“A portrait is not made in the camera but on either side of it.” – Edward Steichen
Born in Luxembourg and later equally at home in New York and Paris, Steichen for years practiced photography alongside painting, attempting to fuse the two fields in his turn-of-the-century Pictorialism. Favorite subjects were stretches of forest, whose semi-darkness invoked the mystical realm of Symbolism; portraits of famous artists and poets such as Rodin, Mucha, and Maeterlinck; and female nudes. Like somnambulist nymphs, these figures seemed to spring from the spirit of Gustave Doré. Steichen masterfully contrasted large areas of black with brightly illuminated passages. His 1906 Storm in the Garden of the Gods, taken in Colorado, calls up memories of the Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin.
The quarterly Camera Work, edited by his friend Alfred Steiglitz from 1903, became a stage for Steichen as for no other photographer: three issues and a supplementary volume were devoted to his work. With great inventiveness, Steichen attempted to expand the painterly potentials of the medium, using such techniques as carbon, platinum and gumbichromate printing, or combinations of these. He also experimented in color photography. Steichen's art photography culminated in his images of Rodin's statue Balzac, in which the bronze figure of the poet appears like an epiphany in a dramatically evocative twilight.
The changeover in his work came with the First World War, when in 1917 Steichen suggested to the Air Force that a department of aerial photography be established to clarify details in military maps and record the battlefields and destruction on the Western Front. In the rank of colonel, he provided shocking images of devastated villages and landscapes effaced by bomb craters. The demand for "sharp, clear images" would open his eyes to the unsentimental objectivity that came to the fore in the 1920s. To that point still a successful society portraitist, Steichen abruptly ended his painting career in 1923 by piling up the remaining paintings in his studio and setting fire to them.
Over the next 15 years, Steichen experienced a meteoric rise as head photographer at Vogue and Vanity Fair. After having produced the first fashion photographs in history worthy of the name, for Art et Décoration in 1911, his images now became styleshaping. Innumerable works for the day's leading couturiers and fashion designers followed. When he was advised not to risk his reputation as an art photographer and to publish these pictures anonymously, Steichen made a point of signing them. Nor did he reject lucrative advertising jobs or think himself too good for wallpaper designs or object photographs such as cigarette lighters. Many colleagues looked on such things as a betrayal of the ideals of photography; to him, they represented an expansion of his repertoire. In the meantime, the line outside his portrait studio grew ever longer. The rich, beautiful and famous had themselves portrayed by "America's foremost photographer," avid to "get steichenized," as the phrase then was. In 1938, Steichen withdrew from commercial photography for good.
He was over 60 when the United States—not uncontroversially—entered the Second World War. With an eye to marshalling domestic support for the war in the Pacific, Steichen was commissioned to mount a propaganda exhibition, Road to Victory, shown in 1942 at the Museum of Modern Art, followed in 1945 by Power in the Pacific. His book U.S. Navy War Photographs: Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay, with Tom Maloney as author, became a millionseller.
Named director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, Steichen would mount a total of 46 shows over the next 15 years, including the legendary Family of Man. After its New York premiere in 1955, the show traveled around the world for years and attracted over nine million visitors. During the Cold War, weary of the "beastiality and brutality of war," Steichen recommended that people recall the experiences shared by all humanity. Only in hindsight has it become clear that the Family of Man, like some photographic campaign, included a glorification of the American Way of Life.
Excerpt taken from 50 Photographers You Should Know by Peter Stepan