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Abbott and Stieglitz

Japanese Prints

Alfred Stieglitz said the Flat-iron building “appeared to be moving toward me like the bow of a monster steamer–a picture of a new America still in the making.” (American Visions, Robert Hughes, 1997) For New Yorkers the Fuller building, nicknamed the Flat-iron because of its shape, was a symbol of a new, modern America. People either loved it or hated it. Contrasted with the natural shape of the tree and bathed in snow and evening light, the building is an element of quiet beauty in a photograph of soft tones and simple shapes.

The building and the tree form silhouettes, like cut-outs overlapping one on top of the other. This flattening of space comes from the influence of Japanese wood-block prints that were all the rage with modern artists of the time. Other clues that point to the influence of Japanese prints are the crescent of snow in the crook of the tree (the same tone as the building), and the tiny figure on the park bench. Humans were often dwarfed by mountains and rocks in Japanese prints; in New York, buildings do the job of making people seem tiny.

Stieglitz argued that photographers dealt with the same concerns that modern painters considered. Translating the influence of Japanese prints from painting and printmaking to photography was both a modern and an artistic thing to do.


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Minneapolis Institute of Arts