Norman, Dorothy (1905–1997)
Norman, Dorothy (1905–1997)
American photographer, writer, and civil rights activist who was an intimate and biographer of photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Born Dorothy Stecker on March 28, 1905, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died on April 12, 1997, in East Hampton, New York; third of three children of Louis Stecker and Ester Stecker; attended Fairmont School, Washington, D.C., and the Mary C. Wheeler School in Providence, Rhode Island, 1920–21; attended Smith College, 1922–23; attended the University of Pennsylvania, 1924–25; married Edward Norman (heir to Sears, Roebuck fortune), on June 10, 1925 (divorced 1953); children: Nancy (b. 1927); Andrew (b. 1930).
Dualities (1933); (co-editor) America and Alfred Stieglitz (1934); (editor-publisher) Twice a Year: A Semi-Annual Journal of Literature, the Arts and Civil Liberties (1938–48); (editor-publisher) Stieglitz Memorial Portfolio (1947); (editor) Selected Writings of John Marin (1949); The Heroic Encounter (1958); Alfred Stieglitz: Introduction to an American Seer (1960); (editor) Jawaharlal Nehru, The First Sixty Years (Vol I & II, 1965); The Hero: Myth/Image/Symbol (1969); Alfred Stieglitz: An American Seer (1973); (editor) Indira Gandhi: Letters to an American Friend (1985); Encounters—A Memoir (1987).
Dorothy Norman is frequently remembered for her close relationship with photographer Alfred Stieglitz, whom she met in 1927, and who subsequently became her mentor and her lover, despite the fact that he was 40 years her senior and they were both married to others. In a foreword to Intimate Visions, a collection of Norman's photographs published in 1993, Edward Abrahams calls Norman the unofficial keeper of the Stieglitz legacy, referring to her two volumes of testimonials about his place in American life and her definitive biography of him in 1973. But Norman also became a commanding photographer in her own right, her small black-and-white images likened by one museum curator to the poems of Emily Dickinson : "private, quiet, intimate." She was also a poet, the editor of her own intellectual journal, a columnist for the New York Post, and an activist for civil liberties and Indian independence.
Dorothy Norman was born in 1905, raised in a well-to-do Jewish family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and attended private schools in Washington, D.C., and Providence, Rhode Island. She then went on to Smith College and the University of Pennsylvania. A self-described rebel who shunned a life of "bridge and mahjongg and petty gossip," she immersed herself in liberal causes, calling her involvement a guilty reaction to her protective and privileged youth. In 1925, she married Edward Norman, a wealthy but mentally unstable young man who was given to sudden rages. The newlyweds settled in New York, where Edward went to work for the Cooperative League and Norman became involved in Roger Baldwin's American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). She later joined the Urban League, and became part of Margaret Sanger 's efforts to spread the word about birth control.
In 1927, pregnant with her first child (the Normans would have two, Nancy and Andrew), Dorothy first wandered into Stieglitz's Intimate Gallery on Park Avenue, which was dedicated to the study of seven American artists. Intrigued by a John Marin work on exhibit, she made a return visit to the gallery, at which time she encountered Stieglitz who was answering a young woman's inquiry about the meaning of a particular painting. "You might as well ask what life means," Stieglitz replied. "If an artist could explain his work in words, he wouldn't have had to create it." Compelled by this simple philosophy and fascinated by the man himself, Norman made many return visits to the gallery, eventually entering into an intimate relationship with the photographer. Stieglitz, who at the time was married to Georgia O'Keeffe , found a soulmate in his young devotee. "You know me," he once wrote to her. "You are the only one who does or ever did—or ever will—completely." Norman called Stieglitz her "lifeline," but often struggled to reconcile the affair with her marriage. "Does our love really interfere with the rest of our lives," she asked herself. "With the lives of those closest to us? Or, does it contribute? We never think of breaking up our marriages. We are nourished by and nourish them. Each of us loves the core of the rest of our lives. I want to hurt or tear apart nothing."
As their relationship developed, Norman convinced Stieglitz to open another gallery, An American Place, on Madison Avenue, and took on the responsibility of raising funds for the new project. The gallery, Stieglitz's third, opened in 1929. Norman assisted in managing the gallery, which also served as a laboratory where artists could both exhibit their work and discuss it with their peers. In the process, she became acquainted with Stieglitz's avant-garde circle of friends, including such artists as John Marin, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, and Gaston Lachaise, and such writers as Lewis
Mumford, William Carlos Williams, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and e.e. cummings. In 1934, with Waldo Frank and others, Norman published America and Alfred Stieglitz, a series of essays on the photographer and his place in American culture.
In 1938, Norman launched her own periodical, Twice a Year: A Semi-Annual Journal of Literature, the Arts, and Civil Liberties, which was published out of An American Place and dedicated to Stieglitz. Over the ten-year life of the journal, Norman published writings by Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Sherwood Anderson, Anais Nin , and Federico Garcia Lorca, among others. From 1942, she also served as a columnist for the New York Post ("A World to Live In"), writing on such subjects as civil liberties and discrimination.
Stieglitz took many photographs of Norman over the course of their relationship and also nourished her growing interest in photography, although as a rule he did not take students. In the spring of 1931, he lent her a camera and instructed her in its use and darkroom techniques. He often wrote critiques on the backs of her early prints, ending his notations with the initials I L Y (I Love You), or I B O (I Bow Out), meaning she had mastered a particular problem and needed no further assistance. Many of Norman's photographs were of her beloved Stieglitz and the artists and writers she had contact with at An American Place. Her portraits, which became her best-known works, are small, intense in contrast, and sometimes uniquely cropped with the corner or top of the head missing. "When I took portraits I wanted most of all to make close-ups that showed as much as possible of the face," she wrote. "Its expressiveness must come through in order to illuminate character." Norman was also fascinated by the buildings of New York (until what she called "toy pseudo-skyscrapers" took over the city and she lost interest), and the scenery of Cape Cod, where she spent her summers. She particularly loved the spires of the churches, reaching to the heavens. "The pure white form of a steeple ascending over the Cape Cod landscape seemed to me a perfect icon of man's relationship to an ideal that he is ever reaching to touch and surpass."
Following the devastating blow of Stieglitz's sudden death in July 1946, Norman's life took another unusual turn. Always interested in Indian independence, she met and befriended Jawaharlal Nehru during one of his early visits to New York. She became instrumental in helping him advance his cause in America and later became his guest for celebrations surrounding the founding of the Republic of India. She published a two-volume collection of his writings and speeches in 1965, as well as a volume of her correspondence with his daughter Indira Gandhi , in 1985.
In 1953, on advice of both her lawyer and a psychiatrist, Norman divorced Edward, after which she divided her time between New York City and a former potato farm she purchased on Long Island. Still involved with the art world, in 1955 she worked with Edward Steichen on The Family of Man exhibit, choosing captions for the worldwide collection of prints. She also created an exhibition of symbolic art entitled The Heroic Encounter, which opened at the Willard Gallery in New York in 1958, and then toured under the auspices of the American Federation of Art.
During her later years, Norman completed her definitive biography, Alfred Stieglitz: An American Seer (1973). In 1968, having become the recipient of almost all of Stieglitz's photographs, she established the Alfred Stieglitz Center at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which now houses the collection as well as photographs by other photographers. Dorothy Norman's last publication was her autobiography, Encounters—A Memoir (1987).
Barth, Miles, ed. Intimate Visions: The Photographs of Dorothy Norman. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1993.
Norman, Dorothy. Encounters: A Memoir. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987.
"Obituary," in The Day [New London, CT]. April 15, 1997.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts