In June 1907, my wife, out daughter Kitty and I, sailed for Europe. My wife insisted on going on a large ship, fashionable at the time. It was impossible to escape the nouveau riche. Ye Gods. By the third day out, I could stand it no longer. I had to get away. I walked as far forward as possible.

Coming to the end of the deck, I stood alone. Looking down, there were men, women, children on the lower levels of the steerage. The scene fascinated me. A round straw hat. The funnel leaning left. The stairway leading right. White suspenders crossed on the back of a man below. A mass that cut into the sky, completing a triangle. I saw shapes related to one another. A picture of shapes, and underlying it, a new vision that held me.

I raced to the main stairway of the steamer, chased down into my cabin, picked up my Graflex, raced up again, worrying whether or not the man with the straw hat had shifted his position. If he had the picture I saw would no longer exist. The man with the straw hat had not stirred an inch. The man in the crossed suspenders, he too stood where he had been talking. No one had moved.

I had only one plate holder with one unexposed plate. I released the shutter, my heart thumping. If I had captured what I wanted, it would be a picture based on related shapes and deepest human feeling. A step in my own evolution.

-Alfred Stieglitz

 

The Steerage, 1907 © Alfred Stieglitz

The Steerage, 1907 © Alfred Stieglitz