In an effort to study the myriad possibilities that natural lighting affords, Edward Steichen once photographed the same cup and saucer set over two thousand times. This and other exercises like it illustrate both Steichen’s personal discipline and his open-mindedness in regards to photography – discipline to remain focused on one subject for such an extended period of time, and the receptive ability to realize and remain aware of how remarkably different photographs of the same subject can be, depending on the available light or the angle at which he fixed his camera. “It’s only the person that is open-minded and receptive to new things or accidental things that happen that can make use of them,” he believed. Unfortunately, the photos of the cup and saucer no longer exist, as Steichen spent a good portion of his later years destroying negatives and prints that he felt were not central to his body of work, leaving behind less than two four-drawer filing cabinets of negatives, in all probability whittled down from tens of thousands of images, but it was this type of experimentation and his innovative spirit that eventually led him to become a pioneer of color photographic processes and secured his status in history as one of the great masters of photography.
Steichen was born in Luxembourg in 1879, but his parents moved to Chicago when he was an infant and he is considered a quintessentially American photographer. When he was ten, his family relocated to Milwaukee, where he spent most of his adolescence. He started his artistic life as a painter, only first turning his focus to photography at the age of sixteen after spotting a Kodak box camera in a second hand store window on his way home from his lithography apprenticeship at a local print shop one afternoon. His first photographic subject was the family cat. Steichen and his young artist friends rented a vacant room in a local office building and formed what they called the Milwaukee Art Students League, an organization committed to “emphasizing the importance of artistic creativity, maintaining the greatest respect for artists who devote their lives to art, and educating students in the process of making art in an environment where anyone who wishes to pursue an art education can realize his or her full potential.” Steichen made a distinction between photographers and “picture takers” or “button pushers,” as he also referred to them, who only photographed things they recognized other photographers had shot before, without being truly moved by their personal experience within a situation. Of the former, he explains, “the photographer establishes a relationship – an intimate relationship – between himself and whatever he’s photographing, whether it’s a can of beans, a landscape, or Greta Garbo.”
Five short years after picking up a camera for the first time, Steichen met Alfred Stieglitz at the New York Camera Club while stopping over on his way to Paris. Stieglitz was so impressed with Steichen’s work that he purchased three prints from him at their first meeting for five dollars a piece, a generous amount at the time, especially for Steichen, who had previously only sold his prints for fifty cents a piece. Stieglitz and Steichen would become lifelong friends and collaborators. Stieglitz was also impressed by Steichen’s knowledge of painting and his pictorial sensibility. He would later ask Steichen to create the logo typeface for his immeasurably influential photographic journal Camera Work. Steichen would eventually become the most frequently published photographer in the course of the magazine’s life from 1903 to 1917, evening having one double issue devoted entirely to his work. Steichen was also instrumental in bringing the famed “291” gallery to fruition. Opening in 1905 in the same apartment building in which Steichen was then living in New York City, it was originally called “The Little Gallery of the Photo-Secession”, and the gallery and Steichen both played a pivotal role in bringing modern art in America, with Steichen even acting as a liaison or ambassador between the American and European art worlds.
Steichen was more pictorial than he was utilitarian with his photography, preferring a dreamy quality in his prints, and he would sometimes rub his spit on his camera’s lens or gently shake his tripod during exposures to add a subtle moodiness to his images. He would also sometimes rub his thumb across his photographs while the prints were still wet to give them a more painterly quality. This is evident in his portrait of the sculptor Auguste Rodin. He says of his image of Rodin, a combination of two negatives fixed as a montage into one print, the artist almost silhouetted with his bronze “Thinker” statue opposite him and a marble Victor Hugo sculpture looming in the background, “I think it’s probably the most satisfactory photograph I ever made.” Still, he found fault with the idea of truth in portraiture. “Nobody has ever made, either in painting or photography, a complete portrait of a person,” he believed. “I don’t think that’s possible in any one picture. For instance, everybody has the capacity for laughter and tears and there is no place in between that expresses the whole thing. But I long ago came to the conclusion that if you could get one moment of reality shining out of that person that was as much as you could get in a portrait and then you had something essential.”
An example of his more pictorial early work, Steichen’s image of the Flatiron Building (1904) in Manhattan is both moving and intimidating. Going beyond the apparent painterly quality of the image, there are aspects that are curiously unnerving. The building itself seems impossibly monumental and obtrusive against as ominous overcast sky. The anonymous silhouette of a stagecoach driver in a top hat that appears in the bottom foreground is reminiscent of Jack the Ripper. On top of the moody atmosphere deeper in the photograph, the image is almost ripped or slashed in half by a tree branch that cuts through the middle of the frame, intentionally placed into the composition by Steichen. The ability to transform a scene or person into a two dimensional representation of itself that still held powerful emotive qualities was Steichen’s objective, and he is largely considered inscrutable in this regard. The Flatiron Building prints (three are known to exist) are some of the earliest forays into color in the field of photography.
Steichen’s photograph The Pond – Moonrise (1904) is another prime example of his early color pictorial work, an image of a yellow applied color moon rising from behind a row of dark cyan trees lining and reflecting in a twilit pond. Of the three prints in existence of the image, one is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, and the third sold in auction in 2006 fetching 2.9 million dollars, a record setting high at the time for a single photograph.
Steichen experimented with the early techniques of cyanotype & ferro-prussiate printing and toning platinum prints with gum bi-chromate, and, in fact, it was Steichen who taught Stieglitz the revolutionary Autochrome process, the first true color photographic technology invented by the Lumiere Brothers in France, producing true color exposures, not simply toned or otherwise colored photographs.
Far and away the most practical and realistic color process of the day, the Lumiere brothers’ Autochrome process consisted of a glass plate screened with dusted tiny orange-red, green, and violet dyed potato starch grains. The starch layer was then coated with a photosensitive layer of panchromatic silver bromide emulsion. Light passing through the plate in a camera would be filtered through the dyed starch layer before reaching the emulsion. This method produced a luminous positive color image on the glass plate, needing no further development after exposure and fixing. The downside to the Autochrome process was that multiple copies were not producible from the original image, as is possible with photographic negatives, and they had the tendency to fade easily when exposed to light. Many of Steichen’s color prints remain a mystery, as he didn’t leave notes on his processes at times. It is thought that he engineered some of his color images by introducing two different emulsions on the same negative plate, perhaps exposing them in separate instances. Dye imbibition printing was another of Steichen’s favorite practices. The dye imbibition process is a subtractive method of printing, which creates extremely vibrant, saturated colors with bright whites and rich blacks. Dye imbibition prints were originally used as a proofing method for magazine advertisements. Dye imbibition is the same process as Dye Transfer, which is a trade name. Steichen further experimented with the process by intentionally incorrectly coordinating the inks in their respective gelatin matrices during the printing. This method created some truly surreal and sublime experimental images. His prints of Bouquet of Many Varieties of Flowers in Vase (ca. 1940) show how broad a spectrum of color images the same photograph could produce through this sort of manipulation, and illustrate the heavily saturated and hyper-real possibilities of the dye imbibition technique.
Steichen took what are considered to be the first modern fashion photographs, pictures of designer Paul Poiret’s gowns first published in the magazine Art et Decoration in 1911, and was the first head photographer for Conde Nast, the publisher of the magazines Vogue and Vanity Fair, from 1923 to 1938. At this point in his career, Steichen was the highest paid and one of the most influential and renowned photographers in the world. He also did not differentiate between his fine art and his commercial work, claiming, “I don’t know of any form of art that isn’t or hasn’t been commercial. Michelangelo on his death bed is supposed to have complained that he never had an opportunity to do what he wanted to do.” Steichen’s commercial work in the fashion industry certainly facilitated his work with color processes such as dye imbibition, or Dye Transfer printing, and he produced some startlingly beautiful prints during this early period of color photographic imagery.
Steichen was profoundly impacted on a personal level by his time as a photographer in both World Wars, first serving as an aerial photographer and commanding the photography division of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I and then as the director of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit in World War II. His time in the military and first hand experiences in war directly influenced his decision to create his seminal curatorial exhibit The Family of Man in 1955 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The show would come to define his tenure as the head of the photography department at the MoMA and would eventually be exhibited in 69 countries and be viewed by an estimated nine million people. Originally, Steichen thought that his wartime photography would be so shocking as to get people to recognize the brutality of war, but he came quickly to the conclusion that approaching anything from a negative standpoint isn’t going to help fix anything, so he decided he should have an exhibition showing life around the world and how people everywhere share similar experiences, stating “Photography is a major force in explaining man to man.” He credits his mother with beginning the exhibition when he was 7 or 8, after he called a friend a “dirty little kike” and she sat him down and explained to him that everyone is equal and valuable, despite their race, creed, or nationality, even quoting the Constitution and The Bill of Rights to him. “That lesson,” Steichen says, “was the groundwork for The Family of Man.” As recognition of his service to his country and his advocacy of peace through his photography and the curation of The Family of Man show, President Lyndon Johnson presented Steichen with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963.
Steichen tapped the photographer John Szarkowski in 1962 to be his successor as the head of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art. Szarkowski proved to be a tremendous choice on Steichen’s part, as he further elevated the status of photography as fine art and drew popular attention to the works of previously lesser known artists such as Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, and William Eggleston, among many others.
Steichen spent most of his later years on his farm in Connecticut, which he called “Umpawaug” after a tribal name, mostly photographing the landscape and flora he could see from his windows. Indicative of his wry sense of humor, he named the pond on his property “Jergen’s” after the lotion ads he claimed paid for it, and he had a three-legged Beagle named Tripod. The entire estate, including every aspect of the landscaping and much of the house, was designed by Steichen himself, illustrating his obsessive need for compositional control in all facets of his life. His interest in color spilling into hobbies outside of photography, he was a celebrated gardener, even creating unique hybrid strands of Delphinium. His last project before his death in 1973 involved photographing a single shadblow tree at Umpawaug in varying times of the day, seasons, and weather conditions to capture and convey “an accurate narrative of the cycles of the natural world.” This was Steichen’s final attempt at recording truth within the confines of a photographic image, and a reflective meditation on color and life itself.
It is difficult to approach Steichen’s work critically without considering each innovative and creative period of his life within its place in the larger history of photography. It would be all too simple for viewers today to dismiss moody pictorialist landscapes – even those with bi-pack emulsions or applied coloring techniques – as a whole, simply due to what has come after and the over-stimulating experience of everyday life in our present-day culture. Some of Steichen’s color fashion photographs can easily read as cheesy compared to the images in advertisements in the glossy pages of today’s haute couture periodicals, but we have to consider the experimentation and devotion it took to achieve them, and his work, taken in pieces or as a complete unit, is for the most part inscrutable. No one, especially anyone with a knowledge of its placement in photography’s history, could spend time with his work and not be moved emotionally, or at the very least be greatly impressed, by his ability to transform such an inorganic two dimensional plane into an emotionally engaging and viscerally unforgettable experience. As Steichen once partially defined art for himself on a scrap of paper, a photograph was perhaps a work of art when “you keep looking at the subject, animate or inanimate, until the subject looks back at you.”