Edward Steichen (March 27, 1879 – March 25, 1973) was an American pioneer in the history of photography and its struggle to be accepted as a recognized art form. During his 60 year photographic career, he was renowned as a photographer of nature, celebrity, architecture, fashion, advertising, war, and social commentary. He was also an accomplished painter, museum curator, and flower geneticist.
He and photographer Alfred Stieglitz collaborated in creating galleries in New York City that would expose Americans to unknown European artists who eventually became legends of modern art, as well as eventual legends of modern American photography.
Steichen solidified his international status as a photographic genius when he helped organize The Family of Man, an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, which consisted of over 500 photos that depicted various scenes of life from 68 countries and would eventually be exhibited in 38 different countries. The landmark show set a new standard for photography, proving that it could be attractive to the masses (9 million viewed it) as a mirror of universal truths about the human condition.
Edward Steichen was born in Luxembourg, on March 27, 1879. The family settled in Hancock, Michigan, in 1881, where the father worked in a copper mine. They then moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Eduard—as he then spelled his name—at the age of 15 became an apprentice at the American Fine Art Company, a lithographic company. By the time he was 17, he was learning to be a lithographic designer and on the side he was teaching himself painting and photography. His youthful experiments made him one of the first commercial photographers in Milwaukee.
With no classes on photography available and no books in the Milwaukee library, he turned to the pages of Camera Notes, a quarterly journal edited by Alfred Stieglitz. In those pages he saw photos and read articles that fed his thirst for more knowledge.
When he was about 18 years old, Steichen organized the Milwaukee Art Student's League and served as its first president. He and several friends talked well known area artists like Robert Schade and Richard Lorenz into instructing them and evaluating their work.
In 1899, he entered three of his photographs into the second Philadelphia Photographic Salon competition, which was judged by the leading photographers of the day, including Stieglitz and Clarence White. Out of the 962 entries three of Steichen's were chosen for the national exhibition.
In 1900, after having more photos chosen for Chicago exhibit and turning 21, he decided to travel to Europe to study art and he set off for Paris. On his way to Europe he stopped in New York to show his paintings to William Merritt Chase and to meet Stieglitz, the dominant photographer in the New York City art community. Stieglitz ended up buying three of Steichen's prints and agreed to publish some in Camera Notes.
His big breakthrough in Europe came when the Salon Nationale des Beaux-Arts chose one of his paintings, six charcoal portraits, and ten pigment photographs. Photographs had never before been accepted by the Salon. As a result, the British photographic art journal Amateur Photographer, reproduced all the items accepted by the Salon and he was hailed as the foremost representative of the American School.
In 1902, he returned to the United States and after a short time at home in Milwaukee, he headed to New York City. Arriving in New York just in time for Stieglitz's proclamation of Photo-Secession, Steichen became the graphic designer for his new magazine, Camera Work.
He found great success as both a painter and a photographer in New York, winning both acclaim and awards, especially of his photo portraits of the city's well known personalities.
In 1905, Stieglitz and Steichen co-founded the 291 and Photo-Secession galleries at the Fifth Avenue space that Steichen had recently vacated. Soon after opening the galleries however, Steichen's constant desire for challenge led him to return to Europe with his family in 1906, while leaving Stieglitz to manage the galleries.
While in Paris, he looked up his friend Rodin and soon convinced him that he should do his first American exhibit at his 21 Gallery. He also made the acquaintance of Leo and Gertrude Stein and found himself at the center of the newest art movement in Europe.
As a result, 291 became an international force when they also introduced to America the paintings, drawings, and sculpture of such artists as Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, John Marin, and Constantin Brancusi. He sent their work to Stieglitz for exhibition at 291 and later arranged to have it shown at the 1913 Armory Show.
Also during this time in Europe, he developed an interest in documentary and news photography. He would also happen to be there when the color photography process, the "Autochrome Lumière," was launched on the market in 1907. This would in turn lead to America's first introduction to color photographs at the 291. In 1908, the debut of Rodin's erotic drawings at 291 created a great deal of controversy that brought viewers in droves.
It was also in 1908, that Steichen helped organize the Society of Younger American Painters in Paris. It was created as a statement by young avant-garde artists against the more conservative Society of American Artists also in Paris.
He returned to America in 1908, long enough to do exhibits of his photos and autochromes at Photo-Secession, paintings, and photographs at the National Arts Club and paintings at the Pratt Institute that all received great acclaim and were financially successful for him.
Steichen continued to live in France and travel to New York for exhibits until 1914, when World War I broke out. Returning to live in Connecticut he ultimately would be commissioned as a first lieutenant in the Signal Corps Photographic Division in 1917, when the U.S. got involved in the war. As a result, he would be involved in the first aerial photographic reconnaissance operation in U.S. military history.
He retired as lieutenant colonel in 1919, and settled in Voulangis, France. Separated from his wife and dealing with the effects of the war he became something of a recluse and gave up painting and focused on gardening. His focus on plants resulted in a new photographic focus. He began to use the camera to compose innovative pictures of geometrical forms in nature that resulted in beautiful still-life images.
In 1923, he returned to America ready to make a new start. This would be facilitated by a meeting with Conde Nast, owner and publisher of Vanity Fair and Vogue magazines where he was offered a job as chief photographer. The result was a 15 year relationship in which he produced fashion illustrations and portraits of personalities that would make both magazines the most popular of their day. Employing carefully controlled studio lighting, Steichen developed an elegant, dramatic signature style that profoundly influenced commercial photography.
As a result of his new direction he renounced painting and destroyed many of his works. Over the years he would do portraits of Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire, George Gershwin, and Eugene O'Neill, to name just a few. He photographed just about every celebrity of the time.
During the Great Depression he was hired by J. Walter Thompson to make public service photographs for a new hospital. The resulting images, The Clinic, moved his photos into the realm of social commentary. His Homeless Women: The Depression series, done in 1932, became a classic record of the period. In 1932, Steichen also did a photo mural of the George Washington Bridge that was chosen to be displayed at the Museum of Modern Art. He also did one for the new Radio City Music Hall depicting scientific achievements.
In 1938, he won the Silver Medal at the national Advertising and Selling Awards for his ad campaigns for Cannon Mills, Steinway pianos, Eastman Kodak, and many others. The same year he was declared a "living legend" by Popular Photography magazine.
He retired in 1938, and closed his studio to devote his time to plant breeding. Soon afterwards he would find himself trying to reenlist in the military at the age of 61 as America faced the prospect of World War II. After his third attempt to reenlist he was commissioned a lieutenant commander in 1942, and headed the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit, which documented aircraft carriers in action. His first assignment was to complete an exhibition he had started for MOMA in 1941, on national defense. He organized the extremely popular exhibition Road to Victory that had 150 images (none of his own) and opened in May 1942, at MOMA. The show then traveled to many American cities and to London, Australia, and South America.
He directed the creation of the war documentary The Fighting Lady, chronicling the battles of the crew of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. ''Yorktown, which won the 1944 Academy Award for Best Documentary.
In 1945, his second joint Navy and MOMA exhibition, Power in the Pacific, went on display. He was officially discharged in 1945, at the age of 67, and received the Distinguished Service Medal.
Soon after his service ended, Steichen was named director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It turned out to be a controversial appointment as many prominent photographers, including his old friend Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, and Beaumont Newhall, felt he was no longer interested in photography as art and was more interested in its journalistic and propagandistic aspects.
He would serve in that position for more than 15 years and organize 44 exhibitions covering the past, present, and future.
After a brief stint as an adviser on Navy photography during the Korean War, Steichen began to envision his final testament as a photographer. He decided to put together an exhibition that would demonstrate, "that the art of photography is a dynamic process of giving form to ideas and of explaining man to man. It 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."
Titled The Family of Man, the 503 photos were selected from almost two million pictures taken by 273 photographers, famous and unknown, in 68 countries, and offered a striking snapshot of the human experience. Subjects included birth, love, and joy, war, privation, illness, and death.
The exhibit was turned into a book of the same name, containing an introduction by Carl Sandburg, who was Steichen's brother-in-law and long time friend. It was Sandburg who had planted the seed of the title of the exhibition in talks they had about Abraham Lincoln's frequent use of the term "the family of man." Sandburg himself had used the term in his own poetry. The book was reproduced in a variety of formats (most popularly a pocket-sized volume) in the 1950s, and reprinted in large format for its 40th anniversary. It sold more than 4 million copies.
The exhibition later traveled in several versions to 38 countries and Sandburg and Steichen traveled to many of those cities to mark the openings. More than 9 million people viewed the exhibit. The only surviving edition was presented to Luxembourg at Steichen's request and is on permanent display in Clervaux.
An exhibition of the restored collection in the Réfectoire des Jacobins in Toulouse took place in January 1993. More than 30,000 visitors from all over Europe led to a genuine renaissance for The Family of Man. This was followed by exhibitions at the end of 1993 and the beginning of 1994, in Tokyo and Hiroshima, where thousands of visitors re-discovered or saw the exhibit for the first time.
In 1963, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President John F. Kennedy, however he was assassinated before he could present it. President Lyndon B. Johnson presented it to him in December 1963.
In 1903, Steichen married Clara Smith and they would have two daughters, Kate and Mary. In 1915, after years of depression and paranoid accusations of infidelity, Clara decided to leave Steichen in the U.S and return to France with her two daughters. In spite of his strong objections, she returned to Europe in a self-destructive fit just as the war broke out, taking Kate and leaving Mary with him.
In 1917, when the U.S. got involved in the war she returned to the U.S. just as Steichen was being assigned overseas. Two years later she filed an alienation of affection suit in the New York Supreme Court against Marion Beckett, asking for $200,000 in damages. The trial took place in 1921, with the result that Clara lost. The divorce became official in 1922, when he filed in France and she filed in the U.S.
In 1921, Steichen met Dana Desboro Glover, 15 years his junior, at the New York School of Photography. She was an aspiring actress who shared his passion for photography. They were married in 1923. Dana died of leukemia in 1957.
In 1960, after a minor stroke, he married Joanna Taub, he was 80 and she was 26. Joanna took care of him until he died in 1973, in a hospital in Umpawaug, Connecticut.
In 1908, Steichen moved his family to a country house with a spacious garden in Voulangis, France. It was here he developed an interest in the genetics of flowers that was germinated in his days as a child working in his father's garden.
He began experimenting with the crossbreeding of delphiniums and Oriental poppies. He became serious enough about it to order seeds from renown horticulturalists like Luther Burbank. His garden also became a backdrop and a subject in his paintings and his photos.
On his return to the U.S., he started what he called the Umpawaug Plant Breeding Farm in Connecticut with his second wife, Dana, where he cultivated up to 100,000 delphiniums annually.
In the mid-thirties, he served as the president of the American Delphinium Society and won international recognition for his perennials.
In 1936, he had his first one man show at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), featuring his photos of plants. The show included live cuttings from his Farm. In 1938, Better Homes and Gardens magazine did a feature on his delphiniums that used one of his color photos for the front cover.
His obvious contribution to photography led to his induction into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 1974. Before his induction, he served on the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum’s Advisory Board.
In February 2006, a copy of Steichen's early pictorialist photograph, The Pond-Moonlight (1904), sold for the highest price ever paid for a photograph at auction, U.S. $2.9 million.
Steichen took the photograph in Mamaroneck, New York, near the home of his friend, art critic Charles Caffin. The photo features a wooded area and pond, with moonlight appearing between the trees and reflecting on the pond. While the print appears to be a color photograph, the first true color photographic process, the autochrome, was not available until 1907. Steichen created the impression of color by manually applying layers of light-sensitive gums to the paper. In 1904, only a few photographers were using this experimental approach. Only three known versions of the Pond-Moonlight are still in existence and, as a result of the hand-layering of the gums, each is unique. In addition to the auctioned print, the other two versions are held in museum collections. The extraordinary sale price of the print is, in part, attributable to its one-of-a-kind character and to its rarity.
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