At the turn of the century, Alfred Stieglitz set out to prove once and for all that photography was an art – not just a curiosity or a mechanical means of documentation. He did so by stealing a march on the aesthetes of the period, demonstrating that a photograph could be as elegant as a Whistlerian tone poem; as moody as a symbolist reverie; as delicate in construction as a Japanese print; as atmospheric as a Monet impression; as serpentine as an Art Nouveau poster. The photographers around Stieglitz, many of them inspired by his ideas, made images that whispered “Art” in what amounts to a shout. Their lush pictures, which seemed to transcend the burly modern world, could seduce the toughest eye. And yet there remained something defensive and murkily poetic in this Pictorialist sensibility. Stieglitz himself understood the critical problem: If photography was a child of the modern era, shouldn’t it speak in the brassy vernacular of its day? Why should the new cubist painters claim modern space for themselves? Stieglitz began to talk of banishing the painterly poetic fog from photography.

Two shows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – Pictorialism in New York, 1900-1915 and Paul Strand Circa 1916 – deftly capture this essential moment in the coming-of-age of modern photography. Organized by Maria Morris Hambourg and Laura Muir, the “Pictorialism” exhibit of 40 images establishes the background in which the young Paul Strand developed as an artist. Understanding this background, in turn, enriches the power of the 60 images in “Circa 1916” (organized by Hambourg), deepening one’s appreciation of Strand’s originality. As a piece of curatorial work, the two shows are a model of excellence. Without overwhelming the eye with too many images, the curators, led by Hambourg, illuminate an essential “hinge” in the history of photography as an art – and, no less important, in the personal evolution of a singular artist. And they manage to avoid boxing the work into the pigeonholes of pedantry. This is first and foremost a collection of ravishing photographs, many of them exquisite platinum prints.

Paul Strand (1890-1976) grew up on the Upper West Side, in a brownstone between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive. Inspired by the photographer Lewis Hine, who taught a class at the Ethical Culture School – where Strand was a student – he soon found his way to Stieglitz. He was bright enough to make him his master: Stieglitz’s art gallery was where the important battles of modern art were being fought in the United States. Perhaps more than any other artist, Strand grasped Stieglitz’s ambivalent view of Pictorialism. As a young photographer, he made gorgeous photographs in the Pictorialist idiom; but, prompted by Stieglitz, he soon began confronting the modern world around him, working toward a less gauzy, more structured style. (He was more Cézanne than Monet.) With the arrogant humility of an important young artist, he schooled himself in the most advanced art of his time – notably the work of Picasso and the cubists.

Between 1915 and 1917, Strand confronted three great themes in an unabashedly modern manner – the flux of the city, the abstraction of forms, and the faces on the street. The show at the Met presents superb examples from each series. There is nothing static in Strand’s New York: It is a city built of passing glances, a streetscape of dashing diagonals and unexpected angles. What Strand’s images of the city gain in spontaneity, however, they do not lose in compositional rigor. And so the flux of modern life never becomes trivial or evanescent; it has a touch of the eternal, a measure of gravitas. The same is true of the still lifes and portraits. The arrangements of cups, plates, and fruit may represent a thoughtful reflection on cubist structure, but they never become “abstract” in the sense of static, dry, or lifeless. Strand had much too fine a sensibility to force meaning or ideas into an image. In the great portraits of people on the street, for example, there is never any heavy-handed message about the downtrodden.

Nowhere is this more true than in Wall Street, 1915, one the greatest photographs of the twentieth century. There are so many whispers in this picture, so many resonant implications in the relation between the rush-hour pedestrians and the bleak windows of the Morgan bank. To begin with, this is not a random crowd: The pedestrians walk in small groups that mirror, loosely, the progression of severe rectangular windows. A brilliant diagonal beam of white – shooting across the image – enhances our sensation of movement and establishes a no-man’s-land between the personal and the abstract. What is the nature of the conversation between humanity and these monumental windows? Some critics consider the picture a critique of capitalism, but the photograph transcends any such interpretation. In contrast to most windows in art, these open into darkness. The image is a fearful intimation of tragedy, a presentiment of a century of spiritual crisis. You can see foreshadowed the inhuman scale of totalitarian power; the emptying of traditional meaning into the void; the cranking of human beings into the geometric maw of modernity. This is a modern meditation, in short, upon death, power, and time.

Strand could not possibly have set out with such a grand purpose. But he was not just lucky, either. An image like Wall Street, 1915 came to him because he was ready. The show at the Met highlights that readiness – essentially a form of preparation that few young artists today are willing to undergo. Strand did not reject what came before him, for example. He built upon it. There remains a softness in Wall Street that derives from Pictorialism, but here it serves to strengthen the photograph’s powerful contrasts. Strand also resolutely resisted the easy allure of content, insisting that an image have strong formal values; never in this show do we feel “had” by advertised meaning. Not least, Strand worked hard in the darkroom, much as painters once schooled themselves in craft, developing a strong foundation for his work; the platinum prints in this show are, among other things, beautiful objects. Strand made his own luck.