by Alex Novak
Weighing in at over 20 pounds and sporting its own carrying case as well as slip case, the new Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set, Volumes One and Two, by the National Gallery of Art's Sarah Greenough, Julia Thompson and others from the NGA staff is one of the most astounding pieces of research work ever done in the photography field. Published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., this massive and beautifully printed book is a deep well of information on Stieglitz and his circle. The list price is $150, but it is already being discounted to $105, which is a great price.
There is so much information here to absorb. Greenough takes you from Stieglitz's earliest years as a young amateur to his last years as a photographer. As is common with academics, sometimes Greenough's footnotes provide the most interest and poignancy, as, for example, when she briefly quotes a Stieglitz letter near the end of his life to Edward Weston: "The Dead Poplars are really a Self Portrait."
While Greenough's beginning essay is generally masterful and well written, I can not help but wonder why the other women in Stieglitz's life got such short shift, while Georgia O'Keefe, who was the donor of the "Key Set" (the largest single collection of Stieglitz's work, selected especially by Stieglitz himself), got such an overwhelmingly positive and sympathetic portrayal. While I realize that--as Sarah notes--Stieglitz apparently eliminated some images in the Key Set that might offend O'Keefe, there is still enough here to draw attention to Stieglitz's other affairs. Even Dorothy Norman, one of several important affairs that Stieglitz maintained, is dismissed with words like "far more worshipful and willing" than the "passive and resigned" (at that point) O'Keefe. Stieglitz's often-difficult relationships with the women in his life are somehow submerged here. His nude and seductive pictures of many of the women he had torrid affairs with, his very young relatives and even his friends' wives are scandalous even today, and yet are rarely commented upon by Greenough and group except in the most innocent of context.
This is perhaps only a minor negative note though, when one sets it against the rest of the fine article and the nearly 1,700 perfectly printed and documented images that follow. The bibliography, list of exhibitions of Stieglitz's own work, a chronology of processes and techniques by Stieglitz, and another essay on his portfolios by Thompson just add to the wealth of riches in this book. When--on top of all of this--you factor in the references on where other copies of specific images are currently, the obvious years of efforts seem all very worthwhile. Kudos to Greenough and the National Gallery of Art staff.
Novak has over 42 years experience in the photography-collecting arena. He is a long-time member and formally board member of the Daguerreian Society, and, when it was still functioning, he was a member of the American Historical Photographic Society. He organized the 2016 19th-century Photography Show and Conference for the Daguerreian Society. He is also a long-time member of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers. Novak has been a member of the board of the nonprofit Photo Review, which publishes both the Photo Review and the Photograph Collector, and is currently on the Photo Review's advisory board. He was a founding member of the Getty Museum Photography Council. He is author of French 19th-Century Master Photographers: Life into Art.
Novak has had photography articles and columns published in several newspapers, the American Photographic Historical Society newsletter, the Photograph Collector and the Daguerreian Society newsletter. He writes and publishes the E-Photo Newsletter, the largest circulation newsletter in the field. Novak is also president and owner of Contemporary Works/Vintage Works, a private photography dealer, which sells by appointment and at exhibit shows, such as AIPAD New York and Miami, Art Chicago, Classic Photography LA, Photo LA, Paris Photo, The 19th-century Photography Show, etc.