Stieglitz in the Adirondacks
The celebrated photographer found his focus at Lake George
by Stewart Mitchell
IN HIS FORMATIVE YEARS, Alfred Stieglitz traveled Europe seeking a perfect image that would convene photography and art in a lasting relationship. In the end, the photographs that best defined his art were images that he caught closest to his homes in the Adirondacks and Manhattan. “From Lake George to New York City is not far,” his writer-friend Jean Toomer wrote in 1934, “but from the house that rests upon its earth to the floors of the skyscrapers in which Stieglitz lives in New York, there is a great distance.”
Alfred Stieglitz’s relationship with Lake George began at the age of eight, in August 1872, as the lake started to grow in popularity as a summer resort for New York City elites. By the time he was thirteen, Stieglitz had decided that Lake George was the place he most wanted to live. Initially his family lodged at the Fort William Henry Hotel, the grandest resort on the lake at the time. But in 1886 they purchased Oaklawn, a three-story Victorian summer cottage, on the western shore just north of the village of Lake George, then known as Caldwell. Not long after, to rid the family retreat of the pungent smell of livestock, they also bought a neighboring farm. It was this property that Stieglitz returned to in his later years to produce some of his most memorable images.
A picture taken at Lake George in Stieglitz’s youth made an impression on him that lasted throughout his life. The image, by an unknown photographer, shows an eleven-year-old Stieglitz kneeling and aiming a bow and arrow at an unseen target. In the foreground, his father lies on a grassy hill reading a book. Archery—one of the many sports Stieglitz learned during his time in the Adirondacks, along with swimming, rowing, fishing and tennis —came to represent his aims as an artist. “I soon found that to hit a target was meaningless,” he later recalled. “I wanted to hit the center of the target. . . . That has been my concern when making my photographs, in my contact with the public and in personal relationships.”
Stieglitz photographed Lake George throughout his life, but as he developed as a photographer so too did his images of the farm. As Stieglitz approached fame in the 1890s, the pictures of his Lake George life look almost like family snapshots compared to his famous New York City scenes of trains, ocean liners and skyscrapers, including “The Terminal” (1893), “The Hand of Man” (1902) and “The Steerage” (1907), which show an industrializing society in a realistic yet almost painterly manner. “[H]is motifs were considered inappropriate for artistic treatment in photography even though Realist and Impressionist painters in Europe had been dealing with similar material for over forty years,” according to A World History of Photography by Naomi Rosenblum. Eventually he would succeed in demonstrating that photography could be more than just a tool for capturing history, and he became the first photographer collected by American art museums. However, his early photographs of Lake George, Celeste Connor suggests in her book Democratic Visions: Art and Theory of the Stieglitz Circle 1924–1934, lack the emotion that he would later attach to the subject.
Sometime between 1910 and 1915, shortly before Stieglitz met a muse and lover in painter Georgia O’Keeffe, he underwent a remarkable transformation. A jack of many trades, he had been so engrossed in promoting the work of other modernist photographers and artists that a prominent collector of the time reportedly identified him as “a former photographer.” As an arts impresario, Stieglitz edited Camera Work, among other periodicals, and ran the 291 Gallery and Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession. He organized the first one-man exhibitions held in the United States by such important European artists as Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, as well as shows by avant-garde American artists and photographers.
It could be argued that Stieglitz took a step back and evaluated his position in the art world before reemerging as a different type of photographer. He later reflected that in his campaign to have photography recognized as an art form he might have lost sight of something more important. “There was too much thought of art, too little of photography,” he told fellow photographer Paul Strand in a letter. on new years day 1914 stieglitz turned fifty years old. This was the beginning of the most remarkable chapter of his long and notable life. “He seems to have been rescued,” John Szarkowski, director emeritus of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department, writes in Alfred Stieglitz at Lake George, “perhaps partly by disillusion, and he was freed to redirect his energies toward a new conception of an art of photography.”
Stieglitz started photographing only people and objects he knew well. He used his camera to capture his friends, his land, his lake, even clouds, and soon the dark-eyed O’Keeffe, whom he met when she was an aspiring avant-garde artist in 1916 and married in 1924. He studied familiar people and objects on an almost scientific level. As his friend Jean Toomer put it, “He seems to know by intuition what is his and what is not. Stieglitz must have found the places on this Earth which belonged to him; and he must have recognized that he belonged to them.”
The Hill, as Stieglitz affectionately called the Lake George farm, became an annual retreat that rejuvenated the aging artist. The farm came to represent all that he held dear, including memories, family and social contacts. He often photographed the main house, guest house and barn. “The Lake is perhaps my oldest friend,” he wrote in 1924 to the author Sherwood Anderson. “What Days and nights we’ve had together. On and in and every which way. Calm beautiful hours. Mad ecstatic ones—Dream hours—Hours and days of quiet wonder. Ever the same lake and hills, never a moment of deadness.”
Beginning in the early 1920s, photographs from the Hill show the development of Stieglitz’s relationship with the place. “Although they seem at first to present neutral views,” Connor writes, “the landscape works were intended and, on close inspection, appear in fact to be highly individualized moments in a private history.”
One of those moments is captured in “Apples and Gable, Lake George” (1922). With the branches of an apple tree in the foreground, Stieglitz shows the farmhouse from the eye of someone familiar with his subject. The patterns of the house’s siding and eaves are emphasized by the texture of the glistening fruit. The photograph supports Szarkowski’s notion that as Stieglitz aged he came to accept Lake George as one of his greatest teachers. “These seem pictures made by a photographer who had finally and painfully learned bravery,” Szarkowski writes.
That bravery is reflected in “Moon” (circa 1926). Many people in the Adirondacks know what it is to saunter from a main road down a winding unpaved driveway toward a family camp, but Stieglitz was the first to translate that experience effectively into a photograph: a slight breeze rustling through tall grass, the scent of mountain air and a perfect moon creeping overhead. With an open and a close of his lens, he illustrated that timeless feeling. Stieglitz’s second wife, the artist Georgia O’Keeffe, is perhaps the photographer’s best-known subject. He made striking portraits of her, at least three hundred over the course of their relationship. As Szarkowski implies, this love affair was partly responsible for the revitalization of Stieglitz’s artistic energies. “Georgia O’Keeffe” (1931), which was taken in the driveway of their Lake George home, depicts the painter in her own car but inside Stieglitz’s environment. The car may have been included as a way for Stieglitz to depict the slipping grasp he had on the much younger O’Keeffe, who early on spent summer months with him at Lake George but by 1931 had begun a yearly solo commute to paint in New Mexico. “In the late, great pictures of O’Keeffe in her car [she is] liberated, ready to drive off, safe in her machine,” Szarkowski writes. O’Keeffe preferred to work in solitude, away from the family and friends who frequented Lake George, but she did return to the lake occasionally; her last visit was in 1946, to bury her husband’s ashes at the foot of a tree near the shore.
Just as Stieglitz’s image of O’Keeffe about to embark on her westward journey helps explain his complex relationship with her, portraits such as “Richard” (1931) and “Georgia O’Keeffe: A Portrait—with Donald Davidson” (1924), help illustrate his friendships. Although the viewer doesn’t know Richard, Georgia or Donald personally, Stieglitz points his lens in a way that catches their personalities. These are the pictures that we all want to take. These are not portraits of strangers, but images of friends whom it took Stieglitz a lifetime to know.
If there was any subject that Stieglitz labored to understand more than O’Keeffe, it was the clouds that drifted over the long and narrow lake. Stieglitz’s Equivalent series of black-and-white studies of cloud patterns, which he began in 1922 and continued to shoot until he put down his camera in 1937, at age seventy-three, was his way of tracking something he knew well but at the same time could never fully understand since the patterns were forever changing. Stieglitz gave many reasons for photographing clouds, but one stands out: In 1923, before he started calling the pictures Equivalents, he said he was documenting his own life philosophy, according to Szarkowski.
Stieglitz likely understood his life to be a revolving dance between himself and the people and things that he knew but wished to know better. He used photography to capture, study and understand everything he loved about life—his wife, his apple tree, the path to his summer retreat. As Stieglitz aged he realized it was the things he knew well, the things close to him and his Lake George home, that he wanted to better comprehend and appreciate. And, as he once put it, the lake was perhaps his oldest friend. Stewart Mitchell is a summer resident of Hague, on Lake George.