About the Photographer
American (1899-1986) Cleveland, OH
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Ralph Steiner garnered recognition as a modernist photographer and a filmmaker. Steiner attended Dartmouth University in New Hampshire, where he completed a degree in chemistry in 1921 and also studied photography under the tutelage of one of his science professors. After moving to New York, Steiner pursued his growing interest in photography and enrolled in the Clarence H. White School of Photography from 1921 until 1922. He began his career working at the Manhattan Photogravure Company, leaving after a single year to become an editorial and advertising photographer.
In 1928 Steiner met Paul Strand, whose views on photography greatly impacted him. Steiner embraced the medium's capability to render surfaces in accurate detail and to capture complex formal relationships. His photographs of various subjects in the urban environment have a clean, modernist sense of composition. In his pictures of towering skyscrapers, for example, taken from a low vantage point looking up, Steiner creates crisp geometric arrangements of negative space, while in other images he depicts shadows on the ground as they coalesce into unusual abstract shapes.
In the late 1920s Steiner began making films, and he joined the Film and Photo League in New York at Strand's encouragement. At first Steiner's films were openly experimental, including poetic investigations such as his early short film H20, which explores the visual and kinetic qualities of water. Over time Steiner became increasingly interested in social activism, and he began to make documentary films in a more realist style. In 1936 he worked alongside Paul Strand as a cinematographer on Pare Lorentz's production The Plow that Broke the Plains, and three years later he co-directed The City with Willard Van Dyke. A social documentary featuring music by Aaron Copeland, this latter film premiered at the 1939 World's Fair in New York to critical acclaim. Subsequently, Steiner worked in Hollywood for five years before returning east and resuming his earlier vocation as an editorial photographer.
At the end of the 1960s Steiner relocated to Vermont. After making three more films he devoted himself to photographing clouds for nearly twenty years, primarily on the coast of Maine and in Oaxaca, Mexico. Clouds have been of longstanding interest to painters throughout the history of art. In photography, the subject is often associated with Alfred Stieglitz, who made photographs of clouds entitled Equivalents, believing them to appeal directly to the subconscious mind. Steiner similarly saw the evocative potential in cloud formations, although he felt the meaning of any given image was far more mercurial than his predecessor. Leaving his works deliberately untitled, he invites viewers to use their imaginations and provide their own titles, which, in his estimation, becomes a process of testing out different descriptions and metaphors. In 1985, shortly before his death, Steiner published a book of these studies, In Pursuit of Clouds.