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  • Writer's pictureEric Baillies

Exploring and sharing what made Photography an art form.

he other week a local artist, and photographer, Mark Weller was commenting on how he gets a lot of inspiration for his signature time stacking photographs from paintings of Georgia O'keefe. I said to Mark, would you like to join me in seeing what was responsible for making Photography and art form? His post triggered my memory of wanting to go to see a very special collection of the publication Camera Work, by Alfred Stieglitz, at UW's Special Collections Library.

The UW has a pristine collection of volumes 1-49, which were partially donated by Dr. Martin Sukov. The condition is near mint, due to the fact they were bound 5 issues at a time. The publications are extremely fragile, holding delicate photogravures often on Japanese rice paper along with real tipped in photographs. A real treat to see in person!

For those that may not know, Georgia O'keefe was married to Alfred Stieglitz and through his publication is largely what made him responsible for making photography an art form. Stieglitz promoted O'keefe's work in his gallery and even have a book- (My Faraway One) documenting their correspondence from over 5000 love letters over 25,000 pages!

Of course today, anything can be considered an art, but back at the turn of the century as photography began to gain popularity through the advent of gelatin dry plates (1871), celluloid film (1889) and Kodak's brownie camera (1900) the admission and inclusion of photography as art into the galleries and art salons became controversial. "Where is the art the critics asked, when all you do is press a button."

Alfred Stieglitz at his New York gallery, Gallery 291 (1905-1917) (along with his publication Camera Work began the Photo Successionist (1902) movement which later became the Pictorialist. Through these works in which Steiglitz selected were using 19th Century techniques to be able to emphasis the hand in the production of the images.

After looking through 20 of the 49 publications of Camera Work on file at UW's Special Collections library (all i had time to see in 3 hours!). I've been reflecting on what art is and how viewing this publication has me thinking about my own work.

Art to me is not simply something you hang on your wall or set on a corner counter. To me art is life, and what you choose to do or don't do can be art. Actions taken, words spoken, a series of body movements, or even just looking into ones eyes (Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present) can and do effect outward impacting one another for good or bad is in essence, that what is art.

Photography of course is simply a medium to use as a tool or act to express ones art. Just as words are to a poet, or paint to a painter. With art, like in life, there are risks, and in the end the reward is knowing that sharing it with others can create space and opportunities to connect.

With that I wanted to thank Mark for joining me and for the UW's Special Collections for making this collection available and finally for all of those who have inspired me and taught me about their art.

Here is what Mark had to say about his experience -

"Over my one shoulder I could feel the presence of Alfred Stieglitz with his considerable influence in promoting photography as an art form. On my other shoulder a woman who I consider a neighbor in that she was born down the road from where I write this (she in Sun Prairie, me in Waunakee) who - by-the-way – merely influenced modern art and rose to become perhaps more famous and influential than Stieglitz: Georgia O’Keeffe. Talk about a power couple! What brought these two icons to visit my consciousness? I made a photograph that was the result of my admiration of O’Keeffe; a macro of a flower with erotic overtures similar to many of O’Keeffe’s famous large flower paintings. That caught the attention of Eric who invited me to tag along on a field trip to the Special Collections Library on the University Wisconsin campus. There I was introduced to Stieglitz’s Camera Work, starting with the initial editions from the early 1900s and hopscotching through the years. Here was the early argument and proof that photography was an art… and I was holding it in my hand. The images were stunning: a debonaire gentleman that would put James Bond to shame; a winter landscape that could have easily been taken in my native Wisconsin. And the trash talk. Stieglitz was in no mood to suffer any fool that disagreed with him. So here we are, 100 years later. And now I practice a respected art form and try to occasionally emulate a great painter and seek self-fulfillment by using my camera and she used a brush. Oh, the echoes, oh the satisfaction, oh the history. What a delightful way to idle a summer afternoon.

Do go and check out Mark's work at his website, facebook and instagram.

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