About the Photographer
Steichen, Eduard J.
A photographer, painter, gallerist, and curator, Eduard Steichen tested the boundaries of different artistic media and disciplines. In all roles, Steichen displayed intellectual rigor, characterized by his knack for using progressive photographic techniques and abstract design to engage with artistic movements of his time.
Just years after 1880, when Steichen’s family immigrated to the United States from Luxembourg, Kodak introduced the handheld amateur, which both popularized the medium and jeopardized its prestige. Following his training in the United States and France, Steichen joined forces with other New York based art photographers, together known as Photo-Secession (1902-1917), to champion a Pictorialist sensibility in hopes of legitimizing photography’s fine art status. With Steichen as a primary collaborator, Alfred Stieglitz acted as the figurehead of this group, its exhibition space, Little Galleries of The Photo-Secession (1905-1908), and its journal, Camera Work (1903-1917). As his fellow Pictorialists, Steichen achieved a romantic, painterly effect by way of soft-focus lens and manually alternating negatives and plates during the printing process.
These Pictorialist methods signaled the presence of the artist’s hand, but Steichen’s early photographs went further by drawing on Symbolist and Tonalist aesthetics. Symbolist ideas of individual expression, universal motifs, and the primacy of senses emerge in Steichen’s image, The Model and the Mask (1906). Here, the sinuous back of a nude woman paired with a circular mask in the backdrop evoke feminine curves, the theatrics of beauty, and sensuality, but stop short of describing a specific narrative or context. The shadows and amber hues that engulf the subject make her all the more mysterious. By brushing emulsion and pigment onto his negatives, Steichen translated the moody, saturated atmospheres of Tonalist painters, such as George Inness and James McNeil Whistler, into a photographic format.
Art historians often compare the privileging of sentiment and sensation (over realism and rationality) in Steichen’s early photography to the lyricism of Whistler’s canvases. Indeed, Steichen’s nightscapes respond to the 1870s Noctrunes by Whistler who fashioned the title and style of these paintings after musical odes to the night sky. Similarly, in Steichen’s image, Nocturne- Orangerie Staircase, Versailles (n.d.), the staircase’s dark silhouette against lit patches of architecture transforms Versailles into an ensemble of abstract shapes. Although the iconic site is still legible, the obscured details and misty border along the picture frame make the scene look not only remote, but also self-contained. Like a memory, this picture seems to exist only in the mind’s eye.
Although Steichen turned to a crisper, more commercial style following World War I, his later work as a fashion and portrait photographer retains an expressionistic vision. Whether featuring celebrities, male geniuses, female beauties, landscapes or self-portraits, Steichen’s photography bears traces of the artist’s intellectual substance and metaphysical concerns.
Eduard Steichen completed a four-year apprenticeship with the American Fine Art Company of Milwaukee (1898) and then briefly attended the Académie Julian in Paris (1900). Following a number of posts, including executive jobs as a wartime photographer, fashion photographer for Vogue and celebrity portraitist for Vanity Fair (1923-1938), he served as first Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art (1947-1962), where he curated the landmark exhibition, The Family of Man (1955). The Museum of Modern Art hosted a retrospective of his photography (1961) and established Edward Steichen Photography Center (1964).