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Edward Steichen

Whitney Museum of American Art

Oct. 5, 2000 - Feb. 4, 2001

Edward Steichen" by Barbara Haskell, the Whitney Museum of American Art, 128 pages, 22 color illustrations and 23 duotones, $12.95


"Steichen's Legacy, Photographs 1895-1973" by Joanna T. Steichen, more than 300 illustrations, Alfred A. Knopf, 2000, $100

The Pond - Moonlight, by Steichen

The Pond - Moonlight, by Edward Steichen, 1904

By Carter B. Horsley

Edward Steichen is photography's greatest artist as this large retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art clearly shows.

During his long career, he not only excelled in many different genres, creating masterpieces in all, but he also was exceedingly influential as a curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art and as a fashion and celebrity photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines in the 1920's and 1930's and he also was an important adviser to the U. S. military in documentary photography during both World Wars.

To many, his greatest achievements, of course, are his early Tonalist works, which were very important in elevating photography into a fine art form, and his celebrity portraits that stylistically used strong shadows and unusual angles to highlight his subjects and would have enormous influence on all subsequent fashion and art photography. Steichen, however, considered his greatest achievement his mounting of "The Family of Man" photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955.

During his long career, Steichen vacillated between elitist and personal artistic expression and using the power of photography as a means of mass communication.

Landscape with Avenue of Trees by Steichen

"Landscape with Avenue of Trees," by Edward Steichen, 1902

It is fascinating to note that early in his career he produced some fabulous Tonalist paintings, several of which are included in the show and which are quite rare. The only other artist of his era who also produced fine paintings despite being an artist of a different art form was Louis Comfort Tiffany, best known for his stained glass and enamel objets d'art.

Across the Salt Marshes, Huntington, by Steichen

Across the Salt Marshes, Huntingon, circa 1903, by Edward Steichen
© Toledo Museum of Art, 1905, all rights reserved

Steichen's Tonalist paintings derive in part from Whistler and George Inness, but they hold their own as extremely poetic and beautiful images that are surprisingly underappreciated in most art histories.

In his foreword to the exhibition's quite slim official catalogue, Warren Anderson, the museum's director, noted that "A Century ago, as a proponent of Pictorial photography, Edward Steichen foresaw the limitations of the medium as a documentary enterprise," adding that "although he eventually rejected Pictorialism, he remained committed to a redefinition and expansion of photography as an expressive tool." "His work has much to teach us today, at a time when photographs are no more reliable than verbal accounts as evidence of fact," he continued, referring to the potential of digital photographic techniques to manipulate images.

"His rejection of fast-developing orthodoxies about the appropriate limits and features of photography set him apart from many other photographers, who sought to raise their medium to the fine art status of painting. Steichen's independent and egalitarian spirit also puts him more suitably in our time than his," Anderson wrote.

"Steichen's struggle to harness the power of photography in the service of art, nature, celebrity, and democracy are fascinating to us today, fully a century after his career began. His protean talents are those of a great artist who restlessly explores new ways of capturing or interpreting the world around him. And his on-again, off-again engagement with the beau monde of New York society was leavened by his dedication to a patriotic vision of American's role on the world stage," Anderson continued.

"In the first two decades of the century, his softly focused, dreamlike images won photography recognition as a fine art, but their defiance of the medium's conventions engendered hostility from purists averse to his painterly manipulation of prints. After World War I, Steichen came to see photography as a powerful force in shaping cultural values. He proposed a new connection between photography and popular culture, embracing the medium as a vehicle of mass communication, and, frequently, merging commerce and high art. Once again, Steichen became a lightning rod for controversy. As he shifted during his sixty-year career between photography, painting, design, exhibition curating, and horticulture, he was guided by an unerring instinct for drama and the use of light and shadow to evoke mood and construct form. The imagery and message changed, but his work always caught the mood of its time - from a turn-of-the-century suspicion of reason and materialism to a glorification of glamour and wealth and, finally, to a hope for universal brotherhood and the power of love," wrote Barbara Haskell, the museum's curator of prewar American art and a leading American art scholar and author of numerous books, in her appraisal of the photography in the exhibition's catalogue.

The thin museum catalogue unfortunately only has a few reproductions that while good give no indication of the scope of this large exhibition whereas the much more expensive book by Joanna Steichen has more than 300 fine reproductions, some of which are not included in the exhibition. Joanna Steichen was the photographer's last wife and her book includes a great deal of personal information about him not contained in the museum's short catalogue.

In an article in The New York Times October 31, 2000, Ginia Bellafante wrote that Mrs. Steichen has criticized the Whitney show "for what she says is an overemphasis on her late husband’s fashion work" and that "she was also upset that she was not asked to participate in a symposium on the photographer’s work organized by the curator of the show." Mrs. Steichen’s book, which is discussed lower in this article, is quite wonderful and the apparent feud is a shame.

Haskell notes that after Steichen's death, "his career has often been condemned as overly theatrical and commercial," but added that "in the three decades since Steichen's death, however, the definition of fine art photography has undergone a radical and expansive transformation" and "from this new vantage, we can validate Steichen's leveling of the differences between photographer and artist and between high and low art."

Indeed, Steichen's transformation from being a creator of exquisite images of great sensitivity and somewhat later fashioneer of haute glamor to becoming the organizer of the famous "Family of Man" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955 with its rich, multicultural panoply of the commonality of humanity is certainly a dramatic redemption from the excesses of the material world to the tissues of civilization. His art was always civilized but it progressed from the elitism of the brain to the visceral realities of the heart.

"Edward Steichen's childhood experiences as a working-class immigrant molded his attitudes toward art. Born neither to social privilege nor economic security, he saw art as an essential part of democratic life. Financial necessity forced him to leave school after the eighth grade and apprentice to a Milwaukee lithographic firm. There he quickly rose to a position as designer responsible for the creation of several successful advertisements….To improve his skills, he persuaded several friends to rent space in a Milwaukee office building and hire a model to pose for life drawings," Haskell wrote, added that by 1900 Steichen "began to win local recognition" and listed "himself as an artist in the Milwaukee town directory." By 1895, Haskell continued, Steichen had a 4 x 5 Primo Folding View Camera and was providing designers at the lithography firm with photographs they could copy to create ads and poster designs." Soon, he began to take portraits of Milwaukeeans on his days off and opened a photography studio with a colleague, Herman Pfeiffer. Haskell notes that he would discover Camera Notes, a quarterly publication began by Aldred Stieglitz in 1887 under the auspices of the Camera Club of New York, which encouraged the use of cameras to create works of art "rather than utilitarian documents." "By accident, Steichen discovered that he could achieve the subdued tones and formal simplicity prized by Pictorialists by spilling water on the camera lens or shaking the tripod during exposure" and "he began to experiment with such techniques, especially in landscape photographs."

"He was particularly partial to dark, gray days and to twilight, when, as he wrote several years later, 'things disappear and seem to melt into each other, and a great feeling of peace overshadows all.' Over the next decade, Steichen increasingly replaced sharply delineated details with indistinct, suggestive shadows, employing the expressive potential of light and form to evoke the dreamy mysticism characteristic of Pictorial photography. Photography as an expressive art was relatively new, and the field, though expanding, was still sparsely populated. Steichen's work was therefore highly visible, and he received quick recognition for his enigmatic records of nocturnal phenomena," Haskell wrote.

Clarence H. White, the noted Pictorialist photographer, noticed some of Steichen's work at an exhibition in Chicago and wrote to Steichen to encourage him to see Steiglitz, which he did in April, 1900, enroute to Europe. Stieglitz, who was 15 years older than Steichen, purchased three of his landscape prints and agreed to hold several more for possible reproduction in Camera Notes. "In a now legendary exchange, Stieglitz asked Steichen whether his study in Paris would cause him to abandon photography and devote himself to painting. Steichen replied, 'I shall always stick to photography, for there are, in my opinion, certain pictorial ideas that can be expressed better by photography than by another 'art medium,'" Haskell wrote.

F. Holland Day, a Pictorial photographer from Boston, had organized a 400-print exhibition of "The New School of American Photography" at the Royal Photographic Salon in London in October, 1900, and included 21 works by Steichen. The exhibition stirred considerable controversy because English Pictorial photographers criticized the small scale and multiple mattes of the American works. The exhibition, Haskell wrote, "catapulted Steichein into the limelight" and a smaller version of the show would open soon thereafter in Paris. "His dual role as painter and photographer was hailed by proponents of Pictorialism as proof of photography's legitimate status as fine art" and when the Salon des Champs de Mars in Paris accepted one painting, six charcoal drawings and ten photographs by Steichen in 1902 "the news galvanized the photographic community and the America Press," she wrote. "For the first time, photography had been deemed equivalent to the other pictorial arts. Steichen, however, had labeled the ten photographs 'engravings,' and when the jury discovered the ruse, he works were removed before the show opened," Haskell continued.

The photographs removed had been printed by Steichen with gum bichromate, a process that permitted the introduction of color and the intensification, thinning out, shading and removal of portions of an image with a brush or scraping tool. Several of such works by Steichen were reproduced in a German photography journal and the editor was forced to resign over the ensuing controversy, which only served to make Steichen more famous.

Steichen would soon go on to make photographic portraits of many famous people, such as George Bernard Shaw, Henri Matisse, Clarence H. White, William Merritt Chase and August Rodin and these works manifested his painterly approach to light and shadows.

The Flatiron by Steichen

"The Flatiron," by Edward Steichen, 1904

"Steichen's richly toned, evocative photographs reflected the yearning in the early years of the twentieth century to escape from the crass materialism and rationality of the everyday world into a space of quiet meditation. Pessimism in the late nineteenth century about traditional religions and technological progress had given rise to an almost spiritual belief in intuition and the creative possibilities of the individual. Many artists turned to intense, private experience for subject matter, embracing the transient imagery of dreams and the luminous mysteries of nature. The result was an art of withdrawal and detachment from the rational world, an art that eschewed precision in favor of mystery, reason in favor of reverie. The elusive, expression of dreamlike moods which Steichen achieved by exploiting softly nuanced, shallow space echoed the sensibility of British Aestheticism and of French Symbolism - movements which other Pictorial photographers also used as models for the portrayal of subjective, metaphysical truths," Haskell observed.

Stieglitz meanwhile formed a new organization, the Photo-Secession, to promote the expressive potential of photography, and in March, 1902, held an exhibition, "American Pictorial Photography," at the National Arts Club on Gramercy Square, and four months late Stieglitz resigned as editor of Camera Notes and planned to launch a new quarterly, Camera Work, whose cover, typeface and layout were designed by Steichen, then only 23 and recognized as the star of the new movement. Steichen in fact suggested that Stieglitz rent his own recently vacated studio on the top floor of 291 Fifth Avenue for the new galleries of the Photo-Secession, which Stieglitz did and which opened in 1905 with galleries designed by Steichen in "a spare, simple style reminiscent of the Viennese Secessionist architecture," Haskell wrote, added that "Stieglitz likened himself to the conductor of an orchestra, with Steichen the concert master."

"More than any other photographer, he stretched the technical parameters of the medium through mastery of a range of printing processes - platinum, bromide, gum bichromate, and direct carbon. In addition to his experiments with three-color prints between 1904 and 1906, he employed virtuoso techniques in the his black-and-white images, montaging negatives…or combining several photographic processes to produce unique prints that could not be duplicated. His ability to apply successive layers of pigment to gum bichromate or platinum prints yielded spectacularly toned, chromatic photographs….But such efforts were time-consuming and few other photographers attempted them," Haskell wrote.

He remained committed to painting and while controversy still waged among purists about his techniques, he closed his portrait studio to return to Paris and promised Stieglitz that he would recommend non-photographic art in Europe for exhibition in New York.

Paris, of course, was now alive with Fauvism and Cubism and in 1908 Steichen created an organization of progessive American artists called the New Society of America Artists, and he developed a close friendship with Rodin and arranged for a show of his watercolors at Stieglitz's gallery that was now called 291. "Steichen's own aesthetic temperament leaned toward the voluptuous sensuality of both Rodin and Matisse, another close friend. The French painter's emotionally expressive Fauvist color convinced Steichen that the absence of color in photography was a barrier to the medium's full acceptance as a fine art. Not surprisingly, he was one of the first to experiment with color lantern slides- called autochromes - after the Lumière brothers demonstrated the process in July 1906. That the process was expensive and error prone and the glass slides it yielded visible only when light passed through them did not dampen the enthusiasm with which Steichen and other photographers greeted the new technology….Surprisingly, Steichen's paintings remained relatively low-toned and conservative in relation to his color photographs as well as to the art he was selecting for exhibition at 291. In contrast to the loose brushwork and high-keyed palette employed by painter colleagues such as John Marin, Alfred Maurer, and Arthur B. Carles, with whom he participated in 291's 'Younger American Painters' show in March, 1910, Steichen's single-toned nocturnal landscapes remained linked to the smoothly nuanced work of America m painter James McNeill Whistler….Their appeal to intuition rather than reason and the intellect found favor with the public, whose purchase of them provided Steichen's annual living expenses," Haskell continued.

Steichen was not enthusiastic, about Cubism, and this would lead to a break with Stieglitz and his last exhibition at 291 was in 1909. Two years later, he was commissioned, however, by Paul Poiret, the couturier, to photograph some gowns for the April issue of Art et Décoration and also received a commission to create mural paintings for the Park Avenue townhouse of Agnes and Eugene Meyer, a project, entitled "In Exultation of Flowers," which occupied him for four years.

In Exaltation of Flowers by Steichen

"In Exaltation of Flowers: Petunia, Caladium, Budleya," by Edward Steichen, circa 1911-1914

"Painted with luminous, brilliant colors and gold leaf, highly stylized and awash in sinuous lines, the murals marked the beginning of Steichen's more assertive use of color and more decorative treatment of the picture surface. Their synthesis of Pre-Raphaelite female images with modernist stylization served as a bridge between the idyllic spiritual innocence of Steichen's Pictorialist art and the glamorous Art Deco elegance of his work in the next decades," Haskell observed.

The coming of World War I, however, "unleashed in him a social conscience dormant since his youth in Milwaukee, when he had participated with his mother and sister in Socialist organizations," Haskell wrote. Returning to New York, he found Stieglitz not terribly concerned about the war but had a successful show at M. Knoedler and Co., in 1915 at which the Meyer murals were sold. "Even more devastating was the acrimonious separation that Steichen's wife, Clara, initiated that May and her subsequent flight to France with one of their two daughters, Kate," Haskell wrote, adding that he began to take non-Pictorialist photographs with "strong light-dark contrasts and sharply focused effects. Three months after the Americans entered the war, Steichen volunteered for military service despite the fact that he was eight years over the age limit, and was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the Photographic Section of the Army Signal Corps and would oversee aerial photography missions. He would remain with the Air service in Europe after the Armistice and eventually returned to Washington, D.C., to establish a permanent division of aviation photography for the Signal Corps. "His war experiences with aerial reconnaissance photography had reinforced …[a] preference for factual accuracy…[and] following his return to France in the spring of 1920, he renewed his aesthetic commitment to order and rationalism," Steichen wrote.

He began to experiment with abstract still lifes and with tonal values. "The exactness and objectivity with which he presented these fragments of nature attested to a newfound conviction that the truths photography could best express were those rooted in external, not internal, reality….In so doing, he anticipated a younger generation of photographers, among them Edward Weston, whose work likewise wold portray the cyclical forces and constant rhythms of nature. Steichen's application of the impersonal clarity and logic of science extended to painting as well. Works such as Le Tournesol, featured in the 1922 Salon d'Automne…, drew on his study of the relationship between plant structure and plane and solid geometry. Next, using the geometric ration known as the Golden Section, he created a series of fifteen tempera paintings, each composed of flat, brightly colored, geometric shapes….Uninterested in pure abstraction, he cast these geometric shapes as actors in a children's story, following the example of his brother-in-law, Carl Sandburg, whose 1932 children’s book, Rutabaga Stories, had been greeted with acclaim by both his family and the public."

Steichen returned to New York in late 1922 and wrote to Frank Crowninshield, the editor of Condé Nast's magazine empire, to correct Vanity Fair's report that he, though beyond peer as a portrait photographer, had given up the medium for painting. Fortuituously, Vogue's leading fashion photographer, Baron Adolph de Meyer, had just defected to a rival magazine and Crowninshield offered Steichen a contract and he would become Condé Nast's chief photographer for the next 15 years, shooting celebrities for Vanity Fair and fashion for Vogue. As the highest paid photographer in the United States, Steichen's interest in painting waned to such an extent that he renounced painting and burned his canvases.

"In his first year at Vogue, Steichen did little to alter the format he inherited from de Meyer: single figures wearing decoratively embellished gowns of shimmering fabrics positioned against richly textured backgrounds. But whereas de Meyer exploited dramatic backlighting to bathe his models in a soft glow, Steichen favored sharp-focus lighting and uncluttered settings. He proposed a new prototype of female beauty. In contrast to de Meyer's romantic, dreamy women, Steichen's were bold, confident, and independent….His photographs codified the image of the liberated woman that emerged after World War I. Their target audience was not the youth culture of the Jazz Age but its more sophisticated, older counterpart whose conception of elegance and glamour Steichen's images helped shape. By the mid-1920s. Steichen had begun to place his models in unadorned, angular spaces enlivened by slashing beams of artificial studio light. His appropriation of the straight-edged, geometric patterning of Art Deco, following the famous Paris 'Exposition Internationale et Art Décoratifs' in 1925, exerted a pervasive influence over fashion photography….Ornate curvilinear interiors gave way to stark geometric backgrounds strikingly delineated in light and shadow; space was dramatized exclusively with light."

Steichen believed that the mass media was inherently "populist" and as he became America's "court portraitist," "he dropped the props that had signified personality or achievement in his earlier portraits and highlighted glamour and surface beauty - legitimizing the very characteristics that had won his sitters their celebrity …rather than probing the deeper, more complex realities of their inner lives, he adroitly exploited conventions of beauty and power to create portraits whose subjects seem at once familiar and enticingly distanced."

Matches and Match Boxes, fabric design, by Steichen

Matches and Match Boxes, fabric design for Stehli Silks, by Edward Steichen, 1926

In 1926 and 1927, he was commissioned by the Stehli Silk Corporation to create fabric designs and his designs were based on close-up photographs of common objects such as buttons and thread, matches and matchboxes, lumps of sugar, mothballs, carpet tacks, thread, and eyeglasses, "Drawing on his experience with aerial reconnaissance photography, he photographed these objects from above, thus abstracting the objects and producing strong shadows that operated as purely formal elements.

Soon, Steichen became in great demand as a commercial photography by advertisers such as Woodbury Soap, Steinway Grand Pianos, Mills Towels, Matson Cruise limes, Jergens Lotion and Kodak. "In visualizing an America populated by beautiful people, seductive women, contented mothers, happy families, and desirable products, he translated the American Dream into visual form.

Douglass Lighters by Steichen

Douglass Lighters, by Edward Steichen, 1928

All of this activity, not surprisingly "angered the art community," especially when he was quoted by Sandburg, in a book underwritten by J. Walter Thompson, the ad agency, as a biography of Steichen, as maintaining that not only that 'art for art's sake was dead - if it ever lived,' but that 'there never has been a period when the best thing we had was not commercial art.' Historicall7, art was propaganda and the artist was usually what we might call a glorified press agent.'" Paul Strand and Walker Evans, important photographers, would attack Steichen. Evans would deride Steichen's "special feeling for parvenu elegance."

In 1938, Steichen announced he would retire from commercial photography, perhaps a bit in response to a new generation of fashion photographers like Martin Munckacsi at Harper's Bazaar, who emphasized an informal, naturalistic style, and perhaps also in part because other photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Margaret Bourke-White were exploring documentary photography and social commentary. That year Steichen was particularly impressed with an exhibition sponsored by the federal Government's Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration documenting the lifestyles of those hit hard by the Depression.

What was very interesting was that his reaction was not so much to individual photographs but to the ensemble of images. "It is not the individual pictures nor the work of individual photographers that make these pictures so important, but it is the job as a whole…that makes it such a unique and outstanding achievement," he would write. Despite a reawakening of his social consciousness, Steichen concentrated the next couple of years on raising Delphiniums in West Redding, Connecticut. After the German invasion of Russia in 1941, however, he tried unsuccessfully to reactivate his commission in the Army Air Service, but did organize an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art on the theme of national defense, which opened in May, 1942, with the title "Road to Victory." According to Haskell, the show "presented a new kind of photography exhibition, one whose emotional power lay in its narrative sequencing and mural0zie enlargements of prints. Designed by German-born architect Herbert Bayer, the installation required viewers to follow a prescribed route on raised ramps, flanked by photomurals…. And text panels written by Carl Sandburg. The next year, the Navy asked him to create a unit to help in recruiting pilots and commissioned him as a lieutenant commander in the Naval reserve and by the next year his Naval Aviation Photographic Unit expanded to include wartime naval aviation. Steichen's wartime photographs and those of the units he would oversee "offer reassuring human interest views of military teamwork," Haskell dryly noted, adding that "their affirmative vision testified to Steichen's faith in the power of community and human cooperation," but not to the horror of war.

In July, 1947, Steichen was named director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art. The previous director, Beaumont Newhall, had resigned in protest as did all 30 members of the department's advisory committee. Newhall, Haskell maintained, personally disliked Steichen, whom he considered self-centered and megalomaniacal."

"During Steichen's fifteen-year tenure at MoMA, thematic concerns came to predominate. Aesthetic issues were marginalized as Steichen replaced one-artist shows with group presentations assembled on the basis of subject matter. Even in non-thematic surveys of contemporary photographers, he typically treated prints as conveyors of information rather than as precious objects by mounting them on thick boards without glass or mats and clustering them in graphically dramatic arrangements that resembled magazine layouts. Such orchestrations often overshadowed the work of individual photographers…..Steichen's showmanship and populist bias were decried by photographers such as Ansel Adams, for whom Steichen was the 'anti-Christ' of photography and his regime a 'body blow to the progress of creative photography.' Still, Steichen served photography well, encouraging a host of younger artist by looking at their work, purchasing prints for the collection and including them in exhibitions. More important, his vision of photography as a democratic tool of mass communication attracted a wide popular following to the medium. Never did Steichen articulate his ambition for photography more forcefully than in his famous 1955 exhibition 'The Family of Man,' an immense, thematic presentation that he considered his highest accomplishment as a creative individual. To organize the extravaganza, Steichen spent more than three years culling two million photographic submissions. The 502 photographs he ultimately selected represented the work of 273 photographers from 68 counties."

The exhibition was mounted by Paul Rudolph, the architect, and some photographs were suspended on wire and assembled around 37 themes with texts by Stieglitz colleague and biographer, Dorothy Norman. "At a time when the atomic bomb's potential for total world destruction made life seem fragile and uncertain, he affirmed the essential oneness of humanity and the universality of everyday experience. By underscoring the shared values and experiences of humankind and thereby erasing the distinction between 'us' and ''them,' Steichen sought to further world peace. It was a message that spoke powerfully to the postwar world. Considered the major art event of the decade, 'The Family of Man' enjoyed record attendance,,,,..Criticism of the show's sentimentality gained momentum after 1960, as Americans came to question the exhibition's comforting view of life. In retrospect, 'the Family of Man' closed an ideological era that had flourished in the forties films of Hollywood directors Frank Capra and John Ford. In the era of civil rights activism, anti-Vietnam War protests, and countercultural rebellion - when moral certainties and a belief in human beneficence yielded to uncertainty and disillusionment - the exhibition was scorned for its maudlin humanism and implicit neocolonial assumption that everyone held the values and expectations of the middle-class American family…..modernist purity came to dominate art world politics and Steichen became an object of vilification."

Steichen's Legacy

Joanna Steichen's book is vastly more beautiful and interesting than the museum's rather brief catalogue of the exhibition.

She was the photographer's third wife and widow. When they met at "21" in 1959, she was 26 and working for the Young & Rubicam advertising agency as the chief television copywrighter for the American Airlines account, and he was the Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art. The lunch was to launch a series of recordings by Carl Sandburg, the poet, for use on an all-night radio program, and Steichen and Sandburg were leaving later that day for Moscow. Sandburg had married Steichen's sister, Lillian, who was known as Pausl, in 1910.

Joanna Taub Steichen had seen the photographer's famous exhibition, The Family of Man, in 1955 at the Museum of Modern Art, and describes it in her book as "a dramatic hymn to life celebrating the needs, pleasures, griefs and transitions common to people of many different classes and cultures all over the world," adding that the paperback catalogue of the exhibition "had become a bible for advertising copywriters like myself."

She was thrilled by Steichen, who died in 1973 two days short of his 94th birthday, and they would soon get involved: "We shared righteous patriotrism and the wish to make something beautiful, concepts considered admirable in the first two thirds of the twentieth century, not consigned, as they seem now, to the superficial and cosmetic or to the jingoistic and paranoid, but broad and respectable expressions of appreciation and hope. Passion, too, was an acceptable phenomenon then."

"With the validation of experience behind him, he exuded confident pleasure in life and its possibilities. All his long life, he had been restless, inquisitive, searching or meaning, driven to master technical processes and the workings of nature. The perspective of those many years was part of the attraction. So was his ability to retain qualities we associate with youth: awe, zest, rapture over the tallest tree or the biggest dog, a fine face of a sleek convertible, a musical phrase, a new use for a particular slant of light. Best of all, his capacity for perpetual wonder was balanced by a healthy irreverence for pretension and cant," she wrote.

Her book is divided into many sections with photographs organized mostly by subject with introductory commentaries by her that are very incisive and sophisticated and great reading.

"To a man who could charm almost anyone and master any task that engaged his imagination," she wrote, "courtship came easily….We were married on Saturday afternoon March 19, 1960….We celebrated with Steichen's favorite brand of champagne, Lanson….Steichen had been accustomed all his life to concentrate fiercely, proudly, on his own interests….He once told me, long after we were married, that what he wanted from any person in his household was quiet, dog-like devotion….He expected me to take over the bookkeeping and other paperwork and to be available all day, every day, to assist him on his projects. If I took an hour longer than usual for household errands, he would transpose his anxiety into gruff reproaches that, at first, reduced me to tears."

She provides an excellent overview of his life:

"He had started in his teens as a nineteenth-century romantic determined to prove that a photograph could be a work of art, and he was going strong in his eighties as the high priest of photography's mission to enhance human life through understanding. In his twenties, he became known for moody, mysterious photographs designed to compete with paintings and printed in time-consuming, multilayered techniques. Some observers had found their innovative compositions shocking, and other s had hailed them as the emergence of a new genius….Steichen was in demand as a portratist in the first decade of the twentieth century and again in the 1920s, when the higher he raised his fees, the grater the demand for booking s become.. In his early forties, after World I, he decided the work for which he had was known had become pointless. Profoundly shaken by firsthand experience with war's indiscriminate destruction and stung by a scandal preceding his divorce from his first wife, he chafed at the self-absorbed concerns of artist and patrons. He wanted to reach a much larger public and to say something that mattered. He decided to learn everything there was to know about the technical aspects of photography. He assigned himself a new apprenticeship in technical precision, photographed a white cup and saucer a thousand times and went on to symbolic still lifes and intense studies in scale…After three self-imposed years of retooling, he decided to redirect his energy to the photograph's potential as a medium for mass communication. From that period on, he referred to his fine individual prints, as well as to his paintings, as 'expensive wallpaper for rich people's houses.' ...After that, he raised fashion photography to a high plane of elegance for Vogue, set up improvisations for Vanity Fair designed to transmit the essence of a play or a personality in a single image, made photomurals for Radio City's Center Theater and, at a considerable profit to himself, pioneered the use of lively, naturalistic photographs in advertising….He was a star of the avant garde, but both the general public and the majority of connoisseurs considered photography a utilitarian, relatively low-cost means of obtaining likenesses rather than a viable art form. Steichen's claim that his photographs were art carried a little more weight because he was respected as a painter. In fact, painting provided most of his livelihood. But in 1923, he took another of the grand risks that shaped his career. Innovative and proficient as he might be, he deicided he did not have the imagination of a great painter. In a characteristic dramatic gesture, he made a bonfire of all the paintings in his studio on the prpperty in leased in Voulangis, in France, from 1908 to 1923. Between 1905 and 1914, Steichen served as European art scout for Alfred Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession…Among the exhibitions Steichen arranged were works by Matisse in 1908, Alfred Maurer and John Marin in 1909, Cézanne in 1910, E. Gordon Craig in 1910, Max Weber in 1911, Picasso in 1911, Arthur B. Carles in 1912 and Constantin Brancusi in 1914."

Steichen's career is fascinating because it was so long and influential, because it changed course quite often, and because it was not content with mere success. Steichen, a non-stop smoker, had "an urgent, lifelong mandate for accomplishment," his widow wrote: "He learned early the importance of attracting attention and patronage by producing something astonishing. He was first recognized as an artist of exceptional ability at age nine, when he traced a complex drawing and presented it as his original work. All his life, he seized the advantage of being the first to use a new technique or to apply an old one in a new way. As a schoolboy, it occurrred to him to put his new bicycle to work and become the fastest Western Union messenger in Milwaukee. At fifteen, as a lowly apprentice, her persuaded his employer that lithographs of livestock based on his own photographs of local examples would attract more customers than the stylized illustrations then used to publicize farm products. When he Lumière brothers, the investors of an early and beautiful color process, made their autochrome plates available for sale for the its time in 1907, Steichen came close to cornering the market in Paris and arranged quickly to show the successful results. In the 1920's when most advertisers still relied on drawings for illustration, Steichen convinced the J. Walter Thompson agency that the photograph offered greater immediacy and connection with the consumer….For his early landscapes, he evolved painterly results out of technical accidents such as raindrops on the lens or a foot jiggling the tripod."

Agnes Meyer, the Girl from the Sun by Steichen

Agnes Ernst Meyer, the Girl from The Sun, by Steichen, 1910

Near the end of his life, Steichen was thinking of doing a thematic photographic exhibition on "Woman," but his oeuvre is hardly negligent on that subject. Steichen, for example, met Agnes Ernst several years before her 1910 marriage to Eugene Meyer, who became an important patron. She became a regular visitor to Stieglitz's "291" gallery "where because of her Valkyrean beauty, her intellect and her newspaper reporter's job with the New York Sun, she was known as the Girl from the Sun," Joanna Steichen wrote."

Isadora Dunan at the Portal of the Parthenon, Athens by Steichen

Isadora Duncan at the Portal of the Parthenon, Athens, 1921, by Edward Steichen

"Steichen," she continued, "claimed to be the only male friend of Isadora Duncan who never quarreled with her because he was the only one who did not have an affair with her; for earthy romance, he chose one of her pupils." "In 1921, Steichen happened to vacation in Venice at the same time as Isadora Duncan. She was on her way to Greece with her pupils, who were also her adopted daughters, known as the Isadorables. She persuaded Steichen to come along by promising that she would let him make motion pictures of her dancing on the Acropolis. Once there. She changed her mind. Her style in movement and costume was based on classic Greek imagery and, faced with the real thing, she was overwhelmed. Steichen settled for borrowing a Kodak camera from the headwaiter at his hotel. Standing among the ancient, sacred stones of the Acropolis, Isadora felt she was too much an intruder to move, but finally she managed to produced the two appropriate classic gestures that Steichen recorded."

"Steichen's predecessor at Condé Nast, Baron de Meyer," Joanna Steichen wrote, "produced precious, frilly images. Both the women and the clothes appeared giddy and trivial. Steichen, in contrast, had an innate sense of style that already served him well in portraits and was ideally suited to the impression of upper-class authority that Vogue tried to project. Steichen's women, from Edwardian grandes dames to sophisticated habitues of the salon and the speakeasy, were bold, graceful and elegant….His favorite model was Marion Morehouse. According to Steichen, she cared as little about fashion as he did in private life, but she had a fine actress's capacity to become whichever person the clothes she modeled required. Once, Steichen suggested making a series of nude photographs. Morehouse agreed and posed wearing only long black gloves and stockings. Later, Steichen heard that she had married. To save her any possibility of future embarrassment, he destroyed the negatives of the nude sitting. Then he learned that she had married the avant garde bohemian poet e. e. cummings, who Steichen believed, would have relished the pictures…."

Breadline on Sixth Avenue by Steichen

Breadline on Sixth Avenue, New York, circa 1930, by Edward Steichen

Steichen had a studio in the artists' studio building on the southeast corner of 40th Street and the Avenue of the Americas from 1923 to 1934 and from there he observed the breadlines by the El, shown above in a very strong composition.

Alexander Woollcott by Steiohen

Alexander Woollcott, New York, 1933, by Edward Steichen

Steichen's celebrity portraits, such as Alexander Woollcott, above, or Noel Coward, below, are especially memorable for the unusual poses of the sitters and lighting dynamics.

Noel Coward by Steichen

Noel Coward, by Edward Steichen, 1932

Not all are formal, such as his portrait of George Gershwin, below, and sometimes they were taken under deadline pressure, as in the case of Greta Garbo, as Joanna Steichen's book makes clear. There is a four-section, 1931, portrait of Charles Chaplin that is highly amusing as the famous actor and comic uses his cane to magically shoot away his bowler hat. Another portrait of Chaplin, taken the same year, is very incisive and pensive and warm and is very nicely placed opposite a lovely and sensitive portrait of Katharine Cornell, the famous actress, as part of a portrait series of actors doing "improvisations." While some of the famous celebrity portraits capture their subjects in classic poses that wonderfully encapsulate their personality, others delve deeper, such as his 1935 portrait of Charles Laughton, the actor, whose focus away from the camera is intriguing and confident, but also a bit sad and arrogant and uncomfortable, a superb snapshot of one of the century's greatest actors. Another great photograph is "Stieglitz and Kitty," taken in 1904, a very unconventional photograph that shows the proud dignity and poise of the young girl and the affectionate regard of her by Stieglitz off to the site, a stunning composition. Steichen's composition can be very subtle as in his 1928 portrait of Lili Damita in which she is standing to the right of a glass table with a white bowl. She is dressed in a white gown with a dark mantle over her left shoulder. She is leaning slightly against the table and the table reflects and reverses her curves, a very refined touch.

George Gershwin by Steichen

George Gershwin, 1927 photograph by Steichen shown in open book, "Steichen's Legacy," in shopwindow of Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue

Many portraits including Gary Cooper by Steichen

Many of Steichen's famous portraits, including Gary Cooper, the actor, in 1928, top left, are shown in shopwindow of Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue

George Washington Bridge by Steichen

Steichen took many superb urbanscapes including these of the George Washington Bridge, 1931, shown in a shopwindow of Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue

His urban photographs are very strong and quite the equal of Paul Strand's great urban work. "The Brooklyn Bridge," taken in 1903, is particularly striking in its asymmetrical composition and great tonality. Similarly, his vistas of the new George Washington Bridge in 1931, shown above, are brilliant in their clarity and unusual compositions.

Aboard an aircraft carrier by Steichen

U.S.S. "Lexington"- Getting Ready for a Big Strike on Kwajalein, 1943, by Edward Steichen in open page of "Steichen's Legacy" book in a shopwindow of Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue

Steichen served in both World Wars and he noted that people often force themselves to try to forget pictures of extreme violence. His photograph of sailors aboard the Lexington aircraft carrier in World War II, shown above, is a sensational photograph of great power, mystery, and grace, and one of the great surprises of the exhibition as is a documentary movie he supervised of bombing runs.

Another remarkable and startling picture is "Wind Fire - Maria-Theresa Duncan on the Acropolis,"1921, a picture that conjures the flourishes of Loie Fuller a generation earlier but which captures the "special effect" of a lengthy time exposure that ripples the dancer's dress in the wind.

"Striped Gown," a 1935 photograph, is a dazzling composition that predates Orson Welles great hall of mirrors scene in "The Lady From Shanghai" and the great mirror battle by Bruce Lee in "Enter the Dragon."

People, of course, were not his only interest. He actually was very much interested in nature and took many pictures of a single tree near his home and of many flowers that he grew. The flower pictures get a disproportionate amount of attention in both books and are nice, but not exceptional, but some of his landscapes and abstractions are remarkably powerful. "Spectacle Butterfly," a 1926 picture, is quite astoundingly abstract and beautiful, and "The Garden of the Gods, Colorado," a 1906 picture, is hauntingly beautiful and dramatic.

The large exhibition and both books, but especially Joanna Steichen's, clearly justify Steichen's stature as America's greatest photographer. He was a great Tonalist painter. He was highly influential in making photography be considered a fine art. He was importantly instrumental in introducing many major modern painters to the United States in his association with Alfred Stieglitz, his only rival as a photographer for greatness above and beyond photography. He was unsurpassed as a portraitist of famous people. He was deeply involved with changing the aesthetics of published advertising and with setting a new standard for "upper class" elegance as director of photography at Vogue and Vanity Fair in their glory years. He served patriotically in two World Wars and gave up much of his personal career to head up the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art, culminating in his famous exhibition, The Family of Man, probably the most popular photography exhibition of all time, that emphasized his belief that photograph should be used as an important means of mass communication. In his review of the exhibition in The New York Observer Nov. 20, 2000 critic Hilton Kramer said that he harbored a tendency "to feel that The Family of Man was the single worst thing ever to be inflicted upon the art of photography," adding that "it still strikes me as progressive cant from start to finish, with its phony parallels of 'families' the world over and its reduction of all human life to a few simple-minded liberal formulas." The exhibition at the Whitney goes to great lengths to reproduce part of The Family of Man exhibition and Kramer, who usually rants correctly, and brilliantly, over the overly intellectual claptrap of many exhibitions, is mistaken here in diminishing the stunning impact that Steichen's exhibition had, far, far in advance of the politically correct multiculturalism of recent years.

Some photographers and critics have carped that Steichen was merely shrewd and capitalized in staying up with trends. His oeuvre, of course, overwhelms such petty analysis. It is stunning, even if one takes away the celebrity portraits and The Family of Man exhibition.

Certainly, his priority were his own interests and advances as both books make clear. I only met him once at a party in honor of Sophia Loren, the actress, at the Museum of Modern Art. I was sitting alone with her at a small table in the garden discussing art when Rene d'Haroncourt, the museum's director, brought over Steichen to introduce him to the famous actress. Steichen was one of the most recognizable figures at this quite grand occasion with his long white beard. I immediately stood up and offered to relinquish my seat, but he gestured no and simply shook the actress's hand and smiled and wandered off with the director, and I then gushed enthusiastically about Steichen rather unknowledgeably. Given his love of beautiful and fascinating women, Steichen was extremely gracious to let me continue to monopolize the actress's time until her husband came to fetch her. I should have made Steichen take my place at the table, but I was young and enthralled and he, of course, had long since spent lots of time with the famous and the fabulous and had not lost his sparkle or his eye.

Click here to order Joanna Steichen's book, "Steichen's Legacy," from for 20 percent off its $100 list price.


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