Edward Steichen

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As a groundbreaking photographer, gallerist and museum curator, Edward Steichen was a driving force in establishing photography as an art form in its own right. He dedicated his life to the medium, leaving behind a legacy of images and exhibitions that were unequalled in their influence on the worlds of photography and art.

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Early Life

Edward Steichen was born Eduard Jean Steichen in Luxembourg, on 27 March 1879. Two years later the family emigrated to America and settled in St Francis, a suburb of Milwaukee, where his father had found work in a copper mine. Steichen showed a natural talent for draughtsmanship at school, and left to serve an apprenticeship at the American Fine Arts Company, a lithography firm, where he was soon made a designer. He was an accomplished painter and, after buying his first camera in 1895, pursued both photography and painting in his spare time. He was interested in Impressionism, and was influenced by such painters as Claude Monet and James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and the Pictorialist photographers championed by Camera Notes – the journal of The Camera Club of New York, edited by Alfred Stieglitz.

Early Photographic Career

In 1900, Steichen travelled to Paris to continue his artistic education at Académie Julian, visiting New York en route. There he sought out Stieglitz, the famous Pictorialist photographer and magazine editor, and showed him some of his photographs. Stieglitz was impressed, and bought three. In the same year, he also visited London where he participated in an exhibition of Pictorialist photographs with Frederick Holland Day and Alvin Langton Coburn. Steichen returned to New York in 1902 and began working as a commercial photographer, gaining particular fame for his portraits, which included J P Morgan and Auguste Rodin. In the same year his friendship with Stieglitz blossomed, and he became a founding member of a group of photographers called the Photo-Secession.

The Photo-Secession and Stylistic Development

Organised and championed by Stieglitz, the Photo-Secession consisted of American Pictorialist photographers and was intended as a joint effort to promote photography as a fine art. They held group exhibitions, and Stieglitz published their pictures in Camera Notes and then, from 1903-17, in his own publication, Camera Works. Steichen’s pictures from this period are thick with atmosphere and painterly qualities, displaying dramatic contrast and strong graphic design. Images such as The Flatiron (1904), and The Pond-Moonlight (1904) have since become seminal works within the Pictorialist movement.

The relationship between Stieglitz and Steichen developed further when, in 1905, they opened a gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue called ‘Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession’ (soon to become known as simply, ‘291’). This gallery was to become the principal exhibition space for photography in New York, but also for work by artists of the European avante-garde. In 1906 Steichen returned to Paris, and set about sourcing their pictures for his gallery, which became an outlet for them in America. Together, Stieglitz and Steichen showed work by Henri Matisse, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Auguste Rodin, Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, Constantin Brancusi, and many other artists of the time. However, whilst Steichen appreciated the Modern style of such artists, he took longer to develop his own style, which remained firmly Pictorialist.

During the First World War, Steichen was posted to Europe to run the aerial photography division of the American Expeditionary Force, and he remained there until 1919. The clarity of the aerial photographs convinced Steichen to change his style and embrace the clear, sharp images that cameras could make. He abandoned the soft-focus and heavy retouching of his earlier work. In 1923, Steichen received his first major break as a photographer, when he became chief photographer for Condé Nast Publications. For the next fifteen years he took fashion photographs for Vogue and portraits for Vanity Fair, becoming hugely influential in both fields. His portraits of Gloria Swanson (1924) and Greta Garbo (1928), for example, have become icons in the history of photography.

The Family of Man

After the Second World War, Steichen changed paths again and became Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He had already had significant success at promoting photography in America, particularly at 291 Gallery, and this appointment was to be his apotheosis. Between 1947 and 1962, Steichen organised over forty exhibitions, and also bought photographic prints for the museum. Then, in 1955, he organised the most successful photographic exhibition of all time, entitled The Family of Man. It consisted of over five hundred prints by photographers from sixty- eight countries, and its purpose was to highlight similarities between nations, and to demonstrate that the human experience is universal. It was toured extensively and, by the time it closed, over nine million people had seen the exhibition. Quite apart from its curatorial ambitions, The Family of Man was also important in that it established photography as a suitable medium for museum exhibitions.

Steichen was married three times, to Clara Smith (1903-22), to Dana Desoro Glover (1923-57), and then to Joanna Taub. He died on 25 March 1973 in West Redding, Connecticut.