Todd Brandow, William A. Ewing and Nathalie Herschdorfer
|Edward Steichen (1879-1973) is one of the most prolific, influential and controversial figures in the history of photography. An incessant innovator, he applied his talents to almost every photographic genre and subject — portraiture, the nude, landscape, cityscape, flowers, dance, theatre, fashion, advertising and war — as well as to design, typography and art directing. He was also director of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA), in which capacity he curated some very popular photography shows, notably the panoramic, humanist The Family of Man in 1955. This great photographer often crossed the frontier between art and the more profane uses of his medium, and in doing so raised many questions about the reception and evolution of photographic images. Steichen, une épopée photographique (Lives in Photography) is the first major posthumous retrospective in Europe of an impressive œuvre that continues to yield unexamined riches, such as the fashion photographs from the Condé Nast archives which are being exhibited here for the first time.|
Eduard Jean Steichen was born in Luxembourg on 27 March 1879. He was less than two years old when economic pressures forced the family to emigrate to the United States. They settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As a young child he became interested in painting. Endlessly curious, at the age of 16 he bought his first camera. Serving an apprenticeship in a lithography firm, he suggested that the woodcuts used to illustrate manuals be replaced with his own photographs. But he also explored the medium's formal possibilities, and when the journal of photographer Alfred Stieglitz, Camera Notes, organised a competition, he sent in three photographs. All three were accepted. His career was launched. He was 21 and now became an American citizen with the name of Edward Steichen.
Travelling to Paris, Steichen stopped off in New York where he met Alfred Stieglitz, the leading advocate of avant-garde photography. It was the beginning of a long and tumultuous relationship. In London, he was taken on to help install an exhibition of the new American photography, to include his own work. In Paris, Steichen cut short his drawing studies and embarked on a series of photographs of Great Men. He met Auguste Rodin and his photographic portrait of the sculptor was hailed by critics.
In 1902, invited to exhibit at the Salon du Champ-de-Mars, Steichen had his photographs refused at the last minute. The ensuing debate about the status of photography as a fine art did much to enhance Steichen's reputation as an “enfant terrible.” He now decided to return to New York and open a studio. There he took part in the foundation of the Photo Secession, a movement that, according to Stieglitz, was about “seceding from the accepted idea of what constitutes a photograph.” He was a key contributor to the journal founded by Stieglitz, Camera Work (1903-1917): not only did his photographs feature more prominently than anyone else's, but he designed the layout and wrote texts. Steichen printed the photogravures on Japanese paper, and their velvety contours and deep blacks were comparable in quality to exhibition prints. Camera Work crystallised a key moment in Pictorialism, a movement that sought to bring out the painterly qualities of photography by emphasising certain techniques, and at the same time tried to establish the place of photography as a full-fledged discipline among the fine arts. Finally, in 1905 Steichen encouraged Stieglitz to open “The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession” in his old apartment. This space later came to be called 291, after the Fifth Avenue address.
Steichen returned to Paris in 1906 and, a year later, attended a demonstration given by the Lumière Brothers of their new autochrome process for colour photography. Another technological development was his use of a pocket camera for his first “documentary” photos at the Longchamp horse races. He met Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, Manet, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Brancusi and Rodin, all of whom would be exhibited at 291.
In 1908, Steichen and his family started spending their summers in his house at Voulangis, near Paris, where he painted and devoted himself to horticulture. Then, in 1914, with the coming of war, he left for New York, where Camera Work ceased publication and the Photo-Secession was dissolved.
In 1917, after a difficult chapter of his life and a falling out with Stieglitz, Steichen was placed in charge of photographic equipment for the Air Force, and also of its conveyance to the field. The technical constraints of military aerial photography, and the imperatives of precision and objectivity imposed by high altitude, prompted him to break radically with the pictorialist aesthetic. After the war, Steichen went back to live alone at Voulangis for what he called his “second apprenticeship” and applied himself to compositions of plants and objects. In 1923, however, unable to make a living from his painting, and having divorced, Steichen went to open a studio in the United States.
In New York, Condé Nast offered him the position of chief photographer for the fashion magazine Vogue and the society journal Vanity Fair. Actors, film directors, playwrights, writers, athletes, and politicians posed for him in his studio. Steichen took an active interest in the magazine format and designed his photographs to complement the text in an overall layout scheme.
During the same period he explored the city and the kinds of compositions it made possible. And, when asked to find new patterns for Stehli textiles, he based these on close-up photographs of such unexpected objects as nails, grains of rice, beans, buttons and wire in which he made clever use of lighting. Converted form black-and-white into colour and repeated on the fabric, at once dynamic and abstract, the motifs were an immediate success.
Shortly after signing with Condé Nast, Steichen was an offered an exclusive contract with the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, for whom his commercial photos appeared regularly in the illustrated press during the 1920s and 30s.
In spite of criticism from Stieglitz, Paul Strand and Walker Evans, who publicly disapproved of this work, Steichen championed a practice of photography that was both commercial and creative. This was the beginning of the consumer age, and the flourishing magazine sector had a persuasive power that made it the ideal medium for advertising.
The creations of the major couturiers — Worth, Poiret, Lelong, Lanvin, Chanel and Schiaparelli — were all captured in Steichen's studio. With a penchant for compositions based on the bold lines and diagonals of Art Deco, Steichen mastered poses, captured the quality of the fabric, cut and finish, ensuring that the clothes were depicted down to the subtlest detail. Models, actors and women from New York high society all posed for him, although none could compare to his muse, Marion Morehouse. Significantly enough, in 1923 Steichen began signing his fashion photographs, even though Condé Nast had proposed he make them anonymously in order to protect his reputation as an artist.
In 1938, Steichen retired from commercial photography. He moved to the farm he had bought in Umpawaug, Connecticut and spent his time cultivating flowers, and especially his beloved delphiniums. In 1936, MoMA gave him carte blanche for eight days for what was his first solo exhibition there, and the first ever exhibition of flowers in a museum. That same year he tried his hand at documentary photography in Mexico using a 35mm camera and Kodachrome.
Steichen was 60 years old when World War II broke out, but he still enlisted as a Navy reservist in 1942. Before that, however, in 1941, at MoMA's behest he organised the exhibition Road to Victory, the first of a series of major exhibitions that would tour the world. It marked the museum's recognition of photography as a powerful medium of mass communication. In the Navy, Steichen formed a photographic section and chose the finest photographs taken by his men for press and recruiting purposes. These photographs constitute a significant archive of great documentary value.
In 1946, Steichen was made Director of Photography at MoMA, despite the objections of figures such Ansel Adams, who criticised his interest in illustrative and commercial photography. In this capacity he organised 46 exhibitions, many of which toured the United States, and some Europe and Japan as well. His attitude to the medium contrasted strongly with the more historic and formalist approach of his predecessor, Beaumont Newhall. After organising his own retrospective the year before, in 1962 he retired and returned to his farm in Connecticut. There, season after season, he would set his film and still cameras on a small shadblow tree, whose changing appearance he continued to record until his death in 1973.
The exhibition The Family of Man was the result of three years of research in Europe and the United States. Its original purpose was to promote solidarity between peoples by showing images from all around the world. Visitors moved around in a labyrinthine structure in which the size of the photographs varied constantly. While the narrative was linear, following the course of human existence, the path itself was circular, reflecting the cyclical nature of life and the universality of experience. In spite of criticisms attacking Steichen for his simplistic and sentimental vision, the show was a phenomenal success. After the initial presentation in New York in 1955, different sets of the exhibition went on view in 38 countries. More than nine million people saw the show between 1955 and 1962. Today, a restored version is on permanent display at the Château de Clervaux in Luxembourg.