What 291 Means to Me
by Annie W. Brigman, 1914
© Peter E. Palmquist
Along with Camera Work, the Little Gallery of the Photo-Secession (291 Fifth Avenue, New York) was an outlet for the art and photography - photography as art - ideas of Alfred Stieglitz and his followers, or, as Man Ray noted: "The gray walls of the little gallery are always pregnant." In 1914 Stieglitz wrote to about 30 friends posing the question, "What does '291' mean?," he received more than 65 responses. The essay which follows was among them.
What 291 Means to Me
by Annie W. Brigman
To tell what "291" means to me, seems more complicated than attempting to describe the famous "Nude Descending a Stairway."
It was my first morning in New York.
I was obsessed with the fear that I would get lost. Fifth Avenue seemed less stationary than a moving sidewalk.
Then I saw the Flat Iron Building, in the morning light, breasting the winds of heaven like the Victory of Samothrace.
Perhaps, because it was like a snowy mountain peak; perhaps it was its own soaring beauty, but the fear left me and I laughed as though I had found a trail.
And truly I had, for only a few feet away across the sidewalk, were the numerals that have grown to mean more than numerals.
It was an insignificant doorway and it lead into a more insignificant hall, but on the wall was a poster illuminated at the top with the sign of the Golden Disc (Sun) (which?).
Again the finding of the trail!
Came a rattle and whirling in the darkest corner, and lo, the elevator about as large as a nickel-plated toast-rack on end, with a six-foot African in command.
"Does this go up to the Little Galleries?" I breasted.
A flash of teeth, a tattoo of huge knuckles, a pull on the rope and we were crawling up inch by inch to Mecca.
When I stepped out on the fourth floor, it was into a pile of boxes and papers and excelsior, evidence of fully finished picture unpacking!
But there wasn't a sound.
I knew the dark brother in the elevator was watching through the grill, and I felt like Brer Rabbit when he was "dat nerbous, dat he kicked out every tahm a weed tickled him."
The door of the elevator had closed; it was shaking into the third depth.
Ahead was a tiny hall. There was a strange painting on its small, gray wall. It was in yellows and reds and blues. Something in me called it the "Valley of Crocheted Bed Slippers" - something in me that grinned at first - and later through the many months held to the name in all seriousness.
To the left was a second tiny hall, which opened into two other rooms, one a second cousin to a hall bedroom; the other, the Little Gallery.
From pictures of it, I knew it: its drop lights, its gray walls and simple hangings, and the great copper bowl filled with branches of russet oak leaves.
But the things on the walls!
I had come across the continent to see photographs!
I didn't know that these were Matisse drawings, or that those wild riots of color were Marins and Hartleys. It was just a head-on collision to my plain little brain.
I was now wilder than Brer Rabbit and would have fled, had I not been held by what I now realize was the power of pure beauty of color and rhythm.
Still no sound - no one - just the sunny gloom of the little place.
And those pictures! I couldn't believe my eyes - what did they mean? It was as though I had come from or gone to another planet.
In the midst of this whirlwind of thoughts there came the sound of a voice, staccato, masculine.
I peered out. No one was in the hall. Beyond was another little room, amber lighted. In it was a carven chest and a great carven bookcase, a delicate black and gold table on which stood a large gum-print of Duse - and there were tapestries and venetian glass vases. Though so silent, the whole place was full of an atmosphere.
Again the staccato voice the other side of the tapestry that hung across a doorway.
It sounded impatient, yet the overtone was right.
Past the tapestry was a long mirror with sconces at either end; in it a face-my own. It was most uncanny. The eyes looked like the saucer - like mother-of-pearl discs and black seed iris of an old Samoan idol of childhood memory.
Then this room took shape with its tapestries and wall papers - a great table, a huge horsehair lounge, a girl's head against the light of a window, the click of a typewriter, and standing at a table, a slight figure in black who was forcing a recreant print or page into place with paste and the palm of his hand.
"Good morning," I said, "I have come!"
"That's good," said the figure with a glance over the rim of his glasses, still holding down the print, "make yourself at home."
It was what Maeterlinck calls an "active silence." I didn't know it was that kind, at the time.
Don't you remember trying, in your youth, to sit still on a haircloth sofa during long Sunday morning prayers? Of the ache in your legs for flight; of the hunger for air in your nostrils; of the wild, wonderful need to stampede?
Never mind. All this belongs to the impressions that gather themselves around those first spaces called a few minutes which were the beginnings of the real "291."
For eight months I had the privilege of really being at home there.
There the deeps within deeps of people, pictures, conditions and myself were revealed.
I grew to understand why the Fellows of the Photo-Secession might not use the sign of the Golden Sun as a commercial ear tag, when it stood for an ideal.
Why and how Camera Work is an heroic labor of love, and a monument to the beauty, through Photography, not the glorification of the individual, of the impatient pastime of the Man behind It.
Of the Friend of the Man who put up, out of his own pocket, money for a three years' lease that the Little Gallery might keep its home.
This same friend of the Man, did lovely gum-platinum prints, and yet the Man said, when I asked questions:
"When he does something worth while, something that is an expression of himself - no one else - it will be time for them in Camera Work."
Another time, after going over many folios of photographs, my own among them, I said, "I hoped when I first came, that you would show some of my things. Now I'm deadly afraid you will."
"Why?" asked the Man.
"Because," I answered, "the longer I look at the intelligent beauty of the work in these folios, the muddier and hotter looking my sepia bromides grow. How did you ever care to show them?"
The Man's short gray moustache twitched. He shuffled reams of papers, magazines, and envelopes.
I had begun to think he hadn't heard the question, or perhaps forgotten.
Then he adjusted for the hundredth time, with thumb and finger his pince-nez glasses and glancing over the edges of them said, staccato -
"The way you did them was rotten, but they were a new note - they were worth while."
Then he walked out of the liliputian room, and I sat humped up on the arm of the big chair and stared down Fifth Avenue, trying to focus the unarrested lens of my thoughts.
"Rotten - but worth while."
I was beginning to understand!
Nothing in this place was final (nothing ever is) but things that stayed for a time were worth while.
Even the parting of the ways of the Secession as a body had begun.
It was one of my gifts of the gods, that I met in those little rooms with their sunny gloom, nearly all of the Fellows.
As the color fragments in a kaleidoscope keep to a pattern with small changes for a time, so these Fellows shaped and clustered around the Man and the Little Gallery.
Then as in the kaleidoscope, full gravity has played its part, and the colors have been thrown into new forms - more beautiful perhaps than the old pattern, but all within the same cycle - some colors closer, some further away.
This little place, the Man in back of it, the Fellows in back of him and yet shoulder to shoulder, stand for one of the great storm centres of my life.
This was four years ago.
Maybe some who read this, and who have been in the Little Galleries will wonder where all the "amber-gloom" is.
Perhaps, after all, there was only one pane of dusty yellow glass overhead in one of the rooms; but you remember how Hans Christian Andersen, in his boyhood, used to put his mother's blue kitchen apron over a gooseberry bush, and then sit under it and dream through the color? That color glows all through his fairy tales.
You remember, too, the long steep trails that lead zig-zag, mile after mile, away from trees and brooks, up, up into the heat of rocks blessed by the sun, where your lungs ache and your heart hurts from the struggle - and then you find it - the Vision! - the glory of the things beyond.
The memory and the wonder of it goes with you to the lowlands, into the daily life, and you are glad that you had the courage.
This is something of what the NUMBER means to me.
Camera Work, no. 47 (July 1914), pp. 17-19.
100 Years of California Photography by Women
All text compiled by Peter E. Palmquist
Camera Fiends & Kodak Girls: Writings by and About Women Photographers1840-1930.
New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1989.
fig. 20: Kodak Study
by Anne W. Brigman
Gallery · Bibliography
What 291 Means to Me · The Glory of the Open
Anne W. Brigman
Published articles and poetry by Anne W. Brigman
Brigman, Annie W. Songs of a Pagan, Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, 1949.
Brigman, Annie W. "Awareness," Design for Arts in Education 38 (June 1936): pp. 17-19.
Brigman, Annie W. "A Jury and a Salon," Camera Craft 37 (April 1930): pp. 126-128.
Brigman, Annie W. "The Glory of the Open," Camera Craft 33, no. 4 (April 1926), pp. 155-163.
Brigman, Annie W. "What 291 Means to Me," Camera Work no. 47 (July 1914), pp. 17-20.
Brigman, Annie W. "The Prints at Idora," Camera Craft 15 (December 1908): pp. 463-466.
Brigman, Annie W. "Just A Word," Camera Craft 15, no. 3 (March 1908), pp. 87-88.
Brigman, Annie W. Plain Tales from the Piedmont Hills. Oakland: Wickham Havens (c. 1907). Illustrated with photographs by Brigman.
Brigman, Annie W. "Starr King Fraternity Exhibitions," Camera Craft 10 (April 1905): pp. 228-229.
Anne W. Brigman's photographs reproduced in Camera Work(under the name Annie W. Brigman)
Camera Work 25 (January 1909): The Brook; The Bubble; The Dying Cedar; Soul of the Blasted Pine; The Source
Camera Work 38 (April 1912): The Cleft of the Rock; Dawn; The Pool; The Wondrous Globe
Camera Work 44 (October 1913): Dryads
Books, exhibition catalogues, periodicals that include Anne W. Brigman
"An April Exhibit of California Studies," Bulletin of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences 36, no. 16 (2 April 1932): p. 295.
Anonymous. "The Kodak Picture Exhibition," The Amateur Photographer [London] (August 27, 1907), pp. 200-202.
Bruce, Arthur Loring. "A New Classical Note in Photography: With a Series of Recent Camera Studies, Made in California, by Annie W. Brigman," Vanity Fair 2, no. 4 (June 1914): pp. 26-29.
Caffin, Charles H. "Photographic Pictures," The Burr McIntosh Monthly 19, no. 75 (June 1909).
Cahn, Robert, and Robert Glenn Ketchum. American Photographers and The National Parks. New York: The Viking Press, 1981.
Clute, Fayette J. "The Western Workers in the United States." Photograms of the Year 1904, pp. 163-174.
Davie, Helen L. "The Los Angeles Exhibition, Its History and Success and those Responsible for It," Camera Craft 5, no. 2 (June 1902), pp. 43-78.
Denny, Colleen. "The Role of Subject and Symbol in American Pictorialism," History of Photography [London] 13, no. 2 (April-June 1989), pp. 109-128.
Doherty, Amy S. "Photography's Forgotten Women," AB Bookman's Weekly (November 4, 1985), pp. 3272-3312.
Ehrens, Susan. A Poetic Vision: The Photographs of Anne Brigman, Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1995.
Genthe, Arnold. "What Various Prominent Critics Have to Say of the Second San Francisco Photographic Salon Just Passed," Camera Craft 4 (February 1902): pp. 165-171.
Gover, C. Jane. The Positive Image: Women Photographers in Turn of the Century America. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1988.
Heyman, Therese. Anne Brigman, Pictorial Photographer/Pagan/Poet/Member of the Photo-Secession. Oakland, CA: The Oakland Museum, 1974.
Homer, William Innes. Alfred Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession. Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1983.
Laurvik, J. Nilsen. "International Photography at the National Arts Club, New York," Camera Work 26 (April 1909): pp. 38-41.
Mann, Margery. California Pictorialism. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Art, 1977.
Mann, Margery. Women of Photography: An Historical Survey. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1975.
Naef, Weston J. The Collections of Alfred Stieglitz: Fifty Pioneers of Modern Photography. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1978.
Palmquist, Peter E.. Shadowcatchers: A Directory of Women ln California Photography 1900-1920. Arcata, CA: Published by the author, 1991 .
Palmquist, Peter E.. Camera Fiends & Kodak Girls II: 60 Selections By and About Women ln Photography, 1855-1965. New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1995.
Palmquist, Peter E. (editor). Camera Fiends & Kodak Girls: Writings by and About Women Photographers 1840-1930. New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1989.
Stern, Jenny. "Unleashing the Spirit: The Photography of Anne Brigman," Art of California 5 (September 1992), pp. 58-61.
Wilson, Michael G., and Dennis Reed. Pictorialism in California: Photographs 1900-1940. Malibu and San Marino, CA: The J. Paul Getty Museum and The Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, 1994.
"Works of Nature and Works of Art, Blended in the California Camera Studies of Anne Brigman," Vanity Fair 6, no. 4 (June 1916): pp. 50-52.
Bunnell, Peter C., ed.A Photographic Vision: Pictorial Photography, 1889-1923. Salt Lake City, UT: Peregrine Smith, 1980.
Caffin, Charles. Photography as a Fine Art. New York City: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1901.
Corn, Wanda. The Color of Mood: American Tonalism 1880-1910. San Francisco: M.H. De Young Memorial Museum and The California Palace of the Legion of Honor, 1972.
Doty, Robert M. Photo-Secession: Photography as a Fine Art. Rochester, NY: George Eastman House, 1960.
Green, Jonathan. Camera Work: A Critical Anthology. Millerton, NY: Aperture, 1973.
Lyons, Nathan. Photography in the Twentieth Century. New York: Horizon Press, in collaboration with George Eastman House, 1967.
Starr, Kevin. Americans and the California Dream 1850-1915. Santa Barbara, CA: Peregrine Smith, 1981.
Stieglitz, Alfred, editor and publisher. Camera Work [all issues], 1903-1917.