21: The Great Interrogation
by Annie W. Brigman
Gallery · Bibliography
What 291 Means to Me · The Glory of the Open
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.