“Photography records the gamut of feelings written on the human face, the beauty of the earth and skies that man has inherited, and the wealth and confusion man has created. [It is] a major force in explaining man to man.”
Steichen Quoted in Time Magazine, “To Catch the Instant” 7 April 1961
Edward Jean Steichen (March 27, 1879 – March 25, 1973) photographed by
Fred Holland Day (1901)
Edward Steichen. Self-Portrait with Studio Camera. c. 1917
Born in Luxembourg, Steichen moved to the United States in 1881. 1894, at the age of fifteen, Steichen began a four-year lithography apprenticeship with the American Fine Art Company of Milwaukee. After hours, he would sketch and draw, and began to teach himself to paint.
Having come across a camera shop near to his work, he visited frequently until he bought his first camera, a secondhand Kodak box “detective” camera, in 1895. Steichen and his friends who were also interested in drawing and photography pooled together their funds, rented a small room in a Milwaukee office building, and began calling themselves the Milwaukee Art Students League.
The artist Alphonse Mucha, as photographed by Edward Steichen, c. 1895
Steichen met Alfred Stieglitz in 1900, while stopping in New York City en route to Paris from his home in Milwaukee. In that first meeting, Stieglitz expressed praise for Steichen’s background in painting and bought three of Steichen’s photographic prints.
He was elected a member of London’s Linked Ring Brotherhood in 1901.
In 1902, when Stieglitz was formulating what would become Camera Work, he asked Steichen to design the logo for the magazine with a custom typeface. Steichen was the most frequently featured photographer in the journal.
Edward Steichen, The Flatiron c. 1903
Edward Steichen, The Big White Cloud, 1903
Edward Steichen – The Pond – Moonrise, 1904
Edward Steichen, Moonlit Landscape, 1903
Edward Steichen, Cooper’s Bluff-Moonlight Strollers, 1905
In 1904, Steichen began experimenting with colour photography. He was one of the first people in the United States to use the Autochrome Lumière process. In 1905, Stieglitz and Steichen created the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, which eventually became known as 291 after its address. It presented among the first American exhibitions of Henri Matisse, Auguste Rodin, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and Constantin Brâncuși.
Edward Steichen, Rodin, le Monument à Victor Hugo et le Penseur, 1902
Edward Steichen, Rodin, le Monument à Victor Hugo et le Penseur, 1902
In late summer 1908 Rodin moved the plaster of his sculpture of the French writer Honoré de Balzac out of his studio and into the open air so that Steichen, who disliked its chalky aspect in the daylight, could photograph it by the moon. Waiting through several exposures as long as an hour each, Steichen made this exposure at 11 p.m., when the moonlight transformed the plaster into a monumental phantom rising above the brooding nocturnal landscape. Steichen recalled that when he presented his finished prints some weeks later, an elated Rodin exclaimed: “You will make the world understand my Balzac through your pictures. They are like Christ walking on the desert.”
“Open Sky” Rodin’s Balzac 1908 Reproduction:© 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
In 1911, Steichen was “dared” by Lucien Vogel, the publisher of Jardin des Modes and LaGazette du Bon Ton , to promote fashion as a fine art by the use of photography. Steichen took photos of gowns designed by couturier Paul Poiret, which were published in the April 1911 issue of the magazine Art et Décoration.
Edward Steichen, a Paul Poiret design
According to Jesse Alexander, this is “… now considered to be the first ever modern fashion photography shoot. That is, photographing the garments in such a way as to convey a sense of their physical quality as well as their formal appearance, as opposed to simply illustrating the object.”
Edward Steichen, with what is deemed is the first “fashion photoshoot”, 1911
Steichen practiced painting in Paris intermittently between 1900 and 1922; there he met Rodin and was exposed to modern art movements, and was thus able to advise Stieglitz on exhibition selections.
Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz and His Daughter Katherine
“The break between Stieglitz and Steichen came on the verge of the United States’ entry into World War I, perhaps chiefly because Steichen was a dedicated Francophile and Stieglitz was openly sympathetic to Germany. Or perhaps it was because Steichen had come to believe that Stieglitz’s Photo-Secession and its instruments—291 and Camera Work—had become the vehicles for a personality cult.
After the war he replaced the rather vaporous symbolism of his earlier Pictorialist style with optical clarity and greater objectivity of description. Steichen spent several years experimenting with realistic effects of light, tone, and shadow; during this period, he famously photographed a white cup and saucer against a black velvet background more than one thousand times, hoping to achieve a perfect rendering of subtle gradations of white, black, and gray.
Edward Steichen, Lighters
In a further reaction to what now seemed to him pious Photo-Secessionist attitudes, Steichen threw himself wholeheartedly into commercial photography, establishing a successful commercial studio when he moved to New York City in 1923. He devoted the next 15 years of his life primarily to fashion photography and celebrity portraiture for Condé Nast publications such as Vogue and Vanity Fair and to advertising photography for the J. Walter Thompson agency. Most notably, as part of his work for Condé Nast, Steichen created striking portraits of figures such as Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, and Charlie Chaplin that helped to define the era.
Edward Steichen, Isadora Duncan at the Columns of the Parthenon, Athens, 1921
Edward Steichen, Gloria Swanson 1924
Edward Steichen, Martha Graham 1931
Edward Steichen, Study in White for Vogue, 1935
He closed his very successful studio on January 1, 1938, and spent much of the next four years pursuing his long-time avocation of plant breeding at his home in Connecticut, concentrating on the delphinium in particular.
Edward Steichen with his delphiniums, 1938
One month after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the U.S. Navy made Steichen a lieutenant commander in charge of directing a photographic record of the naval war in the Pacific.
In 1947 Steichen was named director of the department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, a position he would hold until his retirement 15 years later. “The Family of Man,” an exhibition he curated in 1955, was arguably the most important work of art in his long career. The exhibition was based on the concept of human solidarity, and Steichen selected 503 images from countless prints submitted from all over the world. It is said that the exhibition was seen by almost nine million people in 37 countries. Steichen went on to curate many smaller exhibitions at the museum, some of which were the first substantial shows of the work of important younger photographers, thus continuing his role as a tireless advocate of the medium throughout the remaining years of his career. His autobiography, A Life in Photography, was published in 1963.
Portrait of Edward Steichen by Philippe Halsman, 1955
International Centre Photography: https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/constituents