Edward Steichen - Biography and Legacy
American Photographer, Painter, and Filmmaker
West Redding, Connecticut
Biography of Edward Steichen
Eduard Jean Steichen was born in Bivange, Luxembourg in 1879. His father, Jean-Pierre, moved to the United States the following year; Eduard and his mother, Marie, following in 1881, once his father had secured work in the copper mines in Hancock, near Chicago. Eduard's sister Lilian was born soon thereafter in 1883. The Steichen family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1889, where, due to Jean-Pierre's deteriorating health, Marie took on the role of breadwinner, working as a milliner.
When he was fifteen, Steichen started an apprenticeship in lithography with the American Fine Art Company of Milwaukee. Before long he had showed an aptitude for drawing and moved quickly through the ranks to become a lithograph designer. He bought a second-hand camera in 1895, and began teaching himself how to take photographs. He was also studying painting in his spare time and his first forays into photography duly replicated the painterly techniques of the Pictorialist style that was in vogue at the time. His employers were impressed with his photographic work and insisted that the company's designs should come from his work from then on. Soon thereafter, Steichen and a select group of friends formed the Milwaukee Art Students League. The League rented a room in a downtown building to work in and to host lectures. In 1899, Steichen's photographs were exhibited in the second Philadelphia Photographic Salon next to those of Alfred Stieglitz and Clarence H. White. The event proved to be a prelude to a fruitful professional relationship between the men.
In 1900 White wrote to Stieglitz to suggest he meet with Steichen. The meeting was a success; so much so in fact, Stieglitz become Steichen's early mentor and collaborator. Stieglitz, who was 13 years Steichen's senior, and who had already made a reputation for himself, bought three of Steichen's prints (for $5 each). Those were the first prints Steichen ever sold. That same year, Steichen became a naturalised citizen of the U.S., changing the spelling of his name from "Eduard" to "Edward".
In October 1900, the Boston photographer F. Holland Day put on an important exhibition entitled The New School of American Photography at the London headquarters of the Royal Photographic Society. Some of the content of exhibition shocked the British press and public: indeed, The Photography News claimed that the collection had been "fostered by the ravings of a few lunatics." There was some disquiet about the School's "progressive" Pictorialist method (having clashed with Day, Stieglitz had refused to partake in the exhibition) but the annoyance was aimed mostly at Day (an individual who courted controversy, and who modelled himself on Oscar Wilde) for his homoerotic images featuring naked black men and a self-portrait in which he presented himself as Christ. Yet amidst the furore, the 22-year-old Steichen was singled out for giddy praise.
Between 1900 and 1902 Steichen had taken a studio on the bohemian Left Bank area of Paris. His connections with European modernists proved very useful for his next co-endeavor with Stieglitz: the gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue. Trading between 1905 and 1917, and officially called the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, it soon became known simply as 291. Thanks to Steichen's French connections, the 291 gallery was responsible for introducing the work of up and coming (and now legendary) French avant-gardists to the American public. In its first five years of operation, the gallery had exhibited works by the likes of Rodin, Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso.
In 1902 Steichen and Stieglitz established the artistic group Photo-Secession, a collective of photographers including White, Eva Watson-Schutze, William B. Dyer and Edmund Stirling. The group wanted to celebrate the photograph as art, but with a particular emphasis on Pictorialism, and the range of techniques that could be used to manipulate and alter the original composition. The birth of Photo-Secession coincided more-or-less with the inaugural edition of the influential quarterly Camera Work. Established by Stieglitz and Steichen, Camera Work, for which Steichen designed the logo and page layouts, and contributed essays, ran from 1903 to 1917. The second edition was devoted almost exclusively to Steichen's work and during its 14 year history, Steichen became Camera Work's most frequent contributor (with some 70 entries). Steichen's involvement with the magazine was interrupted in 1906 however when he returned to Paris with his family - Steichen had been married in 1903 to Cara E. Smith, a musician he met on his earlier visit to Paris - until 1914. Though he was still able to contribute to Camera Work, his primary motivation for returning to the French capital was to concentrate on his painting.
In 1910, divisions had started to arise between members of the Photo-Secession, due to differing opinions on the wavering artistic credibility of Pictorialism. There was a new call for a pure photographic style that would bring new perspectives and detail to ordinary or previously ignored subjects in the name of fine art. The new aesthetic took inspiration in the second half of the decade from Paul Strand whose "Straight" aesthetic condemned all forms of Pictorialism. The Photo-Secession group dissolved around this time, and Steichen himself started to move into commercial photography. In 1911, he was commissioned to take photographs for the French magazine Art et Décoration. His images were to accompany a piece on the French fashion designer Paul Poiret, and are now widely considered to be the first examples of fashion photography.
When the U.S entered the First World War in 1917, Steichen joined the Army and helped create the photographic division, eventually becoming commander and head of aerial photography. In this role, he had to change his approach to photography, abandoning his Pictorialist style for a more exacting, realist method. The war also signalled a final break between himself and Stieglitz. Firstly, Stieglitz disapproved of Steichen's move into commercial photography and, secondly, the men had opposite views on the war. Stieglitz, a German, was primarily worried for the safety of his family and friends in Germany. He was also troubled by practical and commercial concerns such as the fact that he needed to find a new printer for the photogravures for Camera Work, which had been printed hitherto in Germany. For his part, Steichen supported America's involvement in the war and he was more concerned for the fate of Luxembourg (the country of his birth) and his beloved France. By the time the war had ended, Steichen had completely reappraised his photographic technique, and abandoned Pictorialism and painting altogether. He commented that: "As a painter I was producing a high grade wall paper with a gold frame around it [...] we pulled all the paintings I had made out into the yard and we made a bonfire of the whole thing [...] it was a confirmation of my faith in photography, and the opening of a whole new world to me."
He and Clara divorced in 1922 after several years of acrimony. The couple had two daughters, Katherine and Mary, but they had a difficult relationship with their father due in part to Clara's accusations of Steichen's infidelity. Steichen married actress Dana Desboro Glover in 1923. The same year, he returned to the world of fashion, and took up the post of chief photographer for Condé Nast, the publisher of high-end fashion magazines such as Vogue and Vanity Fair. Steichen then effectively transformed the world of fashion photography by making his haute couture images more animated and more inventive. He also took several portraits of dignitaries and Stars of stage and screen including Lillian Gish (as Ophelia), Marlene Dietrich, Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo and Paul Robeson. Of his shoot with Robeson, Steichen said the following: "In photographing an artist, such as Paul Robeson, the photographer is given exceptional material to work with. In other words, he [the photographer] can count on getting a great deal for nothing, but that does not go very far unless the photographer is alert, ready and able to take advantage of such an opportunity."
After working for 15 years in the fashion industry, Steichen closed his studio on January 1st, 1938. When World War II broke out, Steichen took up his second military post as Director of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit. During his service (through which he rose to the rank of Captain) he produced two shows - The Road to Victory and Power in the Pacific - for the Museum of Modern Art, and directed his only film, a documentary entitled The Fighting Lady. The film followed the life of an aircraft carrier of the same name and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1945.
Following the war, Steichen served as Director of the Department of Photography at New York's Museum of Modern Art between 1947 and 1961. In 1955 he curated and assembled the exhibit The Family of Man, an exhibition that travelled across the world and was seen by an estimated nine million people over eight years. The exhibition, the most famous photographic exhibition of all time, brought together works by two hundred and seventy-three different photographers, including the likes of Ansel Adams, Diane and Allan Arbus, Robert Frank, Nora Dumas, Lee Miller, Henk Jonker, and August Sander. Steichen had worked on the selection of images for two years and wanted to show the wide range of experiences photography can capture. In the press release from the time he said "[The photographers] have photographed the everyday story of man - his aspirations, his hopes, his loves, his foibles, his greatness, his cruelty his compassion, his relations to his fellow man as it is seen in him wherever he happens to live, whatever language he happens to speak, whatever clothes he happens to wear."
In 1957, Dana, his wife of 34 years, died of leukaemia. Three years later the 80-year-old Steichen married the copywriter Joanna Taub, 53 years his junior. They remained together until his death in 1973 when she became the guardian of her husband's legacy. While in his last year at MoMA, a 14-year-old boy named Stephen Shore rang Steichen to ask if he could show him some of his photographs. Admiring of the boy's audacity, Steichen allowed him an appointment and bought three of the images. Shore, known predominantly for his color photography, has gone on to have a long and laureled career.
In 1963 Steichen published his autobiography A life in Photography. He died on March 25th, 1973 at the age of 93 in his home on a farm in West Connecticut.
The Legacy of Edward Steichen
Steichen's place in the pantheon of photographic greats was secured as a young man through his contribution to three interlocked bodies: the Photo-Secession group; Camera Work and the 291 Gallery. With his colleagues he was instrumental in establishing a permanent footing for photography amongst the modern plastic arts and as such his influence can be traced through a range of photographic genres. He made the most personal impact however on fashion photography and magazine portraiture. The renowned photography historian Beaumont Newman put it perfectly when he said that "Armed with his mastery of technique, and with his brilliant sense of design and ability to grasp in an image the personality of a sitter, [Steichen] began to raise magazine illustrations to a creative level." Curators and art critics William A. Ewing and Todd Brandow went further still when they suggested that Steichen "was among a tiny band of talented photographers who elevated celebrity portraiture from the status of formulaic publicity stills to an aesthetically sophisticated genre in its own right."
Through Steichen is primarily - and rightly - known through his photography, he was also crucial in bringing the works of highly distinguished French artists such as Rodin, Cézanne and Matisse to the United States. His curation of Family of Man exhibition, meanwhile, suggested new possibilities for photographic portraiture as at once an art form and a means of reaching a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of humankind.
Steichen was the recipient of numerous awards and honors in his lifetime including the Presidential Medal of Freedom (for his work in Photography) in 1963. He has been the subject of books and exhibitions and in 1974 he was inducted (having already served on its advisory board) into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum. In 1994, meanwhile, The Family of Man Exhibition found a permanent home in Luxembourg (Steichen's birthplace) where it is housed in the Steichen Museum. Perhaps the last word on his legacy should go to the esteemed American poet Carl Sandberg who said this of Steichen's work: "A scientist and a speculative philosopher stands [at the] back of Steichen's best picture. They will not yield their meaning and essence on the first look nor the thousandth -- which is the test of masterpieces."