Artist: Alfred Stieglitz
Title: “The Steerage”
Medium: Photogravure, 33.4 × 26.4 cm.
In Alfred Stieglitz’s photo “The Steerage” (1907), we see a scene shot from a passenger ship carrying migrants from New York to Germany. For many theorists, this photograph represents a documentation of migration in a historical era that was characterized by mass migration from Europe to America.
However, given the fact that the photograph depicts the transition of people from America to Germany, for other theoristsis it is a comment on social discrimination. This is because the represented passengers of the ship are in fact migrants from Europe that were deported from America because they didn’t meet certain admission criteria.
Stylistically, the photograph has a distinctive pioneering feature that also supports the aforementioned conception of the photograph. Until that time, photography in general as a medium attempted to imitate the compositions depicted in classical paintings as an attempt by photographers to “prove” their validity as artists. It was only through the immitation of painting that photographers could acquire the status of “artists”.
The pioneering element of Stieglitz’s photograph however, is that he goes beyond that conception of photography by using the distinctive features of the photographic medium. For example by using the angle, the space, and the shapes arround, he shoots in a way that the resulted form is linked to the thematic content of the photograph.
Forexample, in the photograph “The Steerage”, we are confronted with two “spaces”; one above and one below, that represent two different “classes” of people; the rich and the poor.
Besides that, the photograph is divided by the diagonal passageway in the center of the photograph, as if the two “worlds” are distinct and estranged to each other. Another interesting fact is that the staircase on the right side of the image is cut off the frame just before it reaches the “upper” class, as if the “last” chance of reaching the upper side of the picture is finally also prevented.