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Thanksgiving break doesn't deter crowd:

Benton puts spotlight on Alfred Stieglitz

By Ashley Maher
On December 1, 2013

  • Benton’s spoltight talk last Tuesday called “Alfred Stieglitz, Camera Work, and American Photography” was given by Ally Johnson. Despite not having classes, a sizeable crowd was gathered at the museum to hear the talk. Jon Kulakofsky

It was a dreary, desolate afternoon on the UConn campus the Tuesday of Thanksgiving break. But that did not stop a crowd from attending the Benton's Spotlight talk Nov. 26 titled "Alfred Stieglitz, Camera Work, and American Photography," given by Ally Johnson.
"I think there are more people at this spotlight talk today than there are when school is in session," Johnson said. Although given during an obscure time of the year, the spotlight talk proved to intrigue students and Mansfield citizens alike and did not fail to deliver.
The exhibit of photos, which is currently featured in the Benton, is a collection donated by former UConn professor Ann Charters and her husband Samuel. In total, the couple donated 44 photos to the museum that consisted of traditional photographs as well as mixtures of different works and media.
"I want to focus on how these photos operated in the context of the art world in the 20 century," Johnson said as she dove into the purpose behind her lecture for that afternoon.
She portrayed an interesting insight into the world of fine arts that at the time photography was surprisingly excluded from by most artists.
After its beginnings in France and England in the year 1839, photography was not immediately accepted into the art world as true "art" or even as an artistic medium at all. Many artists saw the process as a machine doing all the work with a lack of human input or creativity. Some, such as Lady Eastlake, tried to promote it as a way to mass-produce art, such as the circulation of photographs of actual paintings for educational purposes.
Ally Johnson's lecture focused specifically on a man named Alfred Stieglitz, who was enmeshed in the German art community at the time and very interested in photography and its promotion as art. While Stieglitz was in school, he was able to circumvent the lack of photography classes by studying chemistry. The study of the different chemicals and how they interacted with one another was able to give him a basis on which to further study these chemicals and their creation of photographs.
Stieglitz became the leader of a movement. After moving to New York in 1890, his interest and love of photography led him to create his own movement within the art world titled "The Photo Succession," which enabled his movement to be linked to that of the Art Succession movements happening in Europe during the same period. He convinced some amateur photographers and commercial photographers, the two main groups at the time, to come together and be part of his new movement that promoted the idea of photography as a form of fine art.
The group became interested in a form called Pictoralism, an aesthetic style that consisted of hazy focus, darker tones and a Romantic theme of subject matter.
"As you can see, there is a strong link here between Pictoralism and Impressionism, which is no coincidence," Johnson said.
The use of this style was able to blur the lines between the photos and the paintings, which made photography as an art form much more palpable.
"You would also be surprised to know that many of these aren't real photographs," Johnson said.
This came as quite a shock to many of those in attendance considering the movement being described was about photography. The prints were actually called photogravures, which were reproduced copies of the original photographs that many times the artist painted over with certain chemicals to create specific effects. This also enhanced the link of photography to fine arts. Pictoralists prided themselves on the conscious decisions that they made during the photo process. The focus of the photograph and the way in which the chemicals were painted over were all decisions that lay at the hands of the photographer or the artist.
Creating this movement was not the only way Alfred Stieglitz promoted photography as works of art. He also produced a scholarly art journal titled "Camera Work" in which photographs as well as photos of fine art paintings and sculptures were placed alongside one another with written descriptions.
"Photography sharing the same space as these other art forms truly reinforced it as a fine art," Johnson said. "Stieglitz was really working to establish photography as a fine art medium."
Stieglitz worked as a mentor to many of the aspiring photographers in his movement such as Edward Jean Steichen, whose photos were among the small group highlighted in the talk for their Pictoralist aesthetics. Stieglitz proved to work very hard on the behalf of photographers as artists for many years.
In 1917 a shift began within Stieglitz's movement away from Pictoralism and toward today's more modern form of photography. Sharper focus and interesting framing all were becoming more popular forms of style. The real shift began when even painters began to mimic the work of photographers, incorporating hyperrealism and snapshot-like focus into their paintings. This is truly the point in time where the acceptance of photography as an art form can be seen.
Ally Johnson proved give the audience an intriguing snapshot of Alfred Stieglitz and his work within the artistic world. He was a man of drive and passion which he successfully put into his work. Without this man, photography may truly have been a lost art.
The collection described in this article continues to be on display in the Benton Museum and spotlight talks take place Tuesdays at 2:15 p.m.

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