Some Teachable Ironies about the Alfred Stieglitz Photo The Steerage (1907), on the Cover of The Heath Anthology of American Literature, 3/e, Volume 2

by Peter B. Harris

During the first half of this century, Alfred Stieglitz was America's most vigorous and persuasive champion of photography as an art form. He kept battering at the partition between fine art and what, to many, seemed the far too easily mastered practice of taking pictures. To this day, photography exhibits tend to be in the basement of museums, but better there than nowhere, and thanks in no small part to Stieglitz.

He also promoted, through his gallery and his avant-garde circle in New York, many artists associated with international and American modernism in both painting and photography, including Georgia O'Keeffe, who became his second wife. Stieglitz's legacy also includes his brilliant photographs, including The Steerage, on the cover of volume 2 of the new Heath. It was his favorite, so much so that he once wrote, "If all my photographs were lost, and I were represented only by The Steerage, that would be quite all right."

Why would a person of such daunting connoisseurship be tempted to such hyperbolic partiality? Why did one hastily composed photograph of working-class people on the lower decks of an ocean liner seem to him the redemptive epitome of his life's work? An attempt to answer these questions delivers us into the contraries at the heart of a very complex fellow. And also into thematic tensions that run throughout American experience and literature.

For Stieglitz, The Steerage encodes a class-A epiphany. By 1907 Stieglitz, already enabled by a high-powered German education, had married an heiress whose wealth made it unnecessary for him to do conventional work and, therefore, freed him to promote photography and modern art. Sailing, as he said, at his wife's insistence--on the fashionable Kaiser Wilhelm II--he soon become heartily sick of the atmosphere in first class. What he hated, though, was not so much the wealth and privilege but the insufficiently knowing display of it--"the 'nouveaux riches.'" Altogether too many unsinkable Molly Browns.

On day three at sea, he went forward for a walk and found a place on the edge of the first-class deck that allowed him to look across at a lower class and also down into the lowest class, steerage. He was thunderstruck by the convergence of significant form and content. The geometry of the scene, particularly the empty gangway that went over the heads of the people on the lowest deck, and the arrangement of the people, particularly the man in the straw hat and the mother with child, summed up, as he said, "the feeling I had about life."

The most immediate and pragmatic question that faced Stieglitz is one that has faced many a writer in the Heath: "should I try to put down the seeming new visions that held me--people, the common people . . . the feeling of release that I was away from the mob called the rich." The answer was, of course, "Yes." He ran to get his camera, returned, and since there wasn't a whole lot to do in steerage, everybody was still there when he got back; nonetheless, it seemed a miracle to him that he was able to return in time to take what he, and many others, considered to be the photograph of his life.

Whether it is or not is a moot question. But The Steerage does imply a great deal about Stieglitz's self estrangement and his desire to heal, evade, or mediate it through art. There are ironies and binarisms aplenty here. The view he discovered on his stroll delivered him into, and gave him a sense of release from, some of the deepest tensions in his life. The picture, because of its strong sense of formal design and the presence of the proletariat, brought high and low art into momentary relationship. When he first looked at the scene, he thought of Rembrandt, another artist who sometimes chose common people as his subjects, even, on occasion, Jews.

Like many a Jew of German extraction at that time, Stieglitz was uncomfortable with his ethnicity and even identified Jewishness as what was most vexing about him, "the key to my impossible makeup." Yet there in the center of The Steerage is a woman wearing a shawl, striped like a tallith, or Jewish prayer garb. It would have been highly unusual for a Jewish woman of that day to wear tallith, yet perhaps the resemblance of her shawl to the garb of an observant Jew may have contributed to his identifying the scene with his sense of real "life," at least seen from above, at the remove of altitude, lens, religious identifications, and class. As Benita Eisler points out, Stieglitz, unlike his protege Paul Strand, always photographed the poor from a distance rather than close-up. And like, for example, Hamlin Garland's protagonist in "Up the Coule," Stieglitz, in The Steerage--figuratively, at least--returns to his origins, identifies them as somehow central to his deeper life, but also exploits them as material for rejuvenating his art.

Certainly one of the central reasons for the continuing appeal of this photograph is that it iconizes the great drama of emigration to America. It's hard not to be touched by the grave bearing and the gritty dignity of people we suppose are about to land on Ellis Island. If invited to speculate, we, and our students, might guess that the figures in The Steerage are buoyed up by a sense of promise but weighed down by a sense of uncertainty about the future and, perhaps, with a sense of grief over abandoning their culture and their homelands. But if we did so guess, we might be right in general but wrong in this particular case. Perhaps the most instructive irony of all connected to this photograph is one that implicates not just Stieglitz but us. It concerns the direction of the ship. It's headed east, back to Europe! The people in this photograph are part of the tens of thousands of reemigrants. By some accounts as many as 17 percent of immigrants returned home. While the great majority of Jews, Irish, Germans, and Scandinavians who came to the United States stayed, other ethnic groups were less willing to call it home. Among men, while only 4.3 percent and 8.9 percent of Jews and Irish, respectively, returned to their homelands, 45.6 percent of Italians, 51.9 percent of Spanish, and 65 percent of Russians took the same trip that Stieglitz captures so memorably.

In the era of cultural studies, The Steerage may help our students see that photography, no less than literature, is a medium that invites everyone's projections and constructions. When we know that the chic Kaiser Wilhelm II was leaving the Promised Land, Stieglitz's photograph changes. Suddenly, we look at the scene and wonder if the travelers had become discouraged and homesick in the face of American loneliness, or if they had been defeated, or just disgusted at the excesses and inequities of capitalism.

And as for Stieglitz himself, students might be instructed to know that he may have identified so deeply with this scene in part because, as a child, he had also been uprooted to make this reemigrant trip, albeit under different circumstances. His pro-German family, having made their fortune in America, returned to Berlin so that young Alfred could have a proper German education. In his later years, Stieglitz ran a gallery called The American Place designed specifically to support American artists. But this nationalism concealed the fact that, at some level, he always felt estranged or mid-Atlantic, neither German nor Jewish nor entirely American. And nothing more poignantly expressed those tensions than the picture he took looking down into classes removed from him but, nonetheless, expressing his sense of the essence of life.

Peter B. Harris is Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at Colby College. He writes the Poetry Chronicle for The Virginia Quarterly Review and is the author of a book of poems, Blue Hallelujahs.

Heath Anthology