The important photograph on offer here was originally gifted by Stieglitz to the painter, art patron, and collector of Modern Art, Aline Meyer Liebman (1879−1966). Of all the photographs that Aline and her husband Charles acquired from Alfred Stieglitz between 1915 and 1932, it is the views of New York which predominate. After all, the subject matter of a constantly changing cityscape which seemed to develop in stride with Stieglitz's vision was as appropriate for the artist and patrons to share as it was common to their lives. In certain respects, Stieglitz relied as heavily on the city for his inspiration as an artist, as Charles Liebman, Sr. did as a banker for his livelihood.
As editor/publisher of Camera Notes, Camera Work and director of the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession (later renamed '291’), Alfred Stieglitz was at the forefront of the mighty effort to have photography accepted on equal terms with painting and understood the importance of developing a distinctly 'American' style.
Stieglitz never tired of turning to the New York skyline and streets to fill his ground-glass. Of all the themes which dominated his attention throughout his life—the extended portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe, those portraits of his colleagues, allies and family, his cloud and nature studies and his New York views, it is the city as subject which remained constant and the views from his window which comprise the central theme within these.
As early as 1902 Stieglitz began to photograph from his window—at first from his home and then from the back windows of '291' (1905-1917) Later, the work would continue from An American Place. By 1910, he was concentrating on icons such as the newly-constructed Flatiron Building, the various train and ferry terminals, and the construction all around —all, however, through the visual language of Pictorialism. The series reaches its logical conclusion in some of the last photographs he made, the views taken from the apartment he and O'Keeffe shared at the Shelton Hotel in the last year they occupied it, 1935.
Set in the midst of this artistic milieu, the groundbreaking 1913 Armory Show, which included Duchamp’s astonishing Nude Descending a Staircase, had a profound effect on Stieglitz, and his style, over the next few years, moved towards something more determinedly modernist in character.
This image was created on the morning of April 3, 1915. Stieglitz braved a fierce blizzard and walked the considerable distance from his home to '291' to photograph the scene from the gallery's back window. From the Back Window, 291 - N.Y., Winter -1915 is one from a small series of photographs Stieglitz made that winter which clearly indicate his insights into the tenets of Modernism. Sarah Greenough, in Alfred Stieglitz writes: [Stieglitz], like de Zayas, believed that direct, pure photography could reveal the objective reality of form, that it was not the function of photography to give aesthetic pleasure, but to provide visual "truths" about the world. ...It is thus no coincidence that in the winter of 1915-1916 Stieglitz made a series of extremely formal and objective photographs from the back window of '291'.
Made at night and in the snow, they are reminiscent of his photographs of New York from the turn of the century. But in the earlier works, darkness and weather softened the rigid lines and angles of the city, making it more picturesque; in these they intensify shapes and patterns. Compositionally these pictures are also reminiscent of some of his early-1900 photographs of the city in Outward Bound, The Mauretania or The City of Ambition Stieglitz included objects in the foreground, cropped by the bottom of the picture frame, whose shapes are repeated in the middle and background.
Greenough adds, “And in their compression of space, their simplified geometric forms, and the resulting tension between two-dimensional surface and three-dimensional objects, these 1915-1916 photographs taken from 291 clearly reflect Stieglitz's understanding of cubism” (Alfred Stieglitz, pp. 20-21). In 1913 Stieglitz had published reproductions of works by Cézanne, Picasso and Picabia in a Special Number of Camera Work and interestingly, followed that issue in Number 44 with a photogravure of one of his own New York views, Two Towers—New York.
It is difficult to believe, however, upon viewing From the Back Window - 291, N.Y., Winter—1915 that Stieglitz was unconcerned with aesthetic pleasure. The delicate and exquisite balance which the long tonal range afforded by platinum paper and Stieglitz's own printing mastery, reveals a scene in which New York at night is recorded comprehensively. Not only is the geometric jumble of box-like forms, from the greater dimensions of the skyscrapers themselves to the punctuated jewels of light from unattended windows presented as the product of pure metropolis but the intimacy of life also shows through. The cheery billboard advertises the "Parfumerie Riviera" and in the window in the lower right reveals an interior with a dinner table ready, adorned by the warmth of a three-tiered candelabra.
Prints of this particular image are extremely rare. There only five known prints in existence: one in the "Key Set" collection at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, (an unsigned, platinum print); Art Institute of Chicago (an unsigned, platinum print); Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (signed and gifted by the photographer, 1924); as well as one at William’s College Museum of Art (an unsigned platinum print). There is a close variant image in the Thomas Walther Collection at The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
This is the only print known in private hands. It is tripled signed: on the print, on the mount and yet again on the front of the window mat. It is accompanied by an original 291 frame. As a whole, it represents a true trophy of early Modernist American Photography.