Whitney Museum of American Art

photo © Jeff Goldberg/Esto

New York, NY




Edward Steichen


This fall, the Whitney Museum of American Art will laud the legendary Edward Steichen with the first full retrospective of his work in 40 years. Composed primarily of vintage prints, Edward Steichen runs from October 5, 2000 through February 4, 2001. Organized by Barbara Haskell, curator of prewar art, the retrospective pays tribute to one of America's most distinguished artists. It is the most comprehensive Steichen show to be presented since 1961, including nearly 200 vintage photographs as well as rarely seen examples of Steichen's work as painter, designer of textiles and curator of exhibitions.

The Whitney Museum will publish a catalogue of the exhibition, Edward Steichen, by Barbara Haskell, to accompany the show. It features an essay detailing Steichen's extraordinary career, placing him within the context of the artists of his time and exploring his vision of photography as "a medium of persuasion." The essay reassesses Steichen's role in shaping a medium that transformed the 20th century.

To coincide with the Whitney exhibition, Alfred A. Knopf is publishing Steichen's Legacy: Photographs, 1895-1973, a major volume spanning seven decades of Steichen's work with more than 300 photographs, 30 in full color. Edited and written by Joanna Steichen, his third wife and widow, it elucidates Steichen's passionate views on photography and traces both personal and professional motivations behind the dramatic transitions in his varied career. It also tells the story of their years together as husband and wife, artist and assistant.

Vintage Steichen photographs - portraits, fashion, landscapes, advertising, combat - will establish the central narrative of the show. Many of Steichen's most iconic images will be shown, among them his defining photographs of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Flatiron Building, and Rodin's Balzac, as well as classic portraits of J.P. Morgan, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Eugene O'Neill, Gloria Swanson, and other major figures of the 20th century.

"Steichen was at the forefront in creating a new American style, as opposed to a European one, in photography," said Maxwell L. Anderson, the Whitney's director. "He captured the essence of his subjects in works that are among the 20th century's greatest photographic achievements."

Steichen was born in Luxembourg in 1879. By the age of 16, he had begun to show his paintings professionally. At the same time he embarked on a photography career during an apprenticeship in a Milwaukee lithography firm. In 1899 he submitted his photographs to the Second Philadelphia Photographic Salon and was accepted - his career was launched.

Steichen began as a proponent of the Pictorialist style, favoring the art of personal expression rather than the objective recording of fact. Strongly influenced by Maurice Maeterlinck and Henri Bergson, Steichen adhered to their belief in the higher value of the intuitive life. His early work is moody and evocative; to achieve an evanescent atmosphere, reminiscent of the paintings of Whistler, he occasionally sprinkled water on his lens and shifted his tripod. In his early years, Steichen experimented with photographing through various colored filters; he added color and used his paintbrush during the printing process. At the same time, he was painting on canvas. The Whitney will exhibit these early tonalist paintings alongside the atmospheric photographs of Steichen's first phase.

Steichen's influence on the art of photography went far beyond his own work. He supported the work of others through his collaboration with Alfred Stieglitz and encouraged Stieglitz to start The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession at 291 Fifth Avenue. Steichen acted as Stieglitz's agent and impresario in Europe; he spent much time abroad, scouting and helping to further exhibition possibilities for American vanguard artists of the time. While in France he championed the work of Brancusi, Cézanne and Rodin, artists who had a lifelong impact on him. Steichen's reputation grew as he worked with Stieglitz, and his work was featured in Stieglitz's Camera Work magazine. In collaboration with Stieglitz, Steichen played an instrumental role in introducing modern art to America.

Steichen enlisted in the Army during World War I. He intended to become a photographic reporter like Mathew Brady, who had documented the Civil War. Using his aesthetic and administrative skills for the war effort, Steichen headed the division that took aerial reconnaissance photographs for the Army. His combat and military photography from both the First and Second World Wars will be on view in the Whitney's exhibition. In the non-war years, he continued to explore the limits of photography, experimenting with depiction of volume, scale, and a sense of weight in the medium.

Perhaps nowhere did Steichen achieve so much as in the field of portraiture. In the 20s and 30s, his innovations in fashion, theater, and advertising photography transformed the medium. He focused on capturing the personality as well as the look. He became one of the great fashion and portrait photographers and was hired as the first chief of photography for Conde Nast's magazines Vogue and Vanity Fair, a position he held from 1923 to 1937. For Vogue and Vanity Fair, he chronicled fashion and the world of society. "In this period, Steichen created a portrait gallery of the most dominant personalities of his time. His portraits are at once spectacularly elegant and sensuous," notes Barbara Haskell.

Steichen became the most highly paid photographer in America in the 30s and 40s; his strong lights and darks and his use of shadows as formal elements helped to create a new look in photography. Hired by decorative arts firms, Steichen was commissioned to design textiles, a number of which will be on display in the Whitney's show. He expanded the boundaries of photography by using photographic images to create patterns and motifs for silk fabrics, and even designed a piano. He was also hired to do ads for Kodak, Steinway Piano, Jergens Lotion and other major companies.

Committed to the study of nature, while in Europe Steichen had begun gardening, a passion that remained constant throughout his life. He photographed avocados, sunflowers, lotuses and roses; many of his photographs reflect his love of nature. He conducted botanical experiments and bred new forms of the delphinium, which were honored in 1936 with the only exhibition of live plants ever presented at The Museum of Modern Art.

With America's entry into World War II, Steichen once again volunteered for service and became head of the U.S. naval photographic division and commander of all Navy combat photography. "Steichen's military photography," remarks Haskell, "unlike Capa's, is theatrical and panoramic, expressing a deep belief in community, brotherhood, and the human spirit."

After the war, in 1947, Steichen became the director of photography at The Museum of Modern Art. He used his exhibitions as artworks, blowing up photographs and creating visual narratives, confident in the power of photography to communicate and to connect. At the Modern, he led 46 exhibitions, the most famous being "The Family of Man" in 1955. The landmark show of the work of 273 photographers from 68 countries set a new standard. It presented photography as a healing force, an art that could make human beings aware of their common humanity. Steichen wrote in the catalogue's introduction (following a prologue by his brother-in-law, the poet Carl Sandburg) that the show "was conceived as a mirror of the universal elements and emotions in the everydayness of life - as a mirror of the essential oneness of mankind throughout the world." The exhibition, which Steichen considered his most important artistic achievement and "the most ambitious and challenging project photography has ever attempted, circulated internationally and was seen by many millions of viewers.

After his retirement in 1962, Steichen turned his attention to color photography and to film, capturing in his late work a vision of the renewable forces of nature. In 1963, Steichen's autobiography A Life in Photography was published. President John F. Kennedy presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom that same year in recognition of a lifetime of achievement. Steichen died in 1973.

The Whitney's exhibition will be the first major retrospective of Steichen's work since The Museum of Modern Art's show in 1961. It will also be the first to feature primarily vintage photographs from private and public collections internationally. Barbara Haskell notes, "The texture and luminous radiance of these prints will be a revelation. Steichen was a master printer, perhaps the best of them all."

This exhibition is sponsored by HSBC Bank USA. Additional support has been provided by The Henry Luce Foundation, the National Committee of the Whitney Museum of American Art, The New York Community Trust - Wallace Reader's Digest Special Projects Fund, and the Aaron and Betty Lee Stern Foundation. The museum gratefully acknowledges the cooperation of Joanna Steichen.


RL editor's note: readers may also enjoy

The History Channel via truveo.com offered a 1m:41s clip "Edward Steichen on photography as an art form". Truveo said: "Edward Steichen, born in Luxembourg on March 27, 1879, is credited with transforming photography into a recognized art form. Brought up in Michigan and Wisconsin, Steichen was trained as a commercial lithographer and painter, but his true interest lay in photography. In 1902, Alfred Stieglitz, the best-known American photographer of the day, invited him to New York to found Photo-Secession, an organization dedicated to promoting photography as a fine art. Steichen and Stieglitz were largely successful in winning respect for their medium and also promoted other European modern art at their influential gallery. During World War I, Steichen was a photographer for the U.S. Army and innovated aerial photography. By the war's end, he had become a dedicated proponent of realism, and he burned all his paintings as confirmation of his confidence in photography's ability to achieve that end. Between the wars, he was New York's leading portrait photographer, and his pictures from that period now form a vital record of American culture. In 1948, he began a fifteen-year tenure as director of the department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He died in 1973".

rev. 8/22/07

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 3/23/11

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