Edward Steichen
Biography of American Fine Art Photographer.
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The Pond (Moonlight) (1904)
One of the most famous examples of
early pictorialism, created by
Edward Steichen.

Edward Steichen (1879-1973)

Contents

Biography
Early Life and Arts Training
Creative Photographs
Settles in Paris
Fashion, Illustrative Photography: Vogue, Vanity Fair
Second World War and MOMA
Other Famous 20th-Century Photographers


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Biography

A major contributor to the development of fine art photography, the photographer and painter Edward Steichen was one of America's most influential modern artists - both as a practitioner and promoter of lens-based art. A founder member of Photo-Secession in 1902, he soon became known for his series of photographic portraits of celebrities, such as J.P. Morgan (1903), and for his highly innovative print The Pond - Moonlight (1904), which simulated the effect of colour by having layers of light-sensitive gums applied to the surface. In 1905, he joined with Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) in establishing the "Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession", a gallery of modern art which became known as "291", after its address on Fifth Avenue, New York. Initially used to promote photographic art, "291" soon widened its ambit to include all types of avant-garde art, mostly by famous French painters. This came about as a result of Steichen's move to Paris (1906-14), where he met many of the leading artists of the day, for whom he and Stieglitz then arranged exhibitions at "291". These exhibitors included 20th century painters like: Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), Francis Picabia (1879-1953), and Gino Severini (1883-1976); and 20th century sculptors such as Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957). In 1911, Steichen became, in effect, one of the world's first fashion photographers when his photos of gowns designed by couturier Paul Poiret were published in the magazine "Art and Decoration". Switching to realist photography after the Great War, as a result of his experience in battlefield imagery, he became the highest paid commercial photographer in the world, although his output included several important portraits and other examples of photographic art. During World War II, he directed an award-winning documentary The Fighting Lady, after which he joined New York's Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) as Director of the Department of Photography, until 1962. While at MOMA, he curated the hugely successful show entitled The Family of Man, an exhibition of over 500 photographs from around the world, which was seen by 9 million visitors. Steichen remains a hugely important figure in American art, and is - along with Stieglitz, Man Ray (1890-1976), and Ansel Adams (1902-84) - one of the greatest photographers of the early 20th century, and an important influence on later photographic artists including: Irving Penn (1917-2009), Garry Winogrand, William Eggleston, Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-89), Nan Goldin (b.1953), Andreas Gursky (b.1955), and Cindy Sherman (b.1954).

See also: Is Photography Art?

 

 


Marilyn Monroe - Photographed by Edward Steichen.

Early Life and Arts Training

Born Eduard Jean Steichen in Bivange, Luxembourg, the son of Jean-Pierre and Marie Kemp Steichen, he emigrated with his family to the United States in 1881, eventually settling in Milwaukee, where he attended Pio Nono College. Here, he demonstrated such aptitude for drawing, that in 1894 he left school and began a 4-year apprenticeship in lithography with the American Fine Art Company of Milwaukee. In the evenings he sketched and taught himself how to paint. In 1895 he bought his first camera - a second-hand Kodak box camera. At the same time, he, along with his friends who were also interested in art and photography, rented a room in a Milwaukee office building and proclaimed themselves the Milwaukee Art Students League. They hired visiting lecturers, and held several ill-attended group shows. Meanwhile, while still interested in various types of art, his forte was clearly photography: in 1899, several of his prints were accepted for show at the Second Philadelphia Salon of Pictorial Photography, and three were bought by the New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz. The two men met the following year, in 1900 when Steichen stopped off in New York - en route for Paris to study painting at the Academie Julian - and they soon became close friends.

For earlier camera artists, see: 19th-Century Photographers.

In 1902 Steichen, joined with Stieglitz, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Clarence White, and Gertrude Kasebier to form the anti-establishment Photo-Secession Group, a breakaway body from the official Camera Club of New York. Stieglitz became editor and publisher of the organization's journal, Camera Work, in which he regularly promoted Steichen's photographs. The whole of Issue 2, for instance, was devoted to Steichen's photographs. In 1903, Steichen married Clara Smith, with whom he had two daughters, Katherine and Mary. The couple divorced in 1922, after which he married Dana Desboro Glover.

 

 

Creative Photographs

Steichen's early photography was pictorialist, very expressionistic and strongly influenced by Monet's Impressionism and Redon's Symbolism. In 1902, as part of his ongoing series of portrait art, he took a series of photos of the celebrated French sculptor Auguste Rodin, one of which shows him copying the pose of his statue The Thinker: see, Portrait of Auguste Rodin (1902). He was also noted for his photo of the banker J.P. Morgan (1903).

Steichen started experimenting with colour photography in 1904, and was one of the first American photographers to use the Autochrome Lumiere process when it appeared in 1907. Meanwhile, he achieved considerable success in 1904 with his famous pictorialist photo The Pond-Moonlight. Taken in Mamaroneck, New York, close to the home of his friend, the art critic Charles Caffin, it features a wooded area and pond, with moonlight reflecting on the pond. Although the image gives the impression of being a colour photograph, the colour comes from layers of light-sensitive gums which he applied to the surface of the paper. (Note: The first true colour photographic process, known as the autochrome process, did not appear until 1907.) In February 2006, a print of The Pond-Moonlight was sold at auction for $2.9 million. (See also: Most Expensive Paintings: Top 20.) Other important works from this period include: The Flatiron Building (1904), and Pastoral-Moonlight (1907).

Settles in Paris

During the years 1906-14, Steichen lived in Paris where he met photographers like Eugene Atget (1857-1927) and made friends with a number of important modern artists, whom he invited to exhibit at gallery "291" in New York. As a result, "291" hosted the first US one-man shows of: Matisse (1908), Toulouse-Lautrec (1909), Paul Cezanne and the naif painter Henri Rousseau (1910), Pablo Picasso (1911), Francis Picabia (1913), and Gino Severini (1917). These displays of European art were augmented by solo exhibitions for American modernists like Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), John Marin (1870-1953) and Arthur Dove (1880-1946), and Cubist-Realists like Charles Demuth (1883-1935), Paul Strand (1890-1976) and Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), the leader of Precisionism.

In addition, Steichen assembled works by some of the most creative photographers in Europe, including himself, which were then exhibited by Stieglitz in 1910 at the International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography. In 1913 Stieglitz devoted a special issue of Camera Work to new photos by Steichen.

Fashion, Illustrative Photography: Vogue, Vanity Fair

In 1911, Steichen boosted his international reputation as a lens-based artist, when he took photos of a number of gowns made by the couturier Paul Poiret, for the magazine Art et Decoration. The dresses were photographed in such a way as to convey a sense of their physical quality as well as their formal appearance, and the images was seen as the first modern fashion photos ever published.

After the First World War, during which he was in charge of a photographic unit of the American Army in Europe, he worked from 1923–1938 in commercial fashion photography for the Conde Nast company, publishers of Vogue and Vanity Fair, as well as numerous advertising agencies including J. Walter Thompson. He also created a number of famous celebrity photographic portraits, such as his shots of the great Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1922) and his definitive portrait of actress Greta Garbo (1924). During these years he was estimated to be the highest paid photographer in the world.

For another modernist artist who made an important contribution to photographic art, during the 1920s and 1930s, read the biography of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946), the Hungarian experimental artist and Bauhaus designer, who founded the Institute of Design in Chicago.

Second World War and MOMA

In 1938 Steichen close his studio and retired to devote his energies to plant breeding at Umpawaug, his farm in Connecticut. But after Pearl Harbour he took over as Director of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit, in charge of all combat photography. During the conflict he curated several exhibitions of military photographs at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, while his documentary film The Fighting Lady was awarded the 1945 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

After the war he served as Director of Photography at MOMA, where his efforts further helped to raise photography to the status of an independent art form, in the eyes of other arts institutions as well as the general public. In 1955, he curated and staged The Family of Man - the most popular exhibition in the history of photography. Consisting of 503 photos depicting life, love and death in 68 different countries, it attracted more than 9 million visitors. It is now permanently housed at Clervaux, Luxembourg. In 1961, a year before he retired, he held an exhibition of his own photographic art at the Museum, where he later helped to set up the Edward Steichen Photography Center. He also wrote an autobiography, entitled A Life in Photography, which was published in 1963. He died in Connecticut, in 1973, at the age of 94.

Photographs by Edward Steichen can be seen in the best art museums in America and around the world.

Other Famous 20th Century Photographers

Edward Weston (1886-1958)
Raoul Hausmann (1886-1971)
John Heartfield (Helmut Herzfeld) (1891-1968)
Walker Evans (1903-75)
Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004)
Richard Avedon (1923-2004)
Bernd and Hilla Becher (1931-2007) and (b.1934)
Jeff Wall (b.1946)

• For more details of creative photography in America, see: Homepage.


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