Stieglitz, in Sharp Focus : The Photographer's Grand-Niece and Biographer Provides Personal Insights to His Work in Current Getty Exhibition


Among the many writers who have attempted to come to terms with master photographer Alfred Stieglitz, perhaps none have portrayed him more accurately as both an artist and a human being then his own grand-niece, Sue Davidson Lowe, who spent more than two decades of summers with him at the Stieglitz family estate on Lake George, N.Y.

In 1983, Lowe published "Stieglitz: A Memoir/Biography," based on 10 years of research, including invaluable insights from family and friends. Now 72, the writer will discuss her memories and interpretations and show slides from her own collection tonight at the Getty in conjunction with the museum's exhibition "Alfred Stieglitz: Seen and Unseen."

"My perception of the Stieglitz photography is inevitably different. Since I grew up with the images, I see them in a different way," says Lowe, speaking on the phone recently from her home in Connecticut. For example, she has questioned the spiritual interpretations of Stieglitz's photographs of clouds, which he called "Equivalents," many of which are included in the Getty show.

"I think it was more of a pastime for him," Lowe says. "My suspicion is that he wrote grandiloquently about taking cloud pictures and said they'd given him a sense of his spiritual relationship, but once it was in print, it was frozen. He was not good at saying he'd made a mistake, so his instinct was to embellish it. And people were convinced because he was such a fascinating speaker."

Interest in Stieglitz's work has been especially strong recently. To date, the Getty has bought 190 of his photographs, making its holdings second only to those of the National Gallery, which owns the complete set of 1,600 prints bequeathed by the artist, who died in 1945.

Many previously unseen photographs are being exhibited and published for the first time. The Getty show in Malibu, curated by Weston Naef, is only one of three shows of the artist's work being seen this season. New York's Museum of Modern Art is currently presenting "Alfred Stieglitz at Lake George," and "Alfred Stieglitz's Camera Notes," organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, will make its only West Coast stop at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in March.

In particular, the artist's relationship with his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe, never loses interest for scholars and other enthusiasts; Lowe's interpretations of his innumerable photographs of the painter differs from that of others in the field, however.

"It depresses me to see how many of his photographs of her are in a minor key. The fact was that from 1918 to 1922, when he was doing most of the nudes, he was still using cameras and film that required long poses. You cannot pose anybody for more than a minute and make them smile without it looking totally artificial. So almost all the images are serious. Almost any image of her smiling he considered a snapshot. But it distorts what their relationship was because according to those who knew them, and my own recollections, there was a twinkly attraction that was obvious. You don't think of them as giggling, but they giggled an awful lot. These things are lost in the photographs.

"I think he managed to extract an intensity from his sitters that was extremely unusual, and that was influential," Lowe continues. "He certainly established contact in a way that many portraitists before him did not. He was accused of hypnotizing people who sat for him."

Lowe, who was once married to the late theater and television producer David Lowe, has had a varied career as theater producer herself, as well as an actor, translator, editor, speech writer, landscape designer and most recently, managing trustee of the (Piet) Mondrian Estate/Holtzman Trust. She is also a mother, and when her only daughter left for college in 1970, it was she who suggested that her mother compile her memories of the "crazy Stieglitz family." Publishers suggested she turn the material into a biography.

"The purpose of the book was to try and make him into a human being with more dimension. The more I think about him, the more I think of more questions," she adds. "I think he was interested in the truth. But he did not know himself as much as he tried to. It can mislead somebody because he made so many pronouncements. One doesn't know how much he romanticized. It was an advantage and disadvantage in [writing] the biography that he talked about himself so much.

"In a way, this show helps to round out Stieglitz, something he was reluctant to do because he put this somber stamp on his work. It is one reason I appreciate the MOMA show, too," she says. Referring to previously unexhibited images of a bulky young woman in a clinging, wet bathing costume that is included in both the Getty and the MOMA shows, she adds, "I find the pictures of Ellen Koeniger on the comic side. This is not an old man lusting after young flesh. I respond to those pictures with giggles and I sense that they were produced with giggles. I find that heartening."

* Sue Davidson Lowe will speak at the J. Paul Getty Auditorium at 8 tonight. Reservations for the event are filled. "Alfred Stieglitz: Seen and Unseen" continues at the museum through Jan. 7.

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