Finding that he couldn’t capture through the medium of painting the images he saw in his mind, Edward Steichen turned to photography. Born March 27, 1879 in Luxembourg, Steichen’s family came to America when he was only two years old. America seemed like a magical place of possibilities to Steichen, a feeling he tried to convey in his photographs such as that of The Flatiron Building (above, from 1905). Steichen’s friend and fellow photographer Alfred Stieglitz also photographed The Flatiron, a point of fascination for many New York artists of the time. With Stieglitz, Steichen created the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, which helped promote the pictorialist style of photography soon to be en vogue thanks to Steichen and Stieglitz. In today’s world of the digital snapshot, it’s hard to imagine the painterly approach such early photographers brought to that still-developing art form.
Although Steichen couldn’t truly be called a Surrealist, his photographic portrait of the actress Gloria Swanson, titled Gloria Swanson, New York 1924 (above), comes close. Between the odd pattern of the black lace veil and her surprised expression, you would think that Man Ray had taken this photo. Steichen brought to the photographic portrait the same deep psychological approach that painters were bringing to their modernist portraits. Steichen’s photographs of film stars Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich helped forge the mystique surrounding them. Again, it is hard for us today to understand the aura surrounding such early stars when modern movie stars come and go so easily, neatly dissected by the entertainment press before they can even establish a personal visual signature.
Steichen’s eye for composition and form was remarkable, as seen in the study Heavy Roses (above, from 1914). He easily crossed over from world of the palette to the world of the darkroom. As photography evolved from a “different” kind of painting to an art form in its own right, Steichen evolved with it. During both World War I and World War II, Steichen served his adopted country as a key photographic documentarian. His documentary film The Fighting Lady won an Academy Award in 1945. As the Director of Photography at the MoMA until 1962, Steichen continued to serve photography and America. With the publication of The Family of Man in 1955 (accompanied by text by Steichen’s brother-in-law, the poet Carl Sandburg), a collection of more than 500 photographs documenting life in almost 70 countries, Steichen left behind a final statement of his belief in the power of photography to speak in ways just as powerfully as painting, if not more so.