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The Steerage

Accession Number
1995/2.23

Title
The Steerage

Artist(s)
Alfred Stieglitz

Artist Nationality
American (North American)

Object Creation Date
1907, printed 1915

Medium & Support
photogravure on paper

Dimensions
15 15/16 in x 11 1/16 in (40.48 cm x 28.1 cm);22 1/16 in x 18 ⅛ in (56.04 cm x 46.04 cm);13 ⅛ in x 10 in (33.34 cm x 25.4 cm)

Credit Line
Museum purchase made possible by a gift from Helmut Stern

Label copy
Photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz was, arguably, responsible for introducing European modern art to the United States through influential exhibitions in his gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York City. His quarterly "Camera Work" helped establish photography as a fine art in the United States.
"The Steerage" was taken in 1907 during a voyage bound for Europe aboard the "Kaiser Wilhelm II".
"The Steerage" was taken in June 1907 on a voyage from New York City to Paris. As Steiglitz tells it, on the third day of his voyage he began to feel oppressed and disgusted by his fellow passengers in the first-class accommodations of the liner. To escape, he explored the lower level steerage compartments of the ship where the working class passengers travelled. "The scene fascinated me," he recalls. "A round straw hat, the funnel leaning left, the stairway leaning right, circular iron machinery. I stood spellbound for a while and a new vision held me: the simple people; the feeling of the ship, ocean, sky; and a sense of release that I was away from the mob called ‘rich’."
(A. Dixon, 20th Century Gallery installation, June 1999)

Subject matter
The photograph teems with passengers in steerage gathering on the decks of the German steamship Kaiser Wilhelm II. The scene appears crowded, though well-structured. A resplendent white bridge, a staircase, a large cylindrical mast, as well as numerous other railings, pipes, poles, and doorways, all serve to organize this swell of humanity visually as well as physically into an architected grid. While many of the subjects in the photograph go on about their business or appear lost in thought, a number of them return the gaze of the viewer, aware of the presence of the camera. This reciprocal address between viewer and subject interrupts what may otherwise seem a voyeuristic picture of unsuspecting lower-class travelers.

On May 14, 1907, Stieglitz and his family sailed to Europe aboard the Kaiser Wilhelm II. Stieglitz spoke of this work, “If all of my photographs were lost and I’d be represented by just one, The Steerage, I’d be satisfied.” He published, promoted, exhibited and wrote about this image extensively.

Physical Description
A view of steerage passengers gathered on two decks of a steamship. 

Primary Object Classification
Photograph

Collection Area
Photography

Rights
If you are interested in using an image for a publication, please visit http://umma.umich.edu/request-image for more information and to fill out the online Image Rights and Reproductions Request Form. Keywords
Transportation
boats
bridges
crowds
immigration
modern and contemporary art
ships
social status
travelers
travelers (people by activity)

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& Author Notes

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