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After-Images of the "New" New York and the Alfred Stieglitz Circle

by Mary Woods

“After-Images of the ‘New’ New York and the Alfred Stieglitz Circle” by Mary Woods examines the relationship between the concept of “after-image” and the photography and film works of Alfred Stieglitz, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, and Charles Sheeler. Woods argues Stieglitz and his fellow New York photographers engage the idea of “after-image” through their choice of subject, framing, and processing of their photographs. As a result, this group of photographers produced a distinctive perspective of their time and place in history.


Woods explains Stieglitz and his circle created “after-images” in that they cropped and reframed unedited negatives, sometime after the “decisive moment.” Their process was iterative and involved reinterpretation of individual negatives. These photographers did not see photographs as drawings by nature but instead as tools to defamiliarize and encourage new ways of looking.


The Stieglitz circle documented change in New York from new, elevated vantage points, with a focus on newly visible phenomena like the backsides of skyscrapers and the abstracted composition of illuminated windows dotting the urban landscape at night. This considered, Woods asserts the members of this group were uncertain about the modernizing city. They photographed from heights removed from the masses. By working at night and in all weather, they avoided framing views of daily life and visual disorder. The evolving built environment challenged their ways of working, which were in part informed by the pictorial style of previous decades. Woods suggests their work has much to do with finding the familiar within the unfamiliar of the modernizing urban context, with making sense of the present within the layers of past and future. It is in these ways Woods claims Stieglitz and his circle characterize the contradictions of modernity and imbue their “after-images” of early 20th-century New York with time and change.

Mary Woods is an author and Professor in the department of Architecture at Cornell University. She has published several books on architecture, film, and photography.
Woods, Mary N. “After-Images of the ‘New’ New York and the Alfred Stieglitz Circle.” In After-Images of the City, edited by Dieter Ingenschay and Joan Ramon Resina, 183 – 208. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018.
Review by Lindsay Mamchur
August 2020
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