The Phillips Collection recently invited me to speak about my relationship with the museum, how elements of the collection might impact me or effect my art. I was flattered but also a little unsure what I might talk about and whether or not I could add anything to the eloquent words written about their myriad holdings. Add to the fact that an extensive fire shut down the former mansion for a period of time last year, I would have a limited choice of works to highlight.
In truth, there were only two photographs on display throughout the museum when my talk was scheduled; fortunately, they are both works by Alfred Stieglitz and are both remarkable. In the pantheon of great photographers who opened the door to bringing art-world parity to photography there are three that stand out; ironically, they all have last names that start with ‘ST’: Stieglitz, Steichen and Strand. Of the three, it is probably Stieglitz who had the most profound effect on championing this acceptance and who, also, is historically intertwined with Duncan Phillips, the founder of the collection.Through Stieglitz’s Intimate Gallery, his second effort at promoting modern American art in New York, Duncan Phillips purchased several works by American artists that Stieglitz recommended, ushering in a remarkable, long-term business friendship.
Aside from the advent of smaller cameras, faster plates and the sheer notion that the ‘thingness’ of something is sometimes enough to make certain subjects worthy of photographic documentation, I wanted to point out that in choosing what to photograph, a great photographer like Stieglitz knew where to stand. Simplistic as it may sound, the very ability to know where to stand when taking a picture and intelligently framing said photograph, allows good images to become great photographs.
In light of some of the remarkable photographs coming out of Egypt this week, I am as guilty as the next viewer when I forget that certain photography puts the photographer in harm’s way. But knowing where to stand and when to push the shutter are as important as breathing to the great photographers. I often wonder what someone of Stieglitz’s demeanor and proclivities would make of today’s remarkable environment where photography is everywhere and instantaneous.
One of the two Stieglitz images exhibited at The Phillips is ‘The Hand of Man’, a photo of machines taken with a machine. I am not sure if Stieglitz could have taken a much better image — that comments so succinctly on the march of technology — even if he had an iPhone in ‘hand’.