Photo/Modern: Works of Alfred Stieglitz and Henning Svenson

by Amanda J. Higgins

The period of 1880 to 1930 was one of intense industrialization and modernization in the United States; changes in physical and built environments were accompanied by shifts in cultural tastes and values. For example, John Stilgoe, in Metropolitan Corridor(Stilgo, 1983) identifies a new visual appreciation for an "industrial aesthetic" which developed during this time period, while William Leach, in Land of Desire(Leach, 1993) provides evidence documenting the rise of a new culture of "consumerism and consumption." Photography, which was itself a recent invention undergoing rapid development during this same period, was in the unique position of being simultaneously an object, an element of the dawning, modern culture, and an observer, a means of documenting society's rapid changes. By examining various works of two photographers, each of whom worked extensively during this period of rapid change, I believe it is possible to come to some interesting conclusions about this period in America and the nature of photography itself.

Alfred Stieglitz is often mentioned as a eminent early master of the art of photography - its status as an art form was an issue of great importance to him. His work as a photographer and as a gallery owner in New York City is understood as integral to the spread of modernist art in the United States.(Homer, 1977). A significant portion of the span of his career as a photographer, from the 1880s until his death in 1946, overlaps with the career of Henning Svenson, running, as I understand it, from around 1900 to the 1940s. In all likelihood, Svenson was not involved in the art world in any way; he spent his life as a professional photographer based in Laramie, working primarily there and in neighboring areas.

Convincing people that photography was an art form was one of the central purposes of Stieglitz's involvement with the medium. The fact that Stieglitz would be considered an artist while Svenson most likely would be categorized as merely a professional photographer is one of the interesting comparisons between the two that speaks to longstanding issues for photography itself. Photography, more than almost any artistic form of expression, was, and to a mass audience often still is, viewed as simple. The success of an artistic shot might be attributed more to luck than skill. Stieglitz addresses this issue in saying: "'Artists who saw my earlier photographs began to tell me that they envied me; that they felt my photographs were superior to their painting, but that, unfortunately, photography was not an art. I could not understand why the artists should envy me for my work, yet, in the same breath, decry it because it was machine-made - their 'art' painting, because hand-made, being considered necessarily superior.'"(Norman, 1976). Stieglitz was so committed to the aestheticization of photography that when he heard the comment that his portraits were beautiful and interesting because of their subjects and not due to presentation, he turned his attention to photographing clouds in the sky. "'Through clouds to put down my philosophy of life - to show that my photographs were not due to subject matter - not to special trees , or faces, or interiors, to special privileges, clouds were there for everyone...In looking at my photographs of clouds, people seem freer to think about the relationships in the pictures than about the subject-matter for its own sake.'"(Norman, 1976). Stieglitz's concerns express the dual nature of the medium: its perceived function as a capturing eye, documenting the world and its ability to produce objects of beauty, art.

I believe it is possible to read some of Svenson's work as struggling with this same issue of aestheticization. Many of his photos are clearly "work" done for pay; they seem to answer someone's request for a portrait with little attention to artistic concerns. Yet, other photographs show attention to formal values and composition, or to exploration of the limitations of the medium. For example, looking at the series of six pictures of the interior of the Connor Hotel, a tension in purpose is evident. Two pictures depict the lobby interior, two the dining room, and two the staircase. The pictures of the lobby and dining room are mundane, suggesting promotional shots, but the staircase photographs are noticeably different. In particular, one is taken from the top of the stairs looking down. The resulting picture is a tight composition dominated by diagonal shapes and vertical lines. The angle of the shot does not make sense as a promotional piece and even if the intention was to depict renovations (?), it seems that Svenson was drawn to aestheticize the scene; it is an eye catching image. Given the small sample of Svenson's work with which I have had contact, it would very interesting to find out if there are more "arty" pictures in the collection or if a collection of personal photographs separate from the "professional" work exists.

Another indication that Svenson and Stieglitz struggled with similar issues concerning photography is the presence of night photos in each of their work. Stieglitz, in the 1890s, took numerous photographs in Europe and in New York at night, as well as in rain or snow.(Bry, 1965). His purpose was simply to prove that it could be successfully done, as many photographers and scientists had deemed the feat impossible. Photographs taken at night are also a part of the Ludwig Collection, indicating Svenson's interest in the technical possibilities of the medium. Svenson's series labeled "Cathedral at Night" convey an interest in effects of light and shadow. My favorite image is of a gas station at night, the electric light shines brightly down on the posing employees. The composition is dominated by a wide expanse of ground in front of the building and a large, dark slice of sky above it; these elements combine with the dazzlingly lit building front to form an image reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting.

John Stilgoe's discussion of visual representations of the new industrial zone presents another way of understanding the aesthetic sensibilities of Stieglitz and Svenson. The industrial aesthetic identified by Stilgoe centered on the railroad "zone" as representative of prosperity, modernity and efficiency. "Until 1929, the development of the industrial zone aesthetic was indeed essentially a groping towards new language and visual representation to capture the forms and light of the new built environments sprawling along the railroad rights-of-way."(Stilgoe, 1983). Stilgoe identifies Stieglitz as an artist who aestheticized the industrial zone. "...the industrial zone increasingly attracted artists interested in its metallic, distinctly modern beauty. Alfred Stieglitz entitled one 1902 photograph of a railroad yard "The Hand of Man,' and indeed everything in the photograph is artificial..."(Stilgoe, 1983). (Stilgoe is not alone in making this observation. James Guimond states, "From the early 1900s through the 1930s, for example, there was a popular genre of industrial art that was a kind of sooty romanticism. In photography this romantic vision of industry was expressed by Alfred Stieglitz in 'The Hand of Man,' his well-known image of a locomotive in a freight yard.")(Guimond, 1991). This photograph referred to by Stilgoe and Guimond, one of Stieglitz's better known works, serves as a good comparison to works of Svenson's, demonstrating the existence in Svenson's work of attention to industrial zones as aesthetic sites.

One Ludwig photograph, one of a series of seven photographs from an envelope labeled "Union Pacific Railroad," depicts a railroad yard and tracks, apparently shot from atop a stationary train car. The focus of the Ludwig photograph is on the physical environment as object and not as work place. There is one man in the picture, standing to the right of the train tracks, however, he does not appear to be a worker and is not near the center of the composition. Stilgoe points out that representations of the railroad zone rarely focus on workers, instead it is more common that, as in the Stieglitz railroad yard photo, no human presence is shown at all. Other similarities between the two images are the depiction of smoke stacks and electrical lines, and the centrality of drifting smoke - examples of the way in which "a peculiar luminosity suffused the industrial zone."(Guimond, 1991).

The presentation of industrial zones as aesthetic scenes exemplifies the new cultural value system that Stilgoe identifies as being current at the time, one which embraces things modern and efficient. Without records of Svenson's motivations for choosing his subjects, one must look to the photos alone as evidence. In a series marked "Union Pacific Railroad Yard Crane" five photographs depict the operation of a large crane as it picks up and moves railroad ties. While the crane is the focus of the pictures, the compositions contain other elements that impart "industrial aesthetic." For example, power lines are visible in each photograph - Stilgoe believes that power lines, like the railroad tracks themselves, symbolize the connective power of the metropolitan corridor. Thus, viewers of the Ludwig photographs in the early 1920s might have observed the pictures with an eye to more than simply the power and efficiency represented by the crane. The power lines in the background and railroad tracks in the foreground compose a by now familiar scene symbolizing America's industrious and energetic future. Stieglitz himself, in discussing his work, makes a connection between his choice of subject and the modernization of America. Speaking of his series of photographs of the Flat Iron Building, he says "'When I look back to those early days, when the Flat Iron Building was such a passion of mine, I think of my father, who said to me, 'Alfred, how can you photograph that hideous building?' 'Why, Pa,' I answered, 'it is not hideous. That's the new America. That building is to America what the Parthenon was to Greece.'" Thus, works of both Svenson and Stieglitz can be understood as images representing "new America," its new built environments and its new visual aesthetic.

In this paper, I have attempted to demonstrate that photographs of Alfred Stieglitz and Henning Svenson can be read as evidence that the two grappled with similar issues in their work: struggles with the nature of photography, its limitations and possibilities as a technology and as an artistic medium, as well as questions of the changing aesthetic taste and cultural values of early 20th-century America. Finally, I find that this consideration of works from the Ludwig Collection in relation to the work of a contemporary "Modernist" photographer indicates that the sensibility of the times was more broadly current in the national atmosphere than has been previously considered.


Doris Bry, Alfred Stieglitz: Photographer, (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1965).
James Guimond, American Photography and the American Dream, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991).
William Innes Homer, Alfred Stieglitz and the American Avant-Garde, (Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1977.).
William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchant Power and the Rise of a New American Culture, (New York: Random House, 1993).
Dorothy Norman, Introduction to: Alfred Stieglitz, Robert Delpire, Ed., (New York: Aperture, 1976).
John R. Stilgoe, Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).