More than anyone else, Alfred Stieglitz helped raise the status of photography to the level of art. As a photographer, publisher and gallery owner, Stieglitz was a key figure in the birth of American modernism. His own status as an arbiter of taste in photography was bolstered by his uncanny knack for quickly recognizing the greatness of artists working in other media. He was the first gallery owner in America to exhibit Picasso, Matisse, Brancusi and other great figures in modern art. As the narrator of this fascinating 1999 documentary puts it, Stieglitz opened the eyes of America to the 20th century.
Alfred Stieglitz: The Eloquent Eye was directed by Perry Miller Adato for the PBS American Masters series, and builds on his earlier documentary work on Stieglitz’s widow, the painter Georgia O’Keefe. Having shot many reels of film showing O’Keefe talking about Stieglitz, Adato was a natural choice to direct a full-length documentary on Stieglitz. As he told PBS in an interview:
We knew we had an ace up our sleeve–unique, invaluable, never-seen film footage of Georgia O’Keeffe speaking about Alfred Stieglitz. In 1980, at the request of O’Keeffe herself, I had flown to New Mexico with a small film crew and interviewed the artist at great length about Stieglitz.. On camera in her home, her garden and her studio, she speaks frankly and intimately, her reminiscences salted with her dry humor. O’Keeffe talks about Alfred Stieglitz–the student, the man, the photographer, the pioneer in the introduction of avant-garde European art to America, the defender of struggling young American modern artists; her own views on the artists of the famed “Stieglitz circle” and of their life together. This film, rare during her lifetime, became unique after her death in 1986. The 1980 project for a film about Stieglitz using this footage was never realized. For 19 long years, eight large flat reels of 16mm film (work-print and synced mag track) lay buried in the storage room of my house in Westport, CT. Buried, but not entirely forgotten.
The documentary is rounded out by interviews with leading Stieglitz scholars and museum curators. Adato told PBS he was confident the film would help reawaken interest in Stieglitz, whose fame in recent decades has been overshadowed by that of O’Keefe. “It will help to restore his rightful place in the history of 20th century art and culture,” he said. “We hope that the program will also reveal Stieglitz as a charismatic, complex and fascinating individual ‘whose idealism wrestled with his human frailties.'”