He’s old, Stieglitz is, when I’m looking at this photograph in my dining room. It’s one hundred and forty-three years since he was born, but he’s still hunched over his desk in his little, crowded gallery like he was when I was born. In this white-framed photograph, isolated from dust and light in the corner of the room, he has not aged or even thought of aging. He is just as one would picture him—white hair, a billowing moustache, the photographer being photographed; he doesn’t look at the camera, the classic, almost now cliché way of making a photograph artistic: don’t center the subject, don’t let their eyes meet the lens. That’s when a snapshot becomes art, at least for some.
He is, of course, in black and white, fitting on this cold December’s day. The sky is a dreary white-gray, the trees are naked and stand like skeletal specters against the dawn. There are no lights on in our house, just the blinds, open, releasing a steady stream of cool rays through the tempered windowpanes. Some manage to ooze across the room as though liquid, as though alive and slithering like a snake until they rear up and throw themselves onto the Stieglitz portrait, giving him a trapezoidal halo of reflected sunlight.
Ansel Adams is the photographer, the cataloguer of the American West. Can you picture it, this photograph being taken? Two giants, one at the end and one at the beginning of their careers, share the medium of black and white in a New York City gallery. I’ve passed by it every day of my life, glancing at it every now and then, staring at it like a museum visitor. And I always see Adams just as clearly as I see Stieglitz. He’s the humble pupil, standing behind his tripod and fiddling with his f/stop and looking bewildered as he focuses his camera, then his own eyes. Having grown up with a photographer in the family, my mother, I have seen firsthand the moment when one’s own vision is not through God-given eyes but through a man-made hunk of metal. No sparks shoot up and out of those orifices; one’s irises do not morph and shapeshift and go through the color spectrum at autobahn speeds until they’ve swarmed to mud. Though my mother’s eyes are dark, so, perhaps…
What is it then, that I see when I look at the Stieglitz who rests in my dining room?—when we eat, when we laugh, when we cry together, he just sits and is quiet; he writes and breathes slowly—he doesn’t look up. The photograph isn’t about Stieglitz, to me; it’s about Adams. It’s about my mother, having her picture taken by her eight-year-old son while walking on a Cape Cod beach. It’s not over for Stieglitz, he’s still Stieglitz, he’s still a giant; it’s not over for my mother, she’s still my mother, a rock, the force that guides the family. But what is she doing being photographed? What is Alfred doing, letting this novice come and take his picture? What is my mother doing, being recorded on film when she could be taking black and whites of the dunes at war with the oncoming tides? There is a passing here, from Stieglitz at his desk to my mother behind the Bronica; they are giving something up to the next generation.
We’re having pancakes on a Sunday morning. The light has died down and Stieglitz’s crown of white hair is not illuminated as ethereally as before. But he beats on with his pen, surrounded by his paintings. There’s probably an O’Keeffe above, just as my mother, who sits beside me, keeps one of my paintings hanging above her desk, a portrait pieced together when I was in preschool. Breakfast ends. I take my dishes by Stieglitz and Adams to go and wash them. Who is aging now? I begin to wonder. Adams isn’t even in the picture, he’s gone completely—to the naked eye he doesn’t exist. Where am I, the little child who crawled about the house? That’s gone too. All that stays is Stieglitz, immortalized on the wall. And my mother, who’s still and will always be my mother. The undying artist kindled and kept burning in the hearts of their progeny.