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Camera Work

Whether a watercolor is inferior to an oil [painting], or whether a drawing, an etching, or a photograph is not as important as either, is inconsequent. To have to despise something in order to respect something else is a sign of impotence.

– Paul Strand, Camera Work, 1917

Photography hasn’t always been considered an art. In early days, photographs were considered an advance of science, not art. Cameras were machines, and everyone knew that machines didn’t make art; people made art. But when Alfred Stieglitz made this picture he was leading a movement called Pictorialism, which promoted the photograph as art, the same kind of art as a drawing or painting. Stieglitz and other Pictorialists understood that a photograph was created when the camera was used as a tool, like a paintbrush was a tool. And they tried to show that they were a part of the art tradition by manipulating their photos in the darkroom, using tricks and techniques that were evidence of the human hand in the process.

Given that history, the title of this photo has two meanings. The steam engine was a human invention that had huge impact – not all of it good – on the landscape and on people’s lives. And this photograph was made by the hand of man, no mistake about it. The soft-focus effects and the romantic atmosphere were the results of handwork on the print after the film came out of the camera.

There are other references to the world of art in this photograph. Stieglitz was very involved in the modern art scene and had closely followed the Impressionist movement in Europe. Impressionists were some of the first artists to look to the city as a worthy subject for their paintings, and it was a new city they looked at. Machines and all things modern in the city were desirable subjects. At the same time, Impressionists represented these modern scenes in stop-motion glimpses, with plenty of atmosphere. European painters chose the steam engine as a subject and a symbol of the modern city. Stieglitz would embrace the city as his subject too, but he would use photography as his medium.

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Minneapolis Institute of Arts