Steichen rises up as a giant in the history of photography, and along with Alfred Stieglitz is the most recognized American photographer of the 1900-1950 period. Steichen played a decisive role in establishing recognition of photographic images as art. He used his prestige as an artist to gain acceptance of advertising, fashion, and documentary photography as artistic genres.
Breaking down differences between high and low culture
For Edward Steichen (1879-1973) there was no conflict between his artistic and commercial activities. He placed his artistic images in advertising contexts and exhibited his commercial photographs as art. He was among the strongest contributors in breaking down differences between high and low cultural phenomena in his generation: this was not a matter of chance but an expression of an ideological position.
He had a richly developed business sense; a spirit of entrepreneurship drove him. A restless energy combined with a desire for experimentation formed the basis of his work.
It was said that there wasn't much Edward Steichen didn't do, and everything he did, he did exceptionally well. In his portfolio one finds photography involving landscapes, fashion, architecture, the theater, the dance, and war.
Edward was Eduard until 1918. He was born in Luxemburg in 1879 and died in 1973. His family emigrated in 1881 to the USA, where Steichen's mother became a recognized fashion designer (hatmaker). His mother was Steichen's close confidant during his upbringing and later; to the strongest degree she formed his attitudes and encouraged his business enterprise as well as his art. She also influenced his vision of people and his political opinions via the radical milieu of German socialists to which she and her husband belonged.
The multi-artist emerges
Steichen bought his first camera at 16 with money his mother gave him. From 1895 to 1898 he was an apprentice lithographer and studied painting in his free time. He was also learning the craft of photography on his own via trial and error. As a painter he sought mood-saturated images and began photographing the same motifs in which he tried to achieve the pictorial effects he sought in his paintings.
Early on Steichen began to compose the image on the matte before he took a picture and did not restrict himself to composing via cutting a finished shot. Impulses to develop a photograph on the premises of contemporary painting came to him from seeing and reading Camera Notes, which was edited by Alfred Stieglitz. There Steichen found photographers who worked in the style called Pictorialism—that is, photography that sought the same kind of esthetic found in contemporary mood-saturated painting.
Photography as an artistic medium
In 1900 Steichen sought out Alfred Stieglitz, the introduction to a lifelong relationship. Stieglitz understood quickly that Steichen could acquire a special role in generating acceptance of photography as an artistic medium and supported him in all possible ways. In 1902 Stieglitz founded the periodical Camera Work (active until 1917), where Steichen became the most published photographer in the journal's history.
Steichen pushes the envelope
In Paris in 1902 Steichen held his first one-man exhibition that included photographs and paintings. An important reason that visual artists using traditional techniques responded positively to Steichen's photographs was that he manipulated his copies to such a great degree on the basis of his experiences as a graphic artist and painter. Early on he was sharply criticized for going beyond boundaries—limitations—many considered appropriate for a photographer.
From 1903 to 1906 Steichen lived in New York and established a strong position as a portrait photographer of celebrities, at the same time that he garnered recognition as a painter. In 1903 he married, but the marriage was dissolved by decree of a French court in 1922 after the couple had been separated since 1915. Steichen married a second time in 1923.
Collaboration with Alfred Stieglitz
In these years Steichen collaborated closely with Alfred Stieglitz in forming Photo-Secession in 1902, Camera Work in 1903, and in 1905 Gallery 291, which was laid out in an earlier apartment and studio Steichen had had on Fifth Avenue.
From 1906 on, Steichen was back in Paris, and until 1914 he was an important conduit of new trends in contemporary art to his friend Stieglitz and his gallery. In France Steichen also acted out a lifelong passion for cultivating and improving flowers, and he studied genetics.
The painting career ends
In 1921 Steichen stopped painting, burned the works he owned, and dedicated himself anew to photography. The striking visual geometry in Steichen's works from the 1920s and in his advertising
and fashion photography is connected with his intensive study of the relation between surface, form, and geometry.
Photographer of celebrities
Steichen settled in New York in 1923, the year he became chief photographer for Condé Nast, where he mainly worked for Vogue and Vanity Fair photographing celebrities. From the outset the appointment involved his being recognized as the best known artistic photographer of his time. At several points he presented in art exhibitions the pictures made for commercial purposes.
The world's best-paid photographer
In the 1920s and 1930s Steichen was the best-paid photographer in the world. His income allowed him to found the Umpawaug Plant Breeding Farm in West Redding, Connecticut, in 1928. In 1936 he created an exhibition of flowers from his own farm that ran for eight days at the Museum of Modern Art—mind you, not photographs of flowers, but an installation of flowers!
Steichen presented photography as an artistic medium for the advancement of democracy, and the close relationship to advertising and commercial interests was something he commented on as positive. He conveyed his understanding that the best art had always been connected with powerful economic interests. Linking his art to the culture industry meant that it achieved an unprecedented breadth of notice. His opinions were regarded as populist and created distance between Steichen and the elitist elements in the field of art, not least Stieglitz.
Talk to the masses
The desire to reach out to a mass audience found many expressions in the following decades. He published picture books for children and produced large photo murals. In an advertising campaign for Kodak he brought in amateurs as models and wanted to connect the pictures both to the esthetic that had developed in straight photography and to documenting the life of common people in the USA.
From commercial career to Navy photographer
In January 1938 he closed his studio in New York and ended his career as a commercial photographer. From January 1942 until 1946 Steichen served in the American Navy. His photographs led to two exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art.
Director of MoMA Department of Photography
In 1947 Steichen was named director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, a position he held until 1962. As curator he prepared an exhibition program that revealed photography's breadth. In addition to showing the leading art photographers of the period, he mounted several exhibitions in the documentary genre. In his hands the medium of the exhibition became a tool for mass communication.
"The Family of Man"
Steichen's masterpiece as curator was The Family of Man, which opened in 1955 at the Museum of Modern Art and was later shown worldwide to an audience of approximately 9 million. The exhibition was shown in Norway at Kunstindustrimuseet (The Norwegian Museum of Decorative Arts and Design) in 1957. Steichen presented a message in this exhibition that all human beings were equal and had the same rights regardless of race or creed. The exhibition's advancing of a global perspective on common humanity acquired enormous meaning for a documentary photography that sought universal themes and generalized symbols. In the aftermath the exhibition has been criticized for seeing the world in a framework in which American middle-class values were set up as ideal norms.
The last years
After Steichen's second wife died in 1957 he remarried in 1960. The exhibition «Steichen the Photographer» opened at MoMA in 1961; the next year he stepped down as director of the department. In 1963 the book A Life in Photography was published in collaboration with the museum. After 1946 Steichen practiced photography only on a modest scale.
Steichen never went back to commercial photography but continued to take photographs almost until his death 25 March 1973, two days before his 94th birthday.