Edward Steichen

Edward Steichen

Edward Steichen was an American photographer, painter, and curator of an art gallery and a museum.Early daysEdward Jean Steichen was born in Luxembourg, on March 27, 1879. They settled in Hancock, Michigan, but moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1889.Edward's early interest in art was encouraged by his mother. He attended the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where he was introduced to contemporary works of art. He began to take photographs in 1895, but continued with his painting career as well.Meeting StieglitzSteichen became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1900. In 1902, he joined with Alfred Stieglitz and 11 other photographers to establish the Photo-Secession, an organization dedicated to promoting photography as fine art. They also founded Little Galleries, located in New York City, where they could exhibit their work.In 1904, Steichen began to experiment with color photography, and was an early user of the Lumiere Autochrome process. The artists included Picasso, Rodin, and Cezanne, among others.Steichen and Stieglitz had a stormy relationship. Their differing attitudes toward the First World War precipitated the breakdown of their partnership, and began a 25-year period during which they did not speak to each other.Work affects artDuring World War I, Steichen was in charge of the division that took air force photographs for the United States Army. That precision work brought a lasting change to his art; he started emphasizing realism and clarity in his work.Following the war, Steichen opened a commercial studio in New York City, and specialized in portraits and advertising. Success led to work with Vanity Fair and Vogue magazines. His photographs during this time became some of the most familiar images of personalities during the 1920s and '30s — such names as Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin.In 1938, Steichen retired from commercial photography. During World War II, he organized the Road to Victory and Power in the Pacific exhibitions for the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He was honorably discharged in 1946, with the rank of captain.The Family of ManFrom 1947 to 1962, Steichen was director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art. He was responsible for 50 shows, including The Family of Man, consisting of 500 photos selected from more than two million, depicting life, love and death in 68 countries. It was the most popular exhibition in the history of photography, and also a best-selling book.In 1961, Steichen was honored with a one-man show of his photographs at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1964, the Edward Steichen Photography Center was established at the museum.End notesEdward Steichen died on March 25, 1973, in West Redding, Connecticut. He was two days shy of 94.In 2000, Steichen's third wife and widow, Joanna Steichen, wrote and edited a major work spanning seven decades of Steichen’s work, with more than 300 photographs. Steichen's Legacy: Photographs, 1895-1973, also tells the story of their years together as husband and wife, artist and assistant.

Edward Steichen Artworks

Steichen took several photographs of the virtuoso French sculptor Auguste Rodin. He also made prints of his sculptures and exhibited many of Rodin's sketches and drawings at the 291 Gallery in New York. The two men had become close friends whilst Steichen was living in Montparnasse at the very beginning of the twentieth century. Indeed, Rodin was to become godfather to Steichen's daughter Katherine whose middle name Rodina was chosen in tribute to the sculptor.

In this photograph, Rodin is in profile at the left-hand side of the image, mirroring (on the right of the frame) the profile of possibly his most iconic sculpture, Le Penseur (The Thinker). In the background is another of Rodin's famous works, his Monument to Victor Hugo, a writer whose work the Frenchman greatly admired. (The monument to Hugo is here only rendered in plaster and was not cast in bronze until after Rodin's death.) Both works connect Rodin with the intellectual virtues of art, philosophy and literature and Steichen's aim was to associate himself with these qualities too. By photographing a Modern artist and with two of his artworks, Steichen invokes a sort of four-way conversation (between Rodin, the Thinker, Hugo, and Steichen himself) that places photography, still in its infancy in 1900, as a legitimate tool to expand the dialogue of modernism.

Photograuve - Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Landscape with Avenue of Trees

In his early career Steichen combined painting and photography and one can begin to see here how his painting informed on his photographic work. In Landscape with Avenue of Trees, Steichen clearly shows the influence of Tonalism, an artistic movement that began with the painter James McNeill Whistler in the 1870s. Whistler, who was an acknowledged influence on the young Steichen, was interested in composing his paintings in a way that echoed the composition of musical pieces, but by using color rather than notes. Through this tight compositional structure and focus, Tonalists explored the subtle nuances of color and its possibilities for expressing a given mood (much like music).

This painting shows Steichen's skill in communicating the nuances of expression through a muted color palette. The work almost verges into abstraction through its interplay of dark and light. Though the title alerts us to the "avenue of trees", the shapes in the foreground are not necessarily very easy to make out, and the landscape itself is only faintly depicted. The moon peeks out from just behind the foliage of the tall tree, casting a glow around the edge of its shape and causing an almost ripple effect of light across the sky itself. It is an image that demands our concentration, Steichen is encouraging his viewer to look (and look again) in order to determine the distinctions in color, shape and line.

Oil paint on canvas - private collection

Flatiron Building

Steichen's interest in the interrelationship between photography and Tonalist painting is evident in his famous images of the Flatiron Building. Located at 175 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, the Flatiron building was one of the tallest in the world upon its completion in 1902, and was truly unique due to its shape. This image was first seen publicly at the "International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography" held in Buffalo, New York in 1910. It was in fact one of six hundred images selected by Alfred Stieglitz as a means of showcasing the artistry of Pictorialist photography. Steichen's photograph, which highlights his feel for shapes and textures, became one of his most famous images and it is easy to see a relationship here with his painting Landscape with Avenue of Trees. The building of the title looms disconcertingly in the background, a large shadow in the centre of the frame. Steichen omits the tip of the building, as if, perhaps, its sheer scale could not be contained by the frame.

This image was produced at the height of Steichen's Pictorialist period with the Photo-Secession group. At this time he was interested in adapting and manipulating his photographs and here he colorized the image using layers of pigment in a light-sensitive solution. The image actually exists in three versions, each with a slightly different tone and feel, demonstrating how powerful color can be in altering mood. With this print, his aim was to capture something of the nuances of light in the early hours of the evening. As Professor William Sharpe observed: "Night is a time of dreaming, of freeing repressed libidinal energies, and photographs such as this subtly exploit the suggestive properties of urban landscape, using a symbolic language to disclose truths [that would be] hidden at midday."

Gum bichromate over platinum print - Gum bichromate over platinum print

Moonlight: The Pond

This image was taken in Mamaroneck, New York, when Steichen was visiting his friend, the art critic Charles Caffin. It depicts the moon rising behind a clearing of trees, and then reflected onto a completely still pond. Like Flatiron, Moonlight: The Pond uses light and shadow in an extraordinarily evocative and haunting way.

Steichen demonstrates here once more his interest in Tonalism. His landscape is "washed" in a color tone to form a finished mist-like effect. The interplay of light and dark, and the broad dark washes laying across Steichen's palette, were then fully in keeping with the pictorial preferences of the Photo-Secession group. Though the image might appear to be quite simple, it is in fact a complex emotional composition in the way it manipulates its light sources. The moon peaks above the horizon and glows brightly through the trees its center-frame positioning, meanwhile, suggesting a precise and studied compositional set up. Responding to this image in Camera Work, Caffin confirmed Steichen's credentials as a bone-fide photographic artist through this rather poetic reading: "It is in the penumbra, between the clear visibility of things and their total extinction into darkness, when the concreteness of appearances becomes merged in half-realised, half-baffled vision, that spirit seems to disengage itself from matter to envelop it with a mystery of soul-suggestion."

Wind Fire, Thérèse Duncan on the Acropolis

In this astonishing image, made after he abandoned his interest in Tonalism, Steichen captures an otherworldly energy in the movement of Thérèse Duncan, the adopted daughter of the renowned dancer Isadora Duncan. Steichen met Isadora when she was in Venice with her dance troupe. He then followed her to Greece in the hope of being able to photograph her dancing on the Acropolis. In the end, however, it was Thérèse and not Isadora that he photographed on the rocks above the citadel. The image was first published in Vanity Fair in 1923 accompanied with a caption by the poet Carl Sandburg (Steichen's brother-in-law) which read: "Goat girl caught in the brambles . . . let it all burn in this wind fire, let the fire have it. "

In the photograph, the exuberant Thérèse has contorted her body her knee is cocked, and her arms are cradled over her head in an almost Classical female pose. She stands on uneven rock with some leaves of wild-plants in the foreground, but it is her billowing dress that grabs our attention. The translucent material both hides and reveals her body. Thérèse appears to us as almost naked in fact. Steichen said the following about the image: "She was a living reincarnation of a Greek nymph [. ] The wind pressed the garments tight to her body, and the ends were left flapping and fluttering. They actually crackled. This gave the effect of fire." Steichen has managed to capture a timeless image here in the way the modern and the classical meet.

Gelatin silver contact print - Private collection

Gloria Swanson

This portrait of silent movie star Gloria Swanson is one of Steichen's most celebrated works. It merges the worlds of portraiture and fashion photography to spellbinding effect. The image was later published in the February 1928 issue of Vanity Fair to help publicize Swanson's new film Sadie Thompson.

Journalist, critic and editor of Vanity Fair Frank Crowinshield referred to Steichen as the "world's greatest living portrait photographer" and in this portrait one can appreciate his point. The most striking element of the picture are the Star's hypnotic eyes that look directly into ours. Given that they had no voice, it was the norm for silent film stars to convey their screen presence through their eyes. Indeed, Swanson was widely recognized for her wide-eyed look and by emphasising them in this image, Steichen acknowledged her intelligence and her skill as a performer. In this way, the portrait celebrates both her standing as an artist and her qualities as an individual. Steichen wrote about the photography session in his autobiography: "At the end of the session, I took a piece of black lace veil and hung it in front of her face. She recognized the idea at once. Her eyes dilated, and her look was that of a leopardess lurking behind leafy shrubbery, watching her prey. You don't have to explain things to a dynamic and intelligent personality like Miss Swanson. Her mind works swiftly and intuitively." In this description, Steichen acknowledged that if one is to strive for the very best portraiture, then there must first be a true affiliation between sitter and artist.

Gelatin silver print - Private collection

The Maypole, Empire State Building

During the first half of the twentieth century, New York came into its own. There was considerable public fascination with skyscrapers and demand for architectural photography and magazine features was high. Steichen was thus commissioned by Vanity Fair to photograph the Empire State Building, at that time the world's tallest building, and arguably the modern world's greatest architectural achievement.

Faced with the problem of capturing the true majesty of this iconic landmark, Steichen prepared for his assignment with the same thoughtfulness with which he approached his portraiture. In order to capture the building's true stature, Steichen devised a strategy whereby he photographed the building frontally and cater-cornered before then superimposing one negative on top of the other. The end effect, in which Steichen renders the building's power in three dimensions, is astounding. As for the images title, Steichen said "I conceived the building as a Maypole. to suggest the swirl of a Maypole dance" (a city centrepiece, indeed, around which the proud denizens of New York might come to rejoice).

In 1951, MoMA initiated an "Art Lending Service" which operated into the early eighties. The lending service was devised by the museum's Junior Council to encourage art collecting amongst its members and/or the general public. Selected works were available for rent for three months at a time, after which, the patron was free to buy or return the work to the museum. The Maypole was one of the most popular images to pass through the "Art Lending Service". According to MoMA's own publicity, The Maypole's popularity was "testament [to] the technological advancements in architecture as much as in photography, and [to] the iconic legacy of one of the sharpest eyes to have captured both."

Edward Steichen - History

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Steichen, Edward (1879-1973), American photographer, who sought an emotional, impressionistic rendering of his subjects and strove to have photography recognized as a serious art form.

Steichen was born in Luxembourg on March 27, 1879, and brought to the United States as a child. He began working in photography at 16, and went to Paris to study painting at 21.

In New York City he joined (1905) the American photographer Alfred Stieglitz in establishing a gallery that became known as "291," where many important 20th-century painters received their first American showings. The following year Steichen returned to Paris, where he experimented with painting, photography, and the crossbreeding of plants.

In 1923 Steichen returned to New York City as chief photographer for Vanity Fair and Vogue magazines. Among the famous people he photographed for Vanity Fair are the American actor Greta Garbo and the British actor Charlie Chaplin.

In 1938 Steichen retired to his West Redding, Connecticut, farm. During World War II he directed a U.S. Navy combat photography team.

In 1947 Steichen was appointed director of photography for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He prepared The Family of Man, a photographic exhibit (1955) that later toured the world and in book form sold 3 million copies. His work is collected in the Museum of Modern Art and Eastman House, Rochester, New York. He died in West Redding on March 25, 1973.

View examples of his work- Steichen Photographs.

Topstone Park
Oliver Goulston

A group of Redding citizens has provided the town with 270 acres of open space, including the town's swimming area. The citizens, calling themselves Redding Open Lands, Inc. (R.O.L.I.) initiated the idea in 1970.

The year before, Axel Bruzelius, who was an alternate on the Planning Commission, became interested in a project in Lincoln, Massachusetts. A whole farm in a suburb of Boston was purchased by local citizens, The property was subdivided into several large acre lots, which were sold, and which produced sufficient money to pay back the purchase price. The excess land was given to the town. Mr. Bruzelius decided Redding needed a similar organization.

At about this time Edward Steichen, the renowned photographer, decided to sell all but 38 of the 421 acres he owned on Topstone Road. Before Mr. Steichen put it on the open market he gave the town the right of first refusal. A group of twelve citizens decided to form an organization and attempt to accomplish the same thing that had been done in Massachusetts.

R.O.L.I. began with the idea of building a park on Mr. Steichen's property. Believing in R.O.L.I.'s idea, eleven more citizens joined the group. James Jenkins was elected Presient of the first meeting and William Karraker was elected chairman of the organization. Their plan was to alter the size of the parcel so that the land available for the town's purchase would be valued at under a million dollars. They agreed that if R.O.L.I. bought enough acreage, the remaining land's value would be brought under a million dollars.

R.O.L.I. was able to negotiate a bank note for $350,000 dollars to be secured only by the signatures of the 23 members of R.O.L.I. This enabled R.O.L.I. to buy 117 of the 387 acres. The note was signed on March 1, 1971.

The town did indeed buy the other 270 acres, and it is now used for open space and a natural park.

But R.O.L.I. had to get its money back. They decided to sell their acreage in plots. The smallest being 2.8 acres and the largest being 10.6 acres. They sold all 15 plots and ended up with a profit. These profits have been used to help the Conservation Commission and the Land Trust.

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and surrounding areas. All costs are out-of-pocket so donations and/or sponsorships will allow me to dedicate more time
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Further Reading

Steichen's own account was A Life in Photography (1963). Biographies included: Penelope Niven's Steichen: A Biography (Crown, 1997) Patricia Johnston's Real Fantasies: Edward Steichen's Advertising Photography (University of California Press, 1997) and Eric Sandeen's Picturing an Exhibition: The "Family of Man" & 1950s America (University of New Mexico Press, 1995). An old biography is Carl Sandburg, Steichen, the Photographer (1929). A large, representative selection of Steichen's work was New York Museum of Modern Art, Steichen the Photographer (1961), exhibition catalog with text by Sandburg, Alexander Liberman, and Steichen and chronology by Grace M. Mayer. □

Edward Steichen - Biography and Legacy

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.

Middle Years

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."

Later years

After working for 15 years in the fashion industry, Steichen closed his studio on January 1 st , 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 Newhall 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."

Edward Steichen

He apprenticed with the American Fine Art Company, a lithography firm. Painting and drawing regularly, his natural talent developed and soon he was designing posters for the company. Steichen was introduced to photography and bought his first camera, a Kodak 50-exposure box camera, in 1895.

Steichen’s artistic instincts and abilities were only transferred to the camera, and within a few years he was exhibiting photographs rather than his paintings. By 1898, he had his first show with the Philadelphia Photographic Salon, which had one juror, Clarence White. One year later, Clarence White and Alfred Stieglitz were the judges for a photography show to be held at the Chicago Art Institute, and almost all of Steichen’s entries were accepted. In 1900, F. Holland Day opened The New School of American Photography in London, and Steichen’s photographs were included. That same year, Steichen decided to go to New York.

During Steichen’s brief visit to New York, Stieglitz bought some of Steichen’s photographs for only $5 each! They were the first photographs Steichen had sold. A restless artist, in May 1900 Steichen went to Europe on the S.S. Champagne to visit F. Holland Day and see the school. He lived in Paris until 1902 where he exhibited widely and met Rodin. When Steichen returned to New York, Steiglitz hailed him as “the greatest photographer.” Steichen did not believe in “specialism.” He said, “I believe that art is cosmopolitan and that one should touch all points. I hate specialism. That is the ruin of art…” While in Paris Steichen experimented with pigmented processing and upon his return to America, he furthered his experimental stages with photography, working with platinum, gum bichromate, gelatin silver carbon and any combination of the mentioned. The photography magazine Camera Work was Steichen’s perfect artistic avenue.

In 1902, Steichen and Stieglitz began their long and productive relationship and became the founding members of the Photo-Secession. The No. 2 issue of Camera Work was dedicated almost entirely to Steichen’s photography. Over the life of the magazine, Steichen was published more than 70 times. This was more than any photographer collected and published by Stieglitz. In addition to his photographic contributions, Steichen also edited, designed the layouts and wrote critical essays. His work with the magazine was interrupted in 1906 when he returned to Paris where he and his family (he married in 1903 to Clara E. Smith) lived until 1914.

Although over seas, Steichen continued his contributions to Camera Work, and while in Paris he learned of many artists and sent information about Cezanne, Picasso, Rodin and others who eventually were shown in New York at gallery 291. While remaining active with photography in America and experimenting with the Autochrome process in Paris, Steichen went to Paris to concentrate on painting. He helped organize the New Society of American Painters in Paris. He also exhibited at the Albright Art Gallery at the International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography in New York. The catalogue for the show read, “in the struggle for the recognition of photography, Mr. Steichen’s work has been one of the most powerful factors, and his influence on some workers, both in America and Europe, has been marked.” Alfred Stieglitz has been proclaimed as the one person responsible for bringing modern art to America, but it was Steichen who introduced it to Stieglitz in many respects. Steichen also experimented with photography as art more expansively than most photographers of his time. This was not, however the extent of his work.

By 1911, Steichen began fashion photography with Art et Decoration. This marked a new era in his life and the beginning of the end of his relationship with Stieglitz who did not agree with commercial photography. However, as Steichen is quoted, he wanted to explore the many aspects of the art of photography. He once said, “I shall use the camera as long as I live, for it can say things that cannot be said with any other medium.”

Steichen returned to the United States in 1914 and eventually joined the Army during World War I and helped to establish and became commander of the photographic division of the Army Expeditionary Forces, devoting much his work there to aerial photography. He left the service in 1919 with a rank if Lt. Colonel. This experience had made its impression. He was to return to fashion and commercial photography, but with a new outlook. The success of aerial photography lay in the high definition. Steichen saw the beauty of clearly focused photography and by 1920 he completely rejected Pictorialism, burned his paintings and devoted himself entirely to modernist ideas. “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.”

From 1923 until 1937 Steichen worked for the Conde Nast publications, Vogue and Vanity Fair and freelance commercial work with great financial success. He raised the standards of fashion and commercial photography, taking portraits of the likes of Chaplin, Gershwin, Mencken and Garbo. During this time he divorced his first wife and remarried to Dana Desboro Glover and took permanent residence in the United States. He retired from fashion and commercial photography in 1937. A few years later he was commissioned Lt. Commander in the United States Navy Reserve and eventually became director of the U.S. Naval Photography Division during World War II. His first unit held seven young men, who Steichen expressed the importance of photographing the men in the army. He said, “the ships and planes, they would be obsolete before long, but the men never go obsolete.” By the end of his Navy career in 1945 he had been placed in charge of 4,000 men, all of the navy combat photographers, and was ranked Captain. Also during his service he directed the two shows for the Museum of Modern Art, The Road to Victory and Power in the Pacific. Steichen also supervised the filming of The Fighting Lady. And yet, his career was not yet over.

Two years after he retired from the Navy, Edward Steichen became the director of the Photography Department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. There he created what has become the most famous photographic exhibition of all time, The Family of Man. It opened in January, 1955. For three years Steichen traveled the world to form this exhibition. The main purpose or theme of the exhibit, according to Steichen, was to create “a mirror of the essential oneness of mankind.” Photography as the universal language inspired him to compose the exhibit with more than 500 photographs from 273 photographers from 68 different countries. Amateur to professional photographers, including Ernst Haas, Robert Capa, Eugene Smith, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Andreas Feininger were sought for The Family of Man. All rights of the images were forfeited and Steichen had complete creative control. He would crop, blow-up, reduce the images as he pleased to have his visual message read that all the world experiences happiness of love and sorrow of death. Although considered one of the greatest exhibitions, seen by 9,000,000 people, it did have its critics, however. Photography critic for the New York Times, Jacob Deschin wrote, “the show is essentially a picture story to support a concept and an editorial achievement rather than an exhibition of photography.”

The exhibit toured for eight years. It saw 37 countries on 6 continents and holds the record for the highest attendance of any exhibition. At the end of its tour, the exhibit experienced thirty years of neglect. Finally, it made its way to Luxembourg in 1994 where it is now conserved in the Steichen museum. During his directorship until 1962 Steichen curated numerous other exhibits and collected diverse photography for the museum.

Throughout his lifetime Steichen received countless awards and honors. He has been the subject of numerous articles, books and exhibitions. His obvious contribution to photography led to his induction into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 1974. Before his induction he served on the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum’s Advisory Board. The museum holds several of Steichen’s photographs, including several from Camera Work and one of his most famous, The Flat Iron.

Today I am no longer concerned with photography as an art form. I believe it is potentially the best medium for explaining man to himself and to his fellow man.

Edward Steichen

Edward Steichen was the older brother of Lillian and became brother-in-law to Carl. These three people remained inextricably tied throughout their lives. They were bound together by personal and professional relationships and believed that art should be a civilizing force and a humanizing power in the modern world.

Steichen assisted Sandburg in selecting images for Sandburg's Lincoln biographies. Their most important collaboration was the 1955 Museum of Modern Art exhibition The Family of Man . Steichen, who was then director of photography at the Museum, curated this unprecedented exhibit that featured 503 images from 273 photographers in 68 countries. The exhibit featured a prologue by Sandburg that expressed their shared belief in the universal oneness of humanity.

Steichen was instrumental in helping to establish photography as art, introducing modern art to America, defining American culture with his celebrity portraits of the 1920s and 1930s, and documenting the human drama of World War II.

Oral history interview with Edward Steichen, 1970 June 5

Format: Originally recorded on 1 sound tape reel. Reformatted in 2010 as 4 digital wav files. Duration is 2 hr., 9 min.

Summary: An interview of Edward Steichen conducted 1970 June 5, by Paul Cummings, for the Archives of American Art.

Biographical/Historical Note

Edward Steichen (1879-1973) was a photographer from New York, N.Y.


These interviews are part of the Archives of American Art Oral History Program, started in 1958 to document the history of the visual arts in the United States, primarily through interviews with artists, historians, dealers, critics and others.

Language Note

How to Use This Collection

For information on how to access this interview contact Reference Services.

Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Edward Steichen, 1970 June 5. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Captain Edward J. Steichen, USN Ret. Army & Navy Combat Photographer WWI & WWII Received the French Legion of Honor, Distinguished Service Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Commander of the Order of Merit (Germany)

Edward Steichen (born Eduard Jean Steichen, 27 March 1879 in Bivange, Luxembourg) was one of the premier photographers of his generation. Aside from being one of the first to go into color photography, he also helped usher in the era of fashion photography.

During WWI he joined the Army Photographic Corps at the age of 38. He joined the Navy in January 1942 at the age of 63.

Steichen had retired in 1938, and closed his studio to devote his time to plant breeding. Soon afterwards he would find himself trying to reenlist in the military at the age of 61 as America faced the prospect of World War II. After his third attempt to reenlist he was commissioned a Lieutenant Commander in 1942, and headed the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit, which documented aircraft carriers in action. His first assignment was to complete an exhibition he had started for The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1941, on national defense. He organized the extremely popular exhibition "Road to Victory" that had 150 images and opened in May 1942, at MoMA. The show then traveled to many American cities and to London, Australia, and South America.

He directed the creation of the war documentary "The Fighting Lady," chronicling the battles of the crew of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Yorktown, which won the 1944 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

In 1945, his second joint Navy and MoMA exhibition, "Power in the Pacific," went on display. He was officially discharged in 1945, at the age of 67, and received the Distinguished Service Medal. Steichen left the Navy with the rank of Captain, as Director of the WWII Naval Photographic Institute.

Steichen was the recipient of many awards, some of which include his status as Chevalier of France's Légion d'Honneur, awarded in 1919, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1963), and the Commander of Order of Merit, Germany (1966).

In 1963, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President John F. Kennedy, however Kennedy was assassinated before he could present it. President Lyndon B. Johnson presented it to him in December 1963.

Edward Steichen died in West Redding Connecticut on March 25, 1973, at the age of 94.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is an award bestowed by the President of the United States and is&mdashalong with the comparable Congressional Gold Medal bestowed by an act of U.S. Congress&mdashthe highest civilian award in the United States.

Edward Steichen

Zoë Samels, &ldquoEdward Steichen,&rdquo NGA Online Editions, https://purl.org/nga/collection/constituent/5478 (accessed June 27, 2021).

Related Content

Born in Luxembourg, Steichen emigrated as a small child to the United States with his parents, eventually settling in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At 15 he began a four-year apprenticeship at a lithography firm there and became interested in painting while studying at the newly established Milwaukee Art Students’ League. In 1895 he acquired his first camera. Steichen’s photographs from this time are soft-focused and atmospheric, reflecting his primary interest in painting and the influence of the impressionists, especially Claude Monet (French, 1840 - 1926) , as well as the American pictorialist photographers such as Clarence H. White (American, 1871 - 1925) .

In 1900 Steichen made a brief stopover in New York City en route to Paris, where he was planning to study painting at the Académie Julian. White had come across the young artist’s photographs and was impressed enough to arrange for him to meet with Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864 - 1946) at the Camera Club of New York. Stieglitz ended up purchasing three photographs from Steichen—a self portrait and two dreamy forest scenes—for the considerable price of five dollars apiece.

Once in Paris, Steichen soon gave up painting and began focusing exclusively on the medium of photography. His artistic education there was twofold: Steichen both worked to improve his technical skills behind the camera and in the darkroom and also availed himself of the city’s vast artistic resources. By the time he left Paris in 1902, he had established himself as a successful portraitist of writers, artists, and other high-profile clients.

Upon returning to New York in 1902, Steichen opened a professional portrait studio at 291 Fifth Avenue. The same year, he became a founder, along with Stieglitz, of the Photo-Secession group. This coincided with Stieglitz’s establishment of the magazine Camera Work, in which Steichen’s photographs frequently featured, including a “Special Steichen Supplement” in April 1906 and a monographic double issue in 1913. In 1905 the two artists repurposed Steichen’s studio space for photography exhibitions originally called The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, the space became known simply as 291 after its Fifth Avenue address. Eleven of Steichen’s photographs were featured in 291’s inaugural exhibition and four solo shows of his work followed over the next few years. His studio portrait business continued to flourish, attracting celebrity clients such as banking magnate J. P. Morgan.

In 1906, feeling stifled by his portrait commissions and hoping to return to painting, Steichen moved back to Paris. Soon he was sending Stieglitz works of art for display at 291 by the European modernists he befriended there, including Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881 - 1973) , Auguste Rodin (French, 1840 - 1917) , and Henri Matisse (French, 1869 - 1954) . For some of these artists, it was the first time American audiences had been introduced to their work.

The outbreak of World War I forced Steichen’s return to New York. Though he continued to experiment with photography, especially complicated printing techniques, Steichen still identified himself as a painter. In 1915 an exhibition of his paintings was held at Knoedler Gallery, comprised of small works he had been able to take out of France as well as works already in the United States owned by friends and patrons. Also included were seven canvases listed in the catalog as “Mural Decorations Painted for Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Meyer, Jr. Motive: -- In Exaltation of Flowers,” a commission Steichen had worked on from 1911 to 1914. Two years later Knoedler organized a second show of Steichen’s paintings.

When the United States entered World War I, Steichen’s attention turned to photojournalism. From 1917 to 1919 the artist served as the commander of the photographic division of the US Army Expeditionary Forces, overseeing the production of aerial photographs. This photographic turn caused a rift with Stieglitz, who had loftier ambitions for the medium. The two suffered a personal and professional schism when Steichen accepted a job with Condé Nast to produce fashion and celebrity portraits, a role which won him great acclaim. By that time, Steichen’s commitment to the photographic medium was absolute. He had even taken the symbolic step of burning all of the paintings remaining in his studio in France sometime between 1920 and 1923.

During World War II the artist once again enlisted and was placed in charge of all naval combat photography. In 1947 Steichen gave up his artistic practice and became director of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), where in 1955 he organized the Family of Man exhibition. Featuring 503 photographs of the human experience from hundreds of photographers both professional and amateur from around the world, the show went on to travel the globe and was seen by over nine million people.

A retrospective of Steichen’s work was held at MoMA in 1961 he retired the following year and the museum's photography department is named for him. President Lyndon Johnson presented Steichen with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. In the last decade of his life Steichen spent much of his time on his farm in West Redding, Connecticut, where he grew prize-winning delphiniums and revisited his early interest in landscape photography. Steichen passed away at home the day before his 94th birthday.

Dallas Museum of Art Uncrated

Seven murals painted by Edward Steichen are undergoing conservation treatment this summer in the DMA’s Cindy and Howard Rachofsky Quadrant Gallery. After treatment is completed, the rare and exquisite murals will be on view September 5, 2017, through May 28, 2018, as part of the exhibition Edward Steichen: In Exaltation of Flowers (1910-1914), overseen by the Pauline Gill Sullivan Associate Curator of American Art at the DMA, Sue Canterbury.

Coleus – The Florence Meyer Poppy being unrolled from a travel tube

Edward Steichen, born Eduard Jean Steichen in 1879, was an American artist who was both a painter and photographer during his lifetime. Most of his paintings and photographs were produced for the American art market while he was living in the United States or France. He stayed in Paris for about a year in 1901 and then returned to Paris a second time in 1906 it was then that he joined the New Society of American Artists. One of his friends in Paris was an American student at the Sorbonne named Agnes Ernst, and she later played a large role in Steichen’s commission for In Exaltation of Flowers. In 1908, Steichen moved from Paris to his villa, L’Oiseu Bleu, in Voulangis, France. There, he cultivated a garden and built a small studio with a skylight.

In 1910 Agnes Ernst married Eugene Meyer and the couple traveled to L’Oiseu Bleu during their honeymoon. The three friends likely discussed the commission for In Exaltation of Flowers during that visit. This commission would include seven 10-foot-tall murals designed for a foyer in the Meyers’ new townhouse at 71st Street and Park Avenue, which the Meyers acquired in 1911. The commission was $15,000 and these artworks became Steichen’s most ambitious undertaking.

As Steichen worked on the Meyers’ commission from 1910 to 1914, many of their American friends visited Voulangis, including Arthur Carles, Mercedes de Cordoba, Katharine Rhoades , Marion Beckett, and Isadora Duncan. Some of these visitors identified with specific floral personifications, which became incorporated into Steichen’s tempera and gold leaf compositions. The In Exaltation of Flowers series consists of the following seven panels:

    1. Gloxinia – Delphinium: a kneeling woman (likely Isadora Duncan) with Gloxinia, Delphinium, and Caladium flowers
    2. Clivia – Fuchsia – Hilium – Henryi: one woman sitting (possibly Isadora Duncan or Marion Beckett) and another woman standing (likely Katharine Rhoades) with Clivia, Fuchsia, and Henry Lily flowers
    3. Coleus – The Florence Meyer Poppy: Florence Meyer (first child of Eugene and Agnes Meyer) with a butterfly and poppies
    4. Petunia – Begonia – The Freer Bronze: a Zhou Dynasty bronze (symbolizing Charles Lang Freer, a collector of Asian art and benefactor of the Freer Gallery in Washington, DC) with Petunia and Begonia flowers
    5. Rose – Geranium: Katharine Rhoades with a fruit-bearing tree, roses, and geraniums
    6. Petunia – Caladium – Budleya: two standing women (Marion Beckett and an unidentified woman in the background), with Petunia, Iris, Caladium, and Budleya (other spelling variants include Buddleia and Buddleja) flowers
    7. Golden Banded Lily – Violets: a standing woman (likely Agnes Meyer) with Golden Banded Lily and Violet (also identified as Begonia rex) flowers

    Coleus – The Florence Meyer Poppy in the DMA’s Cindy and Howard Rachofsky Quadrant Gallery

    Even before receiving the Meyers’ commission, Steichen had been painting and photographing women and flowers however, his depiction of the subject matter and use of gold leaf in In Exaltation of Flowers alludes to influences from French couture designer Paul Poiret and Art Nouveau painters Gustav Klimt, Alphonse Mucha, Pierre Bonnard, and Maurice Denis.

    All seven murals in In Exaltation of Flowers were completed by 1914. Even though they had originally been commissioned for the townhouse on 71st Street and Park Avenue, the paintings were never displayed in that building. Due to financial hardship, the Meyers had to sell their townhouse earlier in 1914, and Steichen’s intended sequence for the murals remains unknown today. The order listed above is based on a 1915 checklist from their presentation at the Knoedler Galleries in New York. Two of the murals were later displayed at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1921 and 1996, and at least one mural was displayed at the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System in 1988. The DMA’s presentation this fall of the murals, which are part of a private collection, will mark the first time the seven panels have been exhibited together since their debut at the Knoedler Galleries 102 years ago.

    Rose – Geranium in the DMA’s Cindy and Howard Rachofsky Quadrant Gallery

    Watch the video: The Life Of A Genius Photographer - Edward STEICHEN