Edward Steichen: A Move Towards Modernism

After the First World War Edward Steichen went through a period of creative change as he moved away from Pictorialism and towards Modernism. During the war he had been posted to Europe to run the aerial photography division of the American Expeditionary Force. With the Armistice, Steichen returned to his home at Voulangis, France. Shocked by what he had seen on the Western Front and seeking a new start from his earlier soft-focus Pictorialist work, Steichen took up the clarity of the aerial photography he had undertaken during the war and embraced the sharpness he could achieve with the camera. He remarked: “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 his fellow man.” Spurning the self-conscious artistry of Pictorialism, Steichen turned to Modernism and its brutal linearity, geometry and abstraction.

Steichen spent three years at Voulangis after the war, working with his new principles of photography and trying to master “that charlatan, Light, and the innate cussedness of inanimate objects.” Undertaking a series of ‘symbol- object’ photographs, he sought to convey complex ideas with simple imagery. He intended “to give abstract meanings to very literal photographs.” He said, “I began to realise that abstraction based on symbols was feasible only if the symbols were universal. Symbols that I invented as I went along would not be understood by anyone but myself.” With its metaphysical title and complex symbolism, Triumph of the Egg is typical of Steichen’s approach during this period. A bell jar, disc, harmonica and egg combine to create an abstract composition in which the exact relationship between the objects is unclear. The reflection of a window in the bell jar is the only clue as to the domestic location of the scene. Transcending their materiality, the objects are arranged so as to become unperceivable parts of a whole. Steichen aggrandises the egg to symbolise fertility, setting it within an architectonic space.

Presenting several layers of symbolism, the photograph is also an interpretation of Albert Einstein’s new theory of physics. The symbols of physics are replaced with a group of unrelated objects. Looking to Einstein’s theory of relativity, published in 1916, Steichen sought to use the apparent suspension of the egg in the bell jar to convey the idea of the exertion of a force of attraction of two objects on one another, as governed by gravity. The Modernists were fascinated by Einstein’s theory of relativity and the ensuing concept of the space-time continuum. Einstein had changed the face of modern physics and blown apart the premise that space and time were unalterable. Another photograph from Steichen’s Symbol-Object series, titled Time-Space Continuum (circa 1290), uses a bowl and locksmith’s repertory of standard key profiles to convey the inadequacy of all codes other than Einstein’s, for unlocking the workings of the universe. Triumph of the Egg hence places the mystic, religious symbolism of the old world in stark relation to the semiotics in the modern world, represented by the new physics. In the wake of the horror of the war, Steichen’s egg announces a rebirth of reason and the ‘triumph’ of the new.

Steichen’s Symbol-Object photographs marked a turning point in his career. He would soon divert into fashion photography, applying the concepts of Modernism to his work as Chief Photographer for Condé Nast. His photographs for Vogue and Vanity Fair would employ the formal structure that he first embraced in his Symbol-Object photographs.

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