Bloch and Stieglitz Meet

With the Songs of the Sky (1923) Alfred would “show them.” In particular, the new Cloud series would silence the innuendos of Waldo Frank, who had explained the penetrating brilliance of Stieglitz’s portraits by his ability to hypnotize his subjects.

Both the formal and expressive problems solved in the making of these pictures would reveal everything he had learned in forty years, Stieglitz wrote to Bayley. Fixing the most mutable of forms, he would at the same time “put down my philosophy of life — to show that my photographs were not due to subject matter — not to special trees, or faces, or interiors, to special privileges, clouds were there for everyone — not tax as yet on them — free.”

Alfred’s ambition for his new series reached higher. Its musical title referred to the symbolist theory of correspondences between all art forms and staked Alfred’s claim to surpassing the symphonic masters. Along with others of the American avant-garde, he and Georgia were one in their belief that music — in its fusion of intuitive expressive content and abstract rational form — was the most perfect of the arts. Georgia had used musical title for several abstractions of 1919. Now Alfred’s Songs of the Sky would show that a great photograph could attain — even surpass — this condition of the absolute, reducing a great composer to abject envy.

“I had told Miss O’Keeffe I wanted a series of photographs which when seen by       Ernest Bloch (the great composer) he would exclaim: ‘Music! Music! Man, why that is music!  How did you ever do that?’ And he would point to vilons, and flutes, and oboes, and brass, full of enthusiasm, and would say he’d have to write a symphony called ‘Clouds.’  Not like Debussy’s but much, much more.”

According to Stieglitz, the fantasy became reality “when finally I had my series of ten photographs printed, and Bloch saw them — what I said I wanted to happen happened verbatim,” he insisted.

Unfortunately, there were no witnesses to Alfred’s triumph. The meeting of the two men took place; Alfred wrote Bloch thanking the composer for the hour he had spent looking at his photographs. But for Bloch’s reaction — the fantasy that became reality — we have Alfred’s account alone.

— By Benita Eisler in O’Keeffe & Stieglitz: An American Romance