When you talk about Classical music, you often begin with the three Killer B’s: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. If you talk about American photography, you need to begin with the Essential S’s: Stieglitz, Steichen, and Strand. Malcolm Daniel’s Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand: Masterworks from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the catalog to the exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through April 10, 2011, provides the perfect primer to these essential artists who saw photography through its infancy as a fine art and helped find it a place in the pantheon, as symbolized by their acceptance into The Met’s collection.

On December 30, 1928, The Met finally accepted Alfred Stieglitz’s gift of 22 recent photos. Stieglitz had tried for decades to get The Met to accept his prints and, therefore, acknowledge photography as a museum-quality medium. Just 5 years later, Stieglitz presented the museum with another gift of 400 more prints of photos that appeared in Stieglitz’s publications Camera Notes and Camera Work, including work by Edward Steichen and Paul Strand, whom Daniel, The Met’s Curator in Charge of the Department of Photographs, calls “bookends marking the beginning and end of Stieglitz’s influential role as artistic impresario during the period of the Photo-Secession, the name he gave to the loose-knit group of photographers [Stieglitz] exhibited, published, and promoted between 1902 and 1917.” With Stieglitz as the center of the artistic circle, Daniel demonstrates how Steichen and Strand both orbited around Stieglitz’s influential gravity while also becoming stars themselves.

Steichen entered Stieglitz’s orbit in 1900 when he sold Stieglitz photos as he made his way to Europe. Steichen returned to New York in 1902 to be a professional portrait photographer and soon became the biggest star of Stieglitz’s publications and exhibitions. Camera Notes, as Daniels explains, “provided Stieglitz a platform with international reach, and by 1900, at the age of thirty-six, he was already recognized as the leading tastemaker in American photography.” Stieglitz soon decided to make Steichen the new “taste” in photography, featuring him more than any other photographer, including a special Steichen supplement in 1906 an all-Steichen double issue in 1913. Stieglitz called this new style “Photo-Secession.” “No one but Stieglitz seemed to know just what ‘Photo-Secession’ meant,” joked Steichen, but a new school of photography was born.

A former painter himself, Steichen approached photography with a painterly eye. During his time in France, he frequented the studio of Auguste Rodin. “Only after a year of visiting the revered sculptor’s studio each Saturday had Steichen dared to photograph him,” Daniels recounts.” Steichen’s respectful persistence, and above all the power of the resulting picture, inspired mutual admiration and a genuine friendship that lasted until Rodin’s death.” After seeing Steichen’s photographs of his Balzac sculpture, Rodin exclaimed to his friend, “You will make the world understand my Balzac with your pictures.”

Upon returning to New York, Steichen brought to bear his understanding of Whistler’s Nocturnes and Japanese ukiyo-e prints in the creation of works such as the iconic photo, The Flatiron. “Although indebted to these influences,” Daniels writes, “Steichen’s iconic photograph is decidedly modern and American in its subject, with the soaring structure rising so high above the activity of the street that it cannot be contained within the frame.” Stieglitz acquired all three prints of The Flatiron that Steichen made. As part of The Met’s collection, they stand as “prime examples of the conscious effort of Photo-Secession photographers to assert the artistic potential of their medium and to rival painting in scale, color, and individuality,” Daniels writes with curatorial pride. Throughout Daniels’ essay, you always get a sense of the pride and love he feels for these works and their long history with the museum.

Paul Strand, the other “bookend” complementing Steichen, walked into Stieglitz’s gallery as part of a high school class in 1907 and walked out determined to become a photographer in the Stieglitz mold. Within a decade, Strand was taking pictures such as Wall Street (shown above), which shows the influence of Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, and others he had seen at Stieglitz’s “291” gallery and the 1913 Armory Show. “Not with the idea of imitating or competing with the painting,” Strand later explained of this translation of modern art into modern photography, “but trying to find out what might be its value to someone who wanted to photograph the real world.” The real Wall Street appears in the famous photo, but Strand’s composing eye learned much from the new European masters. By the end of World War I, however, Strand moved away from modernism towards a new humanism, Daniels explains. “Whereas his groundbreaking photographs from 1915-1917 were more closely related to Cezanne and Picasso than to any photography that had come before,’ Daniels writes, “Strand’s later work fit squarely in the traditions of photographic practice and humanist concern that were, in fact, more deeply rooted in his soul than the avant-garde aesthetic ideas he had adopted as a young man exhilarated by the embrace of Stieglitz and his circle.” Strand’s early masterpiece of human existence, Blind, finds in the 1930s counterparts in his Mexican photos of the poor of that country.

As his moment as tastemaker ended, Stieglitz returned to working behind the lens. His cloud studies, called Equivalents, reached a level of abstract lyricism equal to that of the best modern painters. Working in New York City, Stieglitz captured the rising city around him from his high window. “From these lofty perches,” Daniels writes of Stieglitz’s New York pictures, “the city became a slow symphony of abstract planes, ever changing as sunlit walls and tides of deep shadow shifted during the day or as the construction of new towers progressed.” But Stieglitz’s greatest work came from meeting his mate and his muse—Georgia O’Keefe.

Stieglitz first saw O’Keeffe’s drawings in 1916, exhibited her work in 1916 and 1917, fell in love with her by 1918, and then began photographing her for the next two decades. “Between 1917 and 1937, when Stieglitz set aside his camera for health reasons, he made some 331 photographs of O’Keeffe,” Daniels writes, “of her face, torso, hands, or feet alone; clothed and nude; intimate and heroic; introspective and assertive… His twenty-year-long portrayal of her, arguably his most complex and important body of work, was the most complete expression of his idea of the composite portrait: one that would record a single person throughout life, in many moods and many forms.” O’Keefe, a formidable artist in her own right, recognized the value of this composite portrait and capped off Stieglitz’s gift to The Met with a final gift after his death of these late works and other images.

Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand doesn’t cover new ground, but instead collects old material for a new generation that needs to know where photography in America began. The visual culture we Americans find ourselves steeped in today begins with these three in many ways. Looking at them allows us to rediscover our roots—in pictorialism, in transplanted modernism, and in renewed humanism. The Met’s collection represents the very best of these three, and the catalog delivers the images with the richness and flavors of the original prints, all at an extremely affordable price. Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand—the essential S’s—should sit on everyone’s shelf for repeated contemplation of what they once saw and how we still see our world today.

[Many thanks to Yale University Press for providing me with a review copy of Malcolm Daniel’s Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand: Masterworks from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the catalog to the exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through April 10, 2011.]