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Course: AP®︎/College Art History > Unit 6

Lesson 2: Modern and contemporary art

Stieglitz, The Steerage

Alfred Stieglitz, The Steerage, 1907, photogravure, 33.5cm x 26.4cm , (J. Paul Getty Museum)

First class

After his 8-year-old daughter Kitty finished the school year and he closed his Fifth Avenue art gallery for the summer, Alfred Stieglitz gathered her, his wife Emmeline, and Kitty’s governess for their second excursion to Europe as a family. The Stieglitzes departed for Paris on May 14, 1907, aboard the first-class quarters of the fashionable ship Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Although Emmeline looked forward to shopping in Paris and to visiting her relatives in Germany, Stieglitz was anything but enthusiastic about the trip. His marriage to status-conscious Emmeline had become particularly stressful amid rumors about his possible affair with the tarot-card illustrator/artist Pamela Coleman Smith. In addition, Stieglitz felt out of place in the company of his fellow upper-class passengers. But it was precisely this discomfort among his peers that prompted him to take a photograph that would become one of the most important in the history of photography. In his 1942 account “How The Steerage Happened,” Stieglitz recalls:
"How I hated the atmosphere of the first class on that ship. One couldn’t escape the 'nouveau riches.' [...]
On the third day out I finally couldn’t stand it any longer. I had to get away from that company. I went as far forward on the deck as I could [...]
As I came to the end of the desk [sic] I stood alone, looking down. There were men and women and children on the lower deck of the steerage. There was a narrow stairway leading up to the upper deck of the steerage, a small deck at the bow of the steamer.
To the left was an inclining funnel and from the upper steerage deck there was fastened a gangway bridge which was glistening in its freshly painted state. It was rather long, white, and during the trip remained untouched by anyone.
On the upper deck, looking over the railing, there was a young man with a straw hat. The shape of the hat was round. He was watching the men and women and children on the lower steerage deck. Only men were on the upper deck. The whole scene fascinated me. I longed to escape from my surroundings and join these people."
In this essay, written 35 years after he took the photograph, Stieglitz describes how The Steerage encapsulated his career’s mission to elevate photography to the status of fine art by engaging the same dialogues around abstraction that preoccupied European avant-garde painters:
"A round straw hat, the funnel leading out, the stairway leaning right, the white drawbridge with its railings made of circular chains – white suspenders crossing on the back of a man in the steerage below, round shapes of iron machinery, a mast cutting into the sky, making a triangular shape. I stood spellbound for a while, looking and looking. Could I photograph what I felt, looking and looking and still looking? I saw shapes related to each other. I saw a picture of shapes and underlying that the feeling I had about life. (...)
Spontaneously I raced to the main stairway of the steamer, chased down to my cabin, got my Graflex, raced back again all out of breath, wondering whether the man with the straw hat had moved or not. If he had, the picture I had seen would no longer be. The relationship of shapes as I wanted them would have been disturbed and the picture lost.
But there was the man with the straw hat. He hadn’t moved. The man with the crossed white suspenders showing his back, he too, talking to a man, hadn’t moved. And the woman with a child on her lap, sitting on the floor, hadn’t moved. Seemingly, no one had changed position.
(...) [It] would be a picture based on related shapes and on the deepest human feeling, a step in my own evolution, a spontaneous discovery."


With this account, Stieglitz argues with the benefit of more than three decades of hindsight that The Steerage suggests that photographs have more than just a “documentary” voice that speaks to the truth-to-appearance of subjects in a field of space within narrowly defined slice of time. Rather, The Steerage calls for a more complex, layered view of photography’s essence that can accommodate and convey abstraction. (Indeed, later photographers Minor White and Aaron Siskind would engage this project further in direct dialogue with the Abstract Expressionist painting.)
Stieglitz is often criticized for overlooking the subjects of his photograph in this essay, which has become the account by which the photograph is discussed in our histories. But in his account for The Steerage, Stieglitz also calls attention to one of the contradictions of photography: its ability to provide more than just an abstract interpretation, too. The Steerage is not only about the “significant form” of shapes, forms and textures, but it also conveys a message about its subjects, immigrants who were rejected at Ellis Island, or who were returning to their old country to see relatives and perhaps to encourage others to return to the United States with them.

Ghastly conditions

As a reader of mass-marketed magazines, Stieglitz would have been familiar with the debates about immigration reform and the ghastly conditions to which passengers in steerage were subjected. Stieglitz’s father had come to America in 1849, during a historic migration of 1,120,000 Germans to the United States between 1845 and 1855. His father became a wool trader and was so successful that he retired by age 48. By all accounts, Stieglitz’s father exemplified the “American dream” that was just beyond the grasp of many of the subjects of The Steerage.
Moreover, investigative reporter Kellogg Durland traveled undercover as steerage in 1906 and wrote of it: “I can, and did, more than once, eat my plate of macaroni after I had picked out the worms, the water bugs, and on one occasion, a hairpin. But why should these things ever be found in the food served to passengers who are paying $36.00 for their passage?”
Still, Stieglitz was conflicted about the issue of immigration. While he was sympathetic to the plight of aspiring new arrivals, Stieglitz was opposed to admitting the uneducated and marginal to the United States of America—despite his claims of sentiment for the downtrodden. Perhaps this may explain his preference to avoid addressing the subject of The Steerage, and to see in this photograph not a political statement, but a place for arguing the value of photography as a fine art.
Essay by Dr. Kris Belden-Adams
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  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user BetaHal
    One American observer in 1905 wrote of steerage in the following terms:

    "... the 900 steerage passengers crowded into the hold of so elegant and roomy a steamer as the Kaiser Wilhelm II, of the North German Lloyd line, are positively packed like cattle, making a walk on deck when the weather is good, absolutely impossible, while to breathe clean air below in rough weather, when the hatches are down is an equal impossibility. The stenches become unbearable, and many of the emigrants have to be driven down; for they prefer the bitterness and danger of the storm to the pestilential air below. The division between the sexes is not carefully looked after, and the young women who are quartered among the married passengers have neither the privacy to which they are entitled nor are they much more protected than if they were living promiscuously.

    The food, which is miserable, is dealt out of huge kettles into the dinner pails provided by the steamship company. When it is distributed, the stronger push and crowd, so that meals are anything but orderly procedures. On the whole, the steerage of the modern ship ought to be condemned as unfit for the transportation of human beings...Take for example, the second cabin which costs about twice as much as the steerage and sometimes not twice so much; yet the second cabin passenger on the Kaiser Wilhelm II has six times as much deck room, much better located and well protected against inclement weather. Two to four sleep in one cabin, which is well and comfortably furnished; while in the steerage from 200 to 400 sleep in one compartment on bunks, one above the other, with little light and no comforts. In the second cabin the food is excellent, is partaken of in a luxuriantly appointed dining-room, is well cooked and well served; while in the steerage the unsavory rations are not served, but doled out, with less courtesy than one would find in a charity soup kitchen.

    The steerage ought to be and could be abolished by law...On many ships, even drinking water is grudgingly given, and on the steamer Staatendam, four years ago, we had literally to steal water for the steerage from the second cabin, and that of course at night. On many journeys, particularly on the SS Fürst Bismarck, of the Hamburg American Line, five years ago, the bread was absolutely uneatable, and was thrown into the water by the irate emigrants ..."

    (16 votes)
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  • duskpin tree style avatar for user Gabisamey
    I would look at the picture as a historical source. Why is it considered art?
    (3 votes)
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    • piceratops tree style avatar for user Dan Vedda
      It certainly can function as both. As the information above tells us, Stieglitz wrote about the geometry of the image, the interaction of shapes (the round straw hat, etc.) and juxtaposition of both human and inanimate shapes. The visual arrangement, anchored by the gangway, column, and mast follow painterly principals as well. This is where discussion of the "eye" of the photographer comes into play, and indeed is why some people take "better" pictures than others. Capturing an aesthetically pleasing moment raises the image above simple historical documentation.
      (4 votes)
  • starky ultimate style avatar for user kiXtremez
    is the first photo a artwork or a photo?
    (1 vote)
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  • female robot grace style avatar for user Robin
    Back up. This is a photograph of a ship going from New York to Paris in 1907, FROM New York to Paris. These are Americans going to Europe, not huddled masses yearning to breathe free and all that. These are us. Put a cap on my assumptions and have a closer look, holy cows and jeezly crow...

    This giant glaring piece of info became clear when I was rereading x3 for the answer to my original question: Why is there a photograph from 1907 in this section subtitled "Art Between The Wars"?

    The partial answer I do find: The "art" in question is actually an essay ("a seminal essay") written during the period in question, a couple years before his death in 1946 in which Alfred Stieglitz demonstrates for us how to pass along the testimony generation to generation, quite openly, all the while talking about shapes and lines and contrast and composition. Conceivably this can only be done if you're a maestro like Stieglitz who could make a photograph like a painting. I still can't find the name of that essay here, does anyone know it? Can an essay be the work of Fine Art?
    (0 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Laura
      I'm a bit confused to your question. You seem to be asking why photography is included as an art form. Your sentiment is not unfamiliar to the art world, simply unfortunate. It is included in this section because it is a piece of art created in between the two World Wars. Hence its placement.
      (4 votes)