The Steerage

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In June 1907, photographer Alfred Stieglitz sailed to Europe on the SS Kaiser Wilhelm II, one of the largest and fastest ships in the world at that time. He had a stateroom on the upper decks, but Stieglitz noticed the lower class passengers area, known on most ships as the steerage. While the ship was anchored at Plymouth, England, Stiegliz took the picture that would become his most famous–The Steerage, a cold, documentary criticism of class divisions in a democratic society. (At that time, Stieglitz had only one glass plate prepared and he captured the one and only picture of the scene).

Stieglitz later said he immediately recognized this image as “another milestone in photography…a step in my own evolution, a spontaneous discovery”. However, this claim is doubtful as he didn’t publish the photo until 1911. In October 1911, it appeared in Camera Work, and the next year on the cover of the magazine section of the Saturday Evening Mail, a New York weekly. “This photographer is working in the same spirit as I am,” remarked Pablo Picasso on seeing The Steerage. Now, the photo is hailed as one of the greatest photographs of all time because it captures in a single image both a formative document of its time and one of the first works of artistic modernism–it records the rare image of immigrants turned away by U.S. Immigration officials and were forced to go back home.

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