What is modernism?

Modernism was experimentation in art, it was progress and a totally new way of thinking. Anybody could be modernist, ‘Dancers, artists, designers, musicians, architects,  and writers… anybody who wanted to ‘Exit Victorian ways of thought and enter a new way of thinking. Modernism is giving up old ways in pursuit of new methods and avant garde attitudes.’ [3]

Many people couldn’t accept this new form of art because ‘To accept this new art was to accept changes in society in general’ [1] ‘To accept this new art was to accept changes in society in general’ [1]

When was it?

Most historians date the beginnings of Modernism in photography to the Photo-Secession, a movement founded by Alfred Stieglitz in 1902. [4] However, Traces can be seen as early as the 1860’s.

What was before?

In the early 1900’s art was pictorialist in style. Photos were created in soft focus. In contrast to Pictorialism, Modernist photographs were created in sharp focus with lots of detail.

Many photographers, including Ansel Adams and Alfred Stieglitz changed their style of working from pictorialism to modernism when it emerged. Pictorialism made photography look like paintings.

All images by Alfred Stieglitz.

What else was happening?

In 1915 America joined the war against Germany which ended in 1918. After the war, America’s society was changing.

•Women were given the right to vote in 1919-20
•A new president was elected in 1921
• the ‘economic boom’ brought cars and electronics to America in the 1920’s and
• the Great Depression started in 1929.

Alfred Stieglitz

In 1897 to 1903 Stieglitz was the editor of a photographic journal named ‘Camera Notes’ .  Stieglitz published work of photographers that shared his ideas in pictorial photography.

In 1903, Stieglitz and some of his co workers left ‘Camera notes’ to create a new journal for Modernist art named ‘Camera Work’.  Camera work was among the first critical art journals of its time. During this time Stieglitz, with the help of Edward Steichen, opened studio spaces. This space is most commonly known as the 291 galleries. ‘Through these enterprises, Stieglitz supported photographers and other modern American artists, while also apprising artists of the latest developments in early twentieth-century European modernism’ [5]

‘In the eyes of many – it continued to define the high end photography journal, even well into the digital era.’[6]

291 Gallery introduced Americans to the Modernism of painting, sculpture, and especially photography in the work of Stieglitz himself, and his partner, Edward Steichen. [7]

by Alfred Stieglitz

These images prompt the viewer to consider the role of the railroad in contemporary life. [1] These are some of the first images Stieglitz made after changing this style to modernism in 1903.

Edward Steichen

Partner to Albert Stieglitz, Edward Steichen designed the cover for ‘Camera Work’, a journal of which a lot of his modernist work appeared. Steichen brought modernism to fashion. His work, using simplicity, made people feel as though luxury was attainable.

by Edward Steichen

‘Model in a gown by vionnet’ shows clearly the new modern woman in dress, accessory and aesthetic. It is said that this images ‘emphasizes the emerge of modernism in commercial photography.’ [8]

by Edward Steichen

‘Dancer and choreographer desire lubouska wearing a dress of georgette crepe by Patou’  ‘provides a clear example of Steichen’s signature modernist style  of this period.’ ‘The deep shade of her dress contrasts with the lighter colour of the wall behind her, drawing attention to the model and the fashion’ [8]

Photography historian – Catherine Tuggle said ‘Credit for Photography as art cannot be given to anyone but… Steichen.’  Paul Strand also noted that in an interview with Pablo Picasso, Picasso made a point of mentioning Steichen’s name before Stieglitz’ about the modernist movement.

Paul strand

In 1907, Strand’s high school camera club took a field trip to the Stieglitz 291 gallery. This is said to be where Strand feel under the spell of modernism. Stieglitz saw potential in a young Paul Strand but it wasn’t until 1915 when Strand had a breakthrough that Stieglitz saw his real potential. Paul Strand’s ‘work exhibited clean, precise modernist lines.’[1] He experimented within modernism with abstraction and cubism.

By Paul Strand

‘With New York City as his subject he created sharp focus journalistic portraits of street people. This work impressed Stieglitz so much that he devoted his last two issues of Camera Work to this body of work’ [9]

Strand, along with Stieglitz and Ansel Adams were the leading pioneers of Group  F/64 which was formed in 1932. Group F/64 was an ‘international movement reshaping photography in the 20th century.’[1]  and was named after one of the smallest aperture settings of that time. Also because F/64 was the smallest it meant it would produce the sharpest image. ‘Through the work of Stieglitz, Strand and Group F/64, photography gained acceptance.’ [10]

Adams described this photograph of a rose, freshly picked from his mother’s garden, as a visual exploration of the small and commonplace. Photograph by Ansel Adams (left)

The Photograph refuses to judge a man’[12] Photograph by Paul Strand (right)

Ansel Adams

When did you decide to become a photographer?

‘In 1930 I was in Taos, and Paul Strand showed me his negatives. They were so gorgeous, they confirmed my urge, and I said, “That’s it. I want to be a photographer.”

Adams started out as a pictorialist photographer who believed in romanticism in his images. ‘ [13]  After meeting Paul Strand, Adams moved with time from Pictorialism to Modernism and became a big part of the movement by pioneering group F/64 and expressing his images. [13]

By Ansel Adams

(left) – Adams pictorial work

(right) – Adams Modernist work

Where is modernism today?

Modernism can be seen everywhere, It was about expression and experimentation and making photography its own art. Many would argue that the next step has been contemporary art.

Not only are the modern artists of today questioning ‘What is art?’ but also ‘Is science art?’


[1] Ansel Adams and the American Landscape

[2] http://www.tate.org.uk/collections/glossary/definition.jsp?entryId=174

[3] http://www.osnatfineart.com/modernism.jsp

[4] http://www.photographymuseum.com/modernism1.html

[5] http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/stgp/hd_stgp.htm

[6] Edward Steichen – Lives in photography

[7] http://www.humanitiesweb.org/human.php?s=g&p=a&a=i&ID=24

[8] The Modernist Fashion: Steichen’s commercial Photography Between the Wars

[9] Paul Strand and the Birth of Modernism in Photography

[10] Dayton Art Institute

[11] http://www.dia.org/exhibitions/AnselAdams/preview4.asp

[12] Paul Strand Essays on his life and work

[13] http://www.maryellenmark.com/text/magazines/art%20news/905N-000-001.html