The most acclaimed American photograph is titled Steerage, produced by Alfred Stieglitz in 1907. It depicts immigrants ready to disembark at Ellis Island.  While Stieglitz did not pose the people or direct their choices of clothing, the resulting image displays the elements of design and composition.


The photo is divided into two equal halves, upper and lower paralleling the hierarchical distinction between upper and lower class accommodations.  Variety is achieved with three diagonals of different widths and value: the smokestack at left, the roped gang plank at center, and the iron staircase at right. The lower half is read as a pattern of high value with rounded and squared shapes against a dark low value background. On the upper deck, dark bodies are silhouetted against a high value sky. The circular and rectangular shapes of the lower deck are repeated on the upper deck. So again, the presence of the repetition of line, shape, high and low value patterning, unity, variety and balance define this photo as artistic.

But again, the point is raised: if the photographer did not pose the people, create the setting, or manipulate the light, then he didn’t do anything but push a button on the mechanical box - the camera. Is the photographer an artist? Critics say that it takes an artistic sensibility to recognize “artistic moments” that occur around us every day. Most people would have walked right by the ship without appreciating the “aesthetics of life.”  While life does not always self-arrange to conform to principles of design, on those rare instances when it does, the photographer seems to be the only one who realizes it. So, we often mention the photographer’s “artistic vision” rather than identify him directly as an artist.



These photographs have already been discussed in relation to the elements of design. Weston’s Artichoke presents naturally occurring design elements: the organic lines, balance, high and low value. Weston did not create the image, but was keen to observe the aesthetic qualities in a vegetable. Mapplethorpe did select models whose features mirrored each other’s: the round shaved heads, triangular eyelids, triangular noses, shapes of lips and chins. Studio lighting further emphasizes the texture of the skin as well as accentuate the high and low value contrasts. We see low value shadows on the face of the white man and high value shine on the face of the black man. While both Weston’s and Mapplethorpe’s photos are studio shots, they demonstrate how much we visually take for granted in our world. Once such objects are isolated and properly framed, we “see” them in a differently, as objects inherently embodying design.