The steerage passengers immortalized in a 1907 landmark photo

In June 1907, photographer Alfred Stieglitz left New York for Europe with his wife and six-year-old daughter. His “small family,” as he wrote years later, had first-class accommodations on the liner Kaiser Wilhelm II and were headed toward Bremen, Germany.

But Stieglitz felt stifled by the atmosphere in first class. “One couldn’t escape the nouveaux riches,” he explained in his account, reproduced in the 2012 book, The Steerage and Alfred Stieglitz.

After three days he took a walk “as far forward on the deck as I could.” Looking down, he found a scene that left him spellbound: men, women, and children on the lower deck in steerage. These third-class passengers were biding their time by hanging laundry and playing on a staircase. Meanwhile, a man in a round straw hat watched the group amid the iron railings and machinery of the ship.

Stieglitz ran to get his camera. The resulting picture, “The Steerage,” wasn’t published until 1911. “I saw a picture of shapes and underlying that the feeling I had about life,” he said, per the Library of Congress (LOC) via Wikipedia.

Alfred Stieglitz in 1902, by Gertrude Kasebier

“The Steerage” has since become the most famous photo this pioneering photographer took, “proclaimed by the artist and illustrated in histories of the medium as his first ‘modernist’ photograph,” states Metmuseum.org, which owns a print of the photo. “It marks Stieglitz’s transition away from painterly prints of Symbolist subjects to a more straightforward depiction of quotidian life.”

The photo is also groundbreaking for viewers as well. It might be the first image offering a glimpse into what life was like in steerage class on an ocean liner. The people Stieglitz captured are headed back to Europe—possibly immigrants who were rejected at Ellis Island or “skilled craftsmen and their families heading home after working on temporary visas,” per the LOC.

[Images: Wikipedia]

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8 Responses to “The steerage passengers immortalized in a 1907 landmark photo”

  1. Efrain Says:

    Am I the only one that sees a likeness in the photo of Alfred Stieglitz to Peter Dinklage? 🤣😂

  2. countrypaul Says:

    What a stark contrast and courageous photo for its time. No wonder Stieglitz is appropriately regarded as a master. Thank you for this post.

  3. Martin Oppenheim Says:

    Amazing photo but I did not know that these passengers were headed back to Europe rather than immigrating to the USA.

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I just wish we knew what their reasons for being on the ship were. Going back to the old country on their own volition—or sent back because they failed a medical test?

  5. Ricky Says:

    Many immigrants went back home after finding life in America not to be streets paved in gold but too difficult. And many also returned to America later to find greater success.

  6. velovixen Says:

    In turning his focus toward what was in front of him (something one might associate with journalism) and away from “painterly” subjects and methods, Steiglitz truly became an artist.

    Ricky–The family of Frank McCourt (the author of “Angela’s Ashes”) returned to Ireland four years after Frank was born for the reason you mentioned. So did a number of other immigrants during that time: The Great Depression. If I’m not mistaken, there was a stock market panic and resulting downturn around the time Stieglitz took that photo, so the folks in steerage may well have been headed back because things became too difficult.

  7. Bill Wolfe Says:

    My wife and I just saw an episode of Finding Your Roots in which Gates noted that something like 70 per cent of Italian immigrants eventually returned to Italy, after saving enough money to help their families upon their return to their native land. As Gates noted, this fact is not taught us in school.

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