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The Steerage

Alfred Stieglitz

(Hoboken, New Jersey, 1864 - 1946, New York, New York)

1907 (printed 1915)

Photogravure on Japanese tissue

13 1/8 in. x 10 1/2 in. (33.34 cm x 26.67 cm)

Museum Acquisition Fund

1978.25

More Information

Stieglitz considered 'The Steerage' the finest photograph of his career. This famous scene depicts the passengers of a transatlantic ship's steerage compartment, that portion of the ship used by people who could not afford cabins. The image has become a symbol of the influx of immigrants who came to America seeking a better life, but the ship was actually Eastbound for Europe when this photograph was taken.

Essay

Alfred Stieglitz The Steerage, 1907 (printed 1915) Collection of the Akron Art Museum "I raced to the main stairway of the steamer, chased down to my cabin, picked up my Graflex, raced back again, worrying." So wrote Alfred Stieglitz about the circumstances surrounding the photograph he titled The Steerage.1 This image was made on the ocean liner Kaiser Wilhelm II during Stieglitz's 1907 voyage to Europe with his wife Emmeline and daughter Kitty. The photographer, who was unhappy with his domestic situation and bored with the milieu in first class, let his eyes fall upon the several forward decks that held steerage passengers. The vitality of the scene that presented itself seemed to express exactly his conviction that the less well-off showed greater warmth in their relationships than his fellow upper-class travelers. Stieglitz processed the negative when he arrived in Paris but was unable to make a print until he returned to New York four months later. The photograph was not published until 1911, when it appeared in gravure reproduction in the Photo-Secession journal Camera Work along with fourteen other images by Stieglitz of New York, its people, and its structures. A complex arrangement of a "round straw hat, the funnel leaning left, the stairway leaning right, the white drawbridge, . . . white suspenders, . . ." The Steerage lent itself to the avant-garde ideas entering artistic discourse in the United States after 1908.2 Stieglitz, who was an intuitive artist himself, generally paid little attention to aesthetic theory in his own work, but in his role as a gallery director and publisher he became a strong supporter of new ideas in art, in particular those propounded by American painter Max Weber and the European Cubists. With its intricate arrangement of curves and angles and its edges cutting and flattening the various structural elements, this photograph makes elegant use of the vocabulary of Cubism while still expressing the artist's personal reaction to the scene. As Cubist art had become more acceptable to American viewers following the 1913 Armory Show, Stieglitz was encouraged to make larger gravure prints on Japanese tissue in 1915.3 The Akron Art Museum print is one of these. Stieglitz took exceptional care with the printing of his photogravures; they are considered original prints, not reproductions. In its crowded, complex composition and its balance of formal organization and emotional sensibility, The Steerage is unique in Stieglitz's work. The photographer himself recognized this when later in his life he wrote: "If . . . I were represented only by The Steerage, that would be all right." - Naomi Rosenblum, 2001 1. Quoted in Norman, 76. 2. Alfred Stieglitz, "Four Happenings," Twice a Year 8/9 (1942): 128. See also Norman, 75–76. 3. The enlarged version of The Steerage appeared in the last issue of Stieglitz's journal 291 (September/October 1915). Five hundred copies were printed, according to Stieglitz, quoted in Norman, 127. Eight thousand copies were printed according to Lowe, 127. 4. Quoted in Norman, 77. Homer, William Innes. Alfred Stieglitz and the American Avant-garde. Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1977. Lowe, Sue Davidson. Stieglitz. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1983. Newhall, Nancy. "Notes for a Bibliography." In From Adams to Stieglitz. New York: Aperture, 1989, 97–133. Norman, Dorothy. Alfred Stieglitz: An American Seer. New York: Random House, An Aperture Book, 1960.

Keywords
Boat
Crowd
Documentary
Photography
Photogravure
Social Class
Traveler