Edward Jean Steichen

Photography by Edward Jean Steichen

Born on March 27, 1879, Edward Jean Steichen was a Luxembourg-born American painter, photographer and curator, who was a key figure in the development of twentieth-century photography. His parents, Jean-Pierre and Marie Kamp Steichen, emigrated with their son Edward to the United States in 1880, originally settling in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and later moving to Milwaukee in 1899.

Steichen, at the age of fifteen in 1894, began attending Pio Nono College, a Catholic boys’ high school where his drawing skill was first noticed. Quitting high school, he began a four year lithography apprenticeship with the American Fine Art Company of Milwaukee. Steichen acquired his first camera in 1895, joined with his friends in forming the Milwaukee Art Students League, and first exhibited his photographs at the Philadelphia Salon in 1899. Becoming a naturalized citizen in 1900, he traveled frequently between 1900 and 1922 to Paris to practice his painting.

After exhibiting in the Chicago Salon, Steichen received encouragement from photographer Clarence White, who would later establish the first educational institution in America to teach photography as a fine art. He was elected in 1901 as a member of London’s Linked Ring Brotherhood which promoted photography as one of the fine arts. In 1902 Steichen cofounded, along with White and  photographer and art patron Alfred Stieglitz, the Photo-Secession movement.

Edward Steichen began experimenting in 1904 with color photography, becoming one of the earliest to use the Autochrome process patented in France by Louis and Auguste Lumière. He also designed the first cover of Alfred Stieglitz’s quarterly photographic journal “Camera Work” which would frequently publish Steichen’s work. In Manhattan, New York, he helped Stieglitz found the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, establishing the first American foothold for modern art of all media.

After high quality half-tone reproductions of photographs became possible, the genre of fashion photography became possible as a fine art. Most of the credit for this goes to French portrait photographer Baron Adolph de Meyer and to Edward Steichen, who began in 1907 photographing well-dressed ladies strolling the Longchamp Racecourse at the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. Gven the task by publisher Lucien Vogel in 1911 to promote fashion as a fine art, Steichen took photos of couturier Paul Poiret’s designer gowns. Two of these in color were published in the April 1911 issue of the magazine “Art et Décoration”. The photos were done in a creative, soft-focus, aesthetically retouched style, idealizing the garment beyond the exact description of its fabric and buttons, and making a strong distinction from former hard, sharp commercial images.

In 1942, Edward Steichen curated New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “Road to Victory”, photographs by enlisted members of the Armed forces, including some made by automatic cameras of Navy planes engaged in fighting. Five duplicates of this exhibition toured the world. In 1940, the first department of photography in a museum was inaugurated at MOMA and was headed by art historian and photographer Beaumont NewHall. In 1947 Steichen was appointed Director of Photography, a position he used to expand and organize the collection, recognizing new generations of photographers and showing early works of Henry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, and Rauschenberg. 

Among his accomplishments during his term as Director of Photography, Edward Steichen created the MOMA world-touring exhibition “The Family of Man”, a collection of five hundred photos depicting life, love, and death in sixty-eight countries. It was seen by nine million visitors and still holds the record for the most-visited photography exhibition. “The Family of Man” is now permanently housed, on continuous display, at Clervaux Castle in northern Luxembourg, the country of Steichen’s origin. 

Steichen’s career, especially his activities at the Museum of Modern Art, did much to popularize and promote the medium of photography. Both before and since his death in March of 1973, photography, including his own, continued to appreciate as a collectible art form. In 2006, Steichen’s early 1904 pictorialist photograph “The Pond-Moonlight”, showing a wooded area and pond in Mamaroneck, New York, sold for US 2.9 million dollars. Steichen achieved the impression of color by manually applying layers of light-sensitive gums to the paper (the autochrome process not being available until 1907). Only three prints of “The Pond-Moonlight”, two being in museums, are known to exist.

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