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Artist

Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946)

Title

The Steerage

Date

1907

Medium

Photogravure

Dimensions

Sheet: 15 13/16 × 11 1/16 in. (40.2 × 28.1 cm) Image: 13 3/16 × 10 7/16 in. (33.5 × 26.5 cm)

Credit line

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of an anonymous donor

Accession number

77.106

Object Label

While sailing to Europe on vacation in 1907, Alfred Stieglitz took what many consider to be the first modernist photograph. It marks Stieglitz’s eschewal of Symbolist subject matter for that of everyday life—an image of steerage, the lowest priced quarters on the ship. While the focus on passengers returning to Europe (some perhaps as a result of unsuccessful attempts to immigrate) inevitably lends the photograph a political charge, Stieglitz also foregrounds formal issues with its emphasis on the bifurcation of the ship’s architecture and the interplay of its machinery and passengers. The compositional harmony of The Steerage is all the more remarkable for its improbable circumstances of its creation. As the artist narrated, he had only one chance to get the image right, because he was carrying just a single unexposed plate: “Could I catch what I saw and felt? I released the shutter, my heart thumping. If I had captured what I wanted, the photograph would go far beyond any of my previous prints.” Years later he confirmed the importance of the image within his career. “If all my photographs were lost and I were represented only by The Steerage,” he stated, “that would be quite all right.”

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