think most TOP readers will find the AIC’s new Stieglitz Collection module an interesting place for any of three reasons. First, it documents some of the most significant works of photography’s early modern history. Second, it’s interesting to see what Stieglitz collected beyond his own stuff. Third, and most importantly, the module gives the public a glimpse at what museums really do. The world’s great museums are actually bastions of scholarly research, only necessarily dressed as showrooms. Deep in their bowels, behind and below the galleries, are armies of rarely-seen curators, conservators, educators, etc. devoted to preserving and plumbing the mysteries of their collections. So the depth and breadth of object information shown in this module is not really extraordinary for a museum to have. What is extraordinary is to see it so neatly gathered and exposed to the general public. Even as museums gradually open some of their collections for free viewing on the Internet, such depth of presentation is, and may remain, relatively rare.
So make a pot of coffee on a cold, wet afternoon and explore the Alfred Steiglitz Collection of Photographs at the Art Institute of Chicago!
©2017 by Kenneth Tanaka, all rights reserved
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Mike adds: This might shed a little light on how that collection got to be so large. Here's Georgia O'Keefe talking about Alfred Stieglitz, transcribed from the 1977 PBS documentary "Georgia O'Keefe." Remember, as you read this—Stieglitz was an art dealer! Makes me laugh.
Miss O'Keefe: I was interested in what he did and he was interested in what I did. Very interested. So much that his favorite word was ‘no’ as I told you before.
Interviewer: To whom?
To anyone who wanted anything.
Oh, certainly. He didn’t want people to have anything. He wanted to keep it all. He liked it and he didn’t want to sell it.
But didn’t he try to sell the…the paintings…
He never tried to sell a painting. He tried to keep people from buying. And if I had had any particular feeling about money we would have been fighting all the time, but I didn’t care. He’d come home and tell me how somebody came in and wanted a particular painting and he didn’t let them have it. And this would go on, maybe, till, along in April, and I’d say, ‘well, Alfred, you know it’d be nice if I made my living this year’ [laughs].
Well he liked what I did like I liked what he did. That’s how we got along at all.
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Featured Comments from:
Peter Wright: "It's certainly a wonderful collection, and the AIC is to be commended for making it available in this way. One thing in particular that struck me in looking through these pictures was how very different my response was to each of them. The city pictures like 'Terminal' and 'Steerage' have a major resonance for me, likewise most of the portraits, but the tree pictures and the clouds leave me pretty cold. It is interesting (for me) to reflect on why that is and what it means for any work I might do. As always, art tells us much about ourselves if we let it."
Jack: "OMG. This is a treasure trove. Now I'll get nothing done for the next six months. Thanks a lot! No, I really mean it—thanks. A lot."