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Alfred Stieglitz's 1907 'The Steerage' Photo

Instructor: Ashley Kannan

Ashley has taught history, literature, and political science and has a Master's Degree in Education

Before Titanic's Jack Dawson hung around in steerage class, Alfred Stieglitz took a photograph that 'spoke a thousand words.' Stieglitz's photo was transformative in terms of what art could do and how individuals viewed society. Read on to learn more.

'The Steerage': Background of the Photo

In June 1907, photographer Alfred Stieglitz and his family planned a family vacation sailing to Europe from New York. Stieglitz's wife Emmeline insisted on first-class accommodations aboard the SS Kaiser Wilhelm II. Stieglitz became very bored with 'the mob called the 'rich'' that he saw in first class. On the third day of the voyage, he began to walk about the ship.

He was on the deck of the first-class compartments when he saw something from a distance. He found an opening that allowed him to peer into the conditions of those traveling in steerage. Steerage was considered the lowest class on a boat - the cheapest way to gain passage. It featured cramped conditions and little in way of privacy, and the people who occupied steerage class were poor and mostly immigrants. Stieglitz observed that the passengers in steerage were 'positively packed like cattle.' This was vastly different than what he was experiencing in first class.

Stieglitz observed the scene of life in steerage. At that moment, he ran back to his cabin to grab his camera. He saw the photograph that would mean so much.

The Steerage, 1907
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The Photo and Its Significance

Stieglitz was standing above his view into steerage. He was at an angle where he could see a wide array of people, conditions, and shapes.

Photographic point of view of Stieglitz when taking his famous photo, The Steerage
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He was also able to see different parts related to one another in this moment of life. Stieglitz would later describe the the photo as 'a study in mathematical lines, in balance, in a pattern of light and shade.' He recognized the human experience in seeing people in steerage they way they were, but he also saw 'a picture of shapes' interacting with one another.

'The Steerage' is significant in its ability to capture both aesthetics and history. Stieglitz describes the geometry in his photograph with strict adherence to detail, discussing how he immediately noticed the 'round' nature of the straw hat worn by the man in the upper deck. He also noted the 'circular chains' that held the gangway bridge in place, the cross of the white suspenders, and the angles created by the mast and other round shapes of 'iron machinery.' The convergence of human life with geometric precision fascinated Stieglitz. He recognized that geometric division merged into a 'feeling' he had about photography's ability to capture life.

Stieglitz' Approach to Art: A Significant Shift

The photograph represented a change in how Stieglitz thought about art. Initially, he believed that photography should follow a pictorialist approach and represent beauty. However, 'The Steerage' marked a 'significant shift' in how Stieglitz sought to capture a moment in real life combined with artistic design. He felt that his photograph was 'a study in mathematical lines, in balance, in a pattern of light and shade... a picture of shapes.' As a result, 'The Steerage' was described as 'divided, fragmented, and flattened into an abstract, nearly cubistic design.' From 'The Steerage,' Stieglitz began to embrace a direct approach to photography in which daily life could be art.

Stieglitz saw his own narrative in this collection of 'shapes.' While he had established himself in America's leisured class, he knew what it was like to be an outsider. When Stieglitz was 18, his father moved the family to Germany, where Stieglitz came to love photography. However, he understood what it was like to be different, and he focused on the poor as subjects in the early stages of his entrance into the field in part because he saw their predicament in his own.

An Image of Immigration and Displacement

That feeling of social displacement is a significant part of 'The Steerage' and makes it significant from a historical frame of reference. The photograph became commonly associated with American immigration. Stieglitz understood that within the shapes and designs featured were the collection of people in a 'distant world,' as he would later tell his wife. In capturing this world, his photograph focuses on people who might be marginalized or forgotten.

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