Framing in Alfred Stieglitz’s “The Steerage” by Eva Morgan

As this semester at Cornell University begins, we at HAMS are getting excited about beginning to select works of art to display in our show in April.  We have already met three times and we have begun to discuss the theme of the exhibition in great detail: framing.

To me, the idea of “framing” is one that is intrinsic to every great piece of art.  An artists’ ability to arrange his subjects or position his angle a certain way is one that not only has a great effect on the emotions and experience of the observer, but is a quality that separates good art from excellent art.  As we have observed over the past few weeks, the way a work is framed can have as much (if not more) impact on the overall effect of a piece as the subject matter itself.

Last week, we came across a piece which stuck out to me as being an exceptional example of framing.  It was Alfred Stieglitz’s The Steerage, a 1907 photograph depicting the departure of a steamer from the New York Harbor.  On first glance, it is easy to distinguish between two parts of the photograph: the upper deck and the steerage.  Stieglitz framed the photo in such a manner as to highlight the difference between the two.  The classes are separated first and foremost by the physical boundaries of the ship.  A railing and height holds the upper class above the lower, emphasized by a boarding dock which juts out from the upper deck, extending the barrier between the groups out of the frame of the picture.  The position of the subjects also emphasizes the difference between the two groups.  While the upper class looks alternately out of the camera or down on the lower class, the steerage passengers face away from the camera.

Alfred Stieglitz took this photograph in 1907, but failed to develop it until 1915.  Now, it has become renown as a great piece of art, not only because of its value as a photograph but because it represents one of the first respected works of modern photography.  Married to the painter Georgia O’Keefe, Stieglitz spent a large portion of his life (1864-1946) justifying and establishing photography as an acceptable art form.  He is well known not only for his own additions to the field, but for the many galleries he ran in New York City which brought to light the talent of several American and European photographers.  We are very lucky to have this piece in the Johnson’s permanent collection.

By Eva Morgan, Class of 2016

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September 26, 2013 · 1:34 pm

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