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Edward Steichen

Text from A World History of Photography

Profile: Edward Steichen

In the range and quality of his production in the fashion and advertising fields, Edward Steichen might be said to embody the development of utilitarian photography in the 20th century. Steichen was engaged with much that was vital and new in the medium during the 20th century, from a beginning as a Pictorialist photographer through activities in the commercial sector to a position as director of the most prestigious museum photography department in the United States (at the Museum of Modern Art). As a creative individual, as a designer of exhibitions and periodicals, as a director of projects, he left an unmistakable imprint on the photographic trends of his time.

Born Eduard Steichen, in Luxembourg in 1879, he was brought to the United States as an infant. When he displayed artistic ability he was apprenticed after 1894 to a firm of lithographers in Milwaukee; he both painted and photographed, submitting to Pictorialist salons during the 1890s. Clarence H. White noticed him in 1900 and soon after brought him to the attention of Stieglitz, with whom he shortly began to collaborate on the installations for the gallery 291 and on the founding of Camera Work, for which he designed the first cover and the initial publicity. Still not entirely committed to photography, Steichen spent the greater part of the period before the first World War painting in France. There his knowledge of Symbolism, Expressionism, and Cubism enabled him to direct Stieglitz's attention to these significant art movements. Besides paintings (nearly all of which he later destroyed), Steichen made sensitive photographs in the Symbolist style of landscapes, genre scenes, and New York cityscapes and perceptive portraits of wealthy and creative individuals in Paris and New York during this period. As part of the active New York art scene of the time, he was portrayed photographing Marcel Duchamp, in Sunday Afternoon in the Country, a 1917 oil by Florine Stettheimer. Other photographers included in the painted scene are Arnold Genthe and Baron de Meyer.

Steichen's experiences as director of aerial photography for the Allied Forces during World War I, followed by a period of several years of photographic experimentation based on his interest in the theory of dynamic symmetry, enabled him to shed the vestiges of his Pictorialist sensibility and open himself up to modernist ideas. In his position with Conde Nast from 1922 and also as a free-lance advertising photographer, he explored the vocabulary of the New Objectivity during the 1920s in order to create ingenious advertising and fashion images in what was still a relatively fresh field. This phase of Steichen's career, which he brought to an end in 1938 when he realized that commercial work was no longer personally stimulating, prepared him to embrace a broader concept of photography and to assume a role as administrator. Although not himself involved in photo-reportage or the documentary movement, by the late 1930s he was convinced that the fine quality of work produced by photographers working for the Farm Security Administration and for Life had effectively erased aesthetic distinctions among images made as personal expression, as photojournalism, or as social commentary.

In 1947, after serving as director of Naval Combat Photography during World War II, Steichen accepted the directorship of the Department of Photography of the Museum of Modern Art. His purpose, he said, was to make sure that what he called the "aliveness in the melting pot of American photography" and "the restless seekings, probing aspirations and experiments of younger photographers" would be represented in the museum collection. During his tenure, which lasted until 1961, he organized and promoted exhibitions, wrote numerous articles, helped publish books on the medium, and was instrumental in making photographic images acceptable in a museum setting. In 1955, Steichen organized The Family of Man exhibition and catalog, which he considered the culmination of his career. He believed that this show promoted photography as "a tool for penetrating beneath the surface of things" and that it proved that journalistic photographs had their own aesthetic forms. Long before he died in 1972, he was recognized as one of the small group of individuals whose ideas, energy, and images had helped shape photography in the 20th century.


 


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