If you went to art or photography school, you definitely know about Alfred Stieglitz— the photographer, editor, curator, and promoter of photography.
During his time in the early days of photography, photography wasn’t taken as a serious “art.” It was looked down on by others.
Stieglitz put his entire life on the line to help promote photography. He innovated with his photo publication: “Camera Work” and helped build a community of photography enthusiasts.
Modern photography might not be around if it weren’t for him. What are some practical lessons we can learn from him? This is what I learned from him — and what you can learn for yourself:
1. Shoot how it feels
“I go out into the world with my camera and come across something that excites me emotionally, spiritually or aesthetically. I see the image in my mind’s eye. I make the photograph and print it as the equivalent of what I saw and felt.” – Alfred Stieglitz
Alfred Stieglitz was really big into the idea of “pre-visualization” — meaning, you would pre-visualize your photograph in your mind before shooting it. Then after you made a photo of a scene, you would print it how you pre-visualized it in your mind.
Assignment: Photograph what excites you
How do you know what to photograph? Shoot what excites you. Shoot only when you feel moved— mentally, visually, or spiritually.
Also before you take a photo, pre-visualize it. Imagine what you want the final product to look like. Then after shooting your photo, post-process to express your creative vision.
2. Express your aesthetic feelings through your photography
During the time of Alfred Stieglitz, photography wasn’t seen as a real “art.” The snobs of the time looked down at photography.
Therefore many photographers during the time would try to make photos look like paintings— to have it taken more “seriously.”
Alfred Stieglitz made this bold claim in saying that photography wasn’t art — but neither was anything else. Rather, Stieglitz was more interested in self-expression, not art. He states below:
“Photography is not an art. Neither is painting, nor sculpture, literature or music. They are only different media for the individual to express his aesthetic feelings… You do not have to be a painter or a sculptor to be an artist. You may be a shoemaker. You may be creative as such. And, if so, you are a greater artist than the majority of the painters whose work is shown in the art galleries of today.” – Alfred Stieglitz
Assignment: Express yourself
What do your photos say about you? Why do you make photos? What are you trying to say about the world? What is unique about your perspective?
Don’t think about your photography as “art” — only your subjective vision and interpretation of the world.
Express yourself through your images.
3. Find freedom through your camera
Sometime in late 1892, Alfred Stieglitz bought his first “handheld” camera (a 4×5 large-format film camera). This “handheld” camera liberated him (compared to shooting a heavy, bulky, and large 8×10 plate film camera). During his time, the only way to shoot was to use a tripod.
When he had his new “portable” 4×5 camera— Stieglitz found much more freedom in his photography. He was able to wander the streets, and make photos hand-held (a revolution at the time). He used this camera to make two of his most famous images: “Winter, Fifth Avenue” and “The Terminal.”
Assignment: Use the lightest camera possible
Funny— we look at a 4×5 camera and it is huge, heavy, and bulky by modern standards.
I feel that photography is the most liberating when we use the smallest, most compact, and light camera.
If you find yourself a slave to your camera (because it is too big, bulky, or heavy) — try to use the smallest and lightest camera possible. That might mean buying a point-and-shoot camera, or just shooting with your smartphone.
Stick with that camera for a month. See if you end up carrying it around with you more. If you take more photos. If you feel more liberated, and feel more creative.
4. Utopia is now
Today’s society and world is amazing. We have phenomenal digital cameras with amazing capabilities, to shoot in near-dark situations. We have the internet to publish our photos instantly, for potentially millions of people to see. We have all the digital tools at our disposal to give us great freedom in photography. Yet we still complain.
Alfred Stieglitz was a great proponent of his time for the modern day:
“I have always been a great believer in today. Most people live either in the past or in the future, so that they really never live at all. So many people are busy worrying about the future of art or society, they have no time to preserve what is. Utopia is in the moment. Not in some future time, some other place, but in the here and now, or else it is nowhere.” – Alfred Stieglitz
Why do we complain about today? We are currently living in utopia. We have more money than ever, more physical security, fewer diseases, longer living expectancies, and the best technology known to man.
Utopia is right now. The camera you currently own is perfect, and would have amazed anyone from 20 years ago.
Assignment: Don’t romanticize the past, or wait for the future
You have everything you need right now to succeed as a photographer. You don’t need a new camera, a new phone, or any new devices. You have access to everything.
Don’t romanticize the past and wish you lived in the 1920s and photographed people in top hats (photographers from the past saw that as boring). Don’t wish you lived in the future, with some futuristic camera.
Make the best of today. Because the photos you take today will be the history of tomorrow.
5. Create new meanings through your photographs
The reason why I find photography so fun is because we can be creative and create new meanings through our photos. We decide what to include and what not to include in the frame. By including certain elements in our frame, we can create new meanings from reality:
“For that is the power of the camera: seize the familiar and give it new meanings, a special significance by the mark of a personality.” – Alfred Stieglitz
Assignment: Create extraordinary photos out of ordinary scenes
How can you find what is familiar to you, and give it a new meaning? How can you imbue a scene with your own soul, to give it your own personality?
No matter where we live, everything is boring and cliche to us. But our job of a photographer is to take what is familiar— and make it extraordinary.
For a week— shift your mindset. Try to make the most extraordinary photos out of the ordinary scenes of your life.
Another strategy: imagine if you were a tourist in your own town. What would you find interesting? What would you photograph?
6. Make your photos look like photos
In the time of Alfred Stieglitz, photographers were obsessed with making their photos look like paintings, and other forms of “real art.”
Stieglitz proposed something else: make your photos look like photos:
“My aim is increasingly to make my photographs look so much like photographs [rather than paintings, etchings, etc.] that unless one has eyes and sees, they won’t be seen – and still everyone will never forget having once looked at them.” – Alfred Stieglitz
A lot of photographers during the time of Stieglitz used fancy techniques and methods to blur their photos, obscure them, and make them look more like paintings or conceptual art. Stieglitz encouraged many photographers to have pride in their work:
“Photographers must learn not to be ashamed to have their photographs look like photographs.” – Alfred Stieglitz
Stieglitz also believed that it was fine to post-process your work — but not so much that it would ruin the quality of the photo:
“I do not object to retouching, dodging. or accentuation as long as they do not interfere with the natural qualities of photographic technique.” – Alfred Stieglitz
Not only that, but during Stieglitz’s time — many photographers would argue about what photography was and what it wasn’t. What I love about Alfred Stieglitz is that he was more inclusive than exclusive. He realized that photography meant something different for everyone. He believed in having many different schools, approaches, and methods of shooting photography:
“There are many schools of painting. Why should there not be many schools of photographic art? There is hardly a right and a wrong in these matters, but there is truth, and that should form the basis of all works of art.” – Alfred Stieglitz
Assignment: Don’t call your photos art
As an experiment, change your mindset— don’t think of your photos as “art” — just think of them as photos.
This way you will revel in your ability as a photographer to make photos that look like photos. This will liberate you, encourage you to be more creative with your photography, and not get trapped into any sort of artistic dogma.
7. Be an amateur
Why is it that being called an amateur is an insult? In reality, to be an amateur means to do something we love:
“Let me here call attention to one of the most universally popular mistakes that have to do with photography – that of classing supposedly excellent work as professional, and using the term amateur to convey the idea of immature productions and to excuse atrociously poor photographs. As a matter of fact nearly all the greatest work is being, and has always been done, by those who are following photography for the love of it, and not merely for financial reasons. As the name implies, an amateur is one who works for love; and viewed in this light the incorrectness of the popular classification is readily apparent.” – Alfred Stieglitz
Just because you are a professional doesn’t mean you’re a good photographer. You can take cliche photos of children at a mall, and make a living from it— yet all the photos aren’t very interesting.
Just because you’re a hobbyist, amateur, or dilettante in photography doesn’t mean you’re a bad photographer. Some of the best artists in history didn’t make any money from their art.
Assignment: Remain an amateur forever
Do you love photography? Then you’re an amateur. Don’t worry whether or not you make money from your photography.
Just focus on making the best possible photos that you can. Focus on expressing yourself through your photos. And stay humble and passionate your entire life.
Revel in being an amateur; and call yourself an “amateur” proudly.
8. Remain a child
“The great geniuses are those who have kept their childlike spirit and have added to it breadth of vision and experience.” – Alfred Stieglitz
Children are all born as artists, and have a creative vision. They aren’t trapped by rules, dogma, and restrictions. They don’t follow social norms, and just follow their hearts.
The older we get, the more our inner-child dies (or gets beaten out of us by our parents, our teachers, and other adults).
Assignment: Childlike curiosity + adult experiences
How can you keep your childlike spirit your entire life? And how can you combine it with your adult experiences? This is the secret to life-long creativity, joy, and happiness.
Challenge conventions. Don’t listen to the rules. Figure out the “truth” for yourself. Experiment, have fun, and don’t treat photography like work.
Use your adult-eye to discern your best images, to edit your work, and to publish your work.
Never lose your child-like spirit.
Studying the work and life of Alfred Stieglitz makes me so much more grateful for modern photography. We now do live in a generation and time where photography is treated as a real “art”. Not only that, but we have all the tools necessary to liberate ourselves, and to self-express ourselves.
Let us complain as little as possible, make the best photos given our circumstances in life, and help drive the genre of photography forward.
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