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Settler Modernism: Alfred Stieglitz's The Steerage and the Vicissitudes of Whiteness, 1890-1930

  • Author(s): Reznick, Jordan L
  • Advisor(s): Berger, Martin
  • et al.
Creative Commons 'BY-NC-ND' version 4.0 license
Abstract

Settler Modernism traces how Stieglitz’s iconic photograph, The Steerage (1907) came to be known as the first modernist American photograph and how, at each stage of its trajectory into the modernist canon, it was interpreted through settler colonial narratives that served to naturalize whites’ ongoing presence on occupied territories in the twentieth century. Though studies of settler visual cultures typically concentrate on events surrounding acts of colonization, I demonstrate that American modernist photography was continuous with the nineteenth-century history of photography for which settler colonialism was a structural and discursive force that framed photographic vision. I bring The Steerage into conversation with Stieglitz’s photographs of working-class people, Manhattan, and clouds, as well as with artworks by Cézanne, Anne Brigman, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole, and others. By interrogating how the camera’s capacity to distort perceptions of time and land clinched whites’ amnesia regarding the nation’s founding violence, I show how photographs encouraged settlers to imagine themselves as the ancient inhabitants of the continent. I also thread Indigenous histories, philosophies, and visual cultures throughout the text, undermining settler logic with perspectives that make apparent its impracticability. Through concentrated examination of The Steerage’s history, I shed light on how settler colonialism was not only central to the emergence of American modernism, but also to emergent conceptions of white racial identity that followed the closing of the frontier.

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