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The Steerage

Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864-1946)

The Steerage, 1907

  • Photogravure
  • 15 7/8 x 11 1/16 in. (40.4 x 28.1 cm)
  • The Jewish Museum, New York
  • Purchase: Mr. and Mrs. George Jaffin Fund, 2000-6
  • © 2008 Georgia O'Keefe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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The Steerage

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The Steerage

The Steerage epitomizes Alfred Stieglitz’s straightforward style of photography, which emphasizes clarity of detail and photography’s ability to capture reality. Taken on a large ship bound for Paris, the photograph is evenly divided between the upper, or first-class, and lower, or steerage, decks of the ship, separated by the sharp diagonal of the suspended walkway. Both decks are crowded with people: Stieglitz was traveling on the top deck, which was populated with well-off leisure travelers; the steerage level below held lower-class immigrants returning to Europe. The question remains as to whether the immigrants are being forcibly returned to Europe by the United States government—as many were for reasons of disease, "poor moral health," or lack of financial support in the States—or if they are returning of their own accord, disillusioned with the country they had believed would change their fate.

Notice the juxtaposition of circular shapes with straight lines, and the balanced composition bisected by the white walkway, or the intersecting diagonals that lead the eye in several directions at once. This photograph typifies Stieglitz’s dual interests in modernity and formal harmony, in this case played out through the saga of American immigration.

Alfred Stieglitz began his photographic career as a student in Germany in 1883. Although he was born in New Jersey, Stieglitz moved with his family to Germany in 1881. He returned to the United States in 1890 and became active in the New York photography scene. Through the galleries he founded, the journals he edited, and the exhibitions he organized, Stieglitz helped elevate the technical art of photography to the status of painting and sculpture. He also did much to advance the careers of many young artists, as well as the field of modern art in general.