The Steerage


Alfred Stieglitz ( American, 1864 - 1946 )

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General Description

This photogravure print, first published in Camera Work in 1911, captures a moment at sea aboard the ocean liner Kaiser Wilhelm II. While The Steerage is widely misunderstood to represent the immigrant experience and travel to the United States, the route of Kaiser Wilhelm II was from New York to Paris. Overwhelmed by the social discomfort he felt in first-class, prominent American photographer, Alfred Stieglitz escaped to the bow of the ship, where he discovered passengers in the steerage, caught between the gangplank and the upper and lower decks of the ship. Overcome with emotion upon viewing the possible composition of what he believed to be an image composed of perfectly designed shapes, Stieglitz, then perched above the steerage-class passengers, rushed to retrieve his sole prepared plate in an attempt to capture the scene. It would be months until Stieglitz would return to New York and develop his plate, and to his content, realize it would be formative in the history of modern photography. The artist himself considered the image his finest work, stating, "If all my photographs were lost, and I’d be represented by just one, The Steerage, I’d be satisfied." In New York Stieglitz established Camera Work, further raising the standard for photographic magazines in the United States as both editor and publisher, an effort which was largely achieved through his demand for original negatives and photogravure plates. Stieglitz believe the technical and creative skill required to compose and develop a photographic print deserved recognition by artistic circles and critics. Further, he strictly regulated the quality of images published in Camera Work, demanding the gravures be printed on Japanese tissue paper, mounted and then tipped into each issue.