"A new vision... the feeling of ship and ocean and sky"
In early June of 1907, bound for Europe with his family aboard the fashionable Kaiser Wilhelm II, Stieglitz witnessed this scene of the “common people” on the decks below. Longing to escape the insufferable atmosphere of all the “nouveaux riches” in first class, Stieglitz set out for the far end of the deck, spotting below a “seemingly new vision… the feeling of ship and ocean and sky and the feeling of release,” as related in his memoirs of 1942. This “new vision” is marked by a cubistic composition of converging and diverging lines, chief among them the gangplank that bifurcates the composition. Separating the viewer from the masses below, it also underlines the stark social hierarchies at play on the passenger ship.
Photographer, gallery owner and champion of the avant-garde, Stieglitz also published a quarterly photographic journal, Camera Work, where Steerage first appeared in 1911. This doyen’s knack for promotion extended to himself, and his narration of this episode is rife with self-adulation (if not a little suspense): “I longed to escape from my surroundings and join these people… Rembrandt came into my mind and I wondered, would he have felt as I was feeling?… I had but one plate holder with one unexposed plate. Would I get what I saw, what I felt? Finally I released the shutter. My heart thumping, I had never heard my heart thump before. Had I gotten my picture? I knew if I had, another milestone in photography would have been reached… here would be a picture based on related shapes and on the deepest human feeling, a step in my own evolution, a spontaneous discovery.”
Quoted in: Allan Sekula, "On the invention of Photographic Meaning," in Victor Burgin, ed., Thinking Photography, London: Macmillan, 1982, pp.84-109