291 — The Little Gallery that Caught the Light
In the winter of 1905, a small gallery opened on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The gallery was not easy to reach. Visitors had to ride a rickety elevator, then trudge down the hall to find two cloistered rooms, dimly lit. There on olive-drab walls were a few dozen photographs. Photographs as art?
But Alfred Stieglitz was on a mission. New Jersey born, to the manor raised, Stieglitz had been a student in Germany when he saw his first camera. Bigger than a bread box, the camera was a strange contraption — lenses, shutters, accordion-like leather folds. Stranger still was the darkroom. “I wanted to know what went on in those mysterious places,” he remembered. Photography “fascinated me, first as a toy, then as a passion, then as an obsession.”
Victorians had made peace with photography. Painting had moved beyond realism to Impressionism. The first daguerreotypes had evolved into prim portraits for the well-heeled. Every city had a handful of photography studios. Then in 1902, Kodak introduced the “Brownie” camera. Suddenly. . .
No more glass plates. No more smelly chemicals or costly papers coated in silver or platinum. You didn’t even need a tripod. And get this! The first Kodaks had to be mailed — the entire camera — to the factory to develop the film. But with the Brownie, you took the film RIGHT OUT OF THE CAMERA! And sent it off! Two weeks later, your “snapshots” were in your mailbox. There they were in gray and white. Your wife at Coney Island. Your dog. Your cat. Your life. Millions of Brownies were sold, so how could photography be art?
Lighting, please. Camera? Millions had seen New York City in winter. Here’s how Alfred Stieglitz saw it.
Everyone had seen light reflecting on rain-slicked streets. Who had seen it like this?
Yet as the new century unfolded, art was art and photographs were, well, a snap. “Mr. Stieglitz,” demanded the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “you won’t insist that a photograph can possibly be a work of art!” When Mr. Stieglitz did insist, the director called him a “fanatic.” Stieglitz pressed on.
In 1902, the year the Brownie hit the market, Stieglitz and two dozen photographers who called themselves “artists” formed the Photo-Secession. Their goal was lofty: “We are searching for the ultimate truth. . . We believe that if only people are taught to appreciate the beautiful side of their daily existence, to be aware of all the beauty which constantly surrounds them, they must gradually approach this ideal. For beauty is the ultimate truth, and truth means freedom.”
The Photo-Secession held modest shows in modest halls. Almost no one came. No more shows. They would need a gallery of their own. When member Edward Steichen offered Stieglitz two rooms of his apartment, The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession opened to the public. The address — 291 Fifth Avenue, became the gallery’s name — 291.
Over the next four years, 291 brought American art out of the Victorian era and into the 20th century. Along with photos, the gallery gave Americans their first look at Europe’s freshest artists, including sketches by Rodin, watercolors by Matisse, and sleek sculptures by Brancusi. Critics scoffed but art’s avant-garde was enthralled. By the time 291 became 293, moving next door, photography was being shown at the Met. Stieglitz, Steichen and others were regarded as artists. And young artists had seen the future.
Among the 50,000 who filed through 291 was an art student named Georgia O’Keeffe. She would later be the subject of Stieglitz photos taken, she said, with “a kind of heat.” Still later they married. But in 1908, she was most impressed by his passion for art. “I very well remember the fantastic violence of Stieglitz’s defense when the students began talking with him about the drawings. I had never heard anything like it.”
Today, digital photography makes the Brownie seem ancient. Camera? Flash bulb? Wait weeks to see photos? Smart phones make photography simpler than a snap, and it has been estimated that more photos are now taken each day than were taken in the 19th century. Images are everywhere, and nowhere.
But imagine. . . It’s 1905, a snowy day. You take the rickety elevator. You walk down the hall. You see the photographs. You look at them, look, look. . . And when you descend to the street, you see them again. There is the snow. There is the horse drawn carriage. There is the light, the beauty, the “ultimate truth,” just as Alfred Stieglitz and friends captured it in photographs, in art, at 291.