of the week #6 Edward Steichen

The Pond—Moonlight Edward Steichen photography

20th century photographer of the week: Edward Steichen

Edward Steichen was one of the greatest practitioners of 20th century photography and is regarded one of the most renowned master photographers of our time. In February 2006, his photograph The Pond—Moonlight (above) sold for $2.9 million; it remains one of the most expensive prints today.

Steichen was born in 1879 in Luxemborg; his family emigrated to Chicago in the 1880s. Steichen was fascinated with photography from an early age, and he purchased his first camera in 1895. His unique eye and style for photography soon earned him recognition; his expressionist images we unlike any other photographs being created.

Edward Steichen The Flatiron 1905

Steichen continued to carve his photography career with energy, passion and inherent talent. To him, photography was a vehicle of expression and beauty; an art as valid and important as painting, sculpture and drawing. Throughout his life, he made numerous connections with emerging fine art photographers, but it was his relationship with photographer Alfred Stieglitz that is recognised as the most significant.

Becoming close friends after meeting in New York in 1900, Stielglitz was already an established member of the fine art photographic community. They worked together often and extremely successfully, co-founding ‘Photo-Secession’, an organisation aimed to elevate photography’s status as a fine art as well as showcasing fine art from modern artists like Matisse, Picasso and Cezanne.

Edward Steichen Henri Matisse and The Serpentine 1909

A pivotal moment of Steichen’s life came in 1922 when he opened a commercial studio in New York. Specialising in advertising photography, his obvious talent for capturing sharpness and texture soon attracted commissions from high-end fashion magazines shooting famous portraits from Vanity Fair and Vogue.

Edward Steichen Gloria Swanson 1924

Edward Steichen Greta Garbo 1928

Another high point of Steichen’s career came when he was appointed Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art; here he curated countless successful exhibitions to promote fine art photography. He retired to Connecticut in 1962, and appointed John Szarkowski as his successor.

Edward Steichen continued to create work until his death in 1973. In his later years, Steichen became less concerned with fine art photography’s status and instead promoted the importance of its very essence: “When I first became interested in photography, I thought it was the whole cheese. My idea was to have it recognized as one of the fine arts. Today I don’t give a hoot …about that. The mission of photography is to explain man to man and each to himself. And that is the most complicated thing on earth…”

Edward Steichen The Maypole 1932

5 replies »

  1. I’ll add that Steichen’s early photographs tended to be “pictorialist”; the word indicates that those photographs had a painterly look. At the time, painting was considered a fine art, while many saw photography as a merely mechanical process. “The Pond” and “The Flatiron” have that painterly look about them, while “The Maypole,” done with a modernist aesthetic, does not.

    • Thanks for the additional information, Steve.

      ‘The Pond’ especially emulates a very impressionistic painterly feel; I’m usually not hugely keen on Pictorial photography but I really enjoy Steichen’s images.

      Out of interest, do you prefer his earlier or later work?

      • Forced to choose on the spur of the moment, without thinking about it, I’d go with the earlier, but that probably says more about me than about him; he produced excellent work afterwards as well.

  2. I’d agree, in a fine art context, and personally feel more emotional attachment to his earlier work. I do I appreciate his later work (in particular his portraits) for very different reasons, though. I believe he was hailed as the ‘father’ of fashion photography after shooting for a fashion designer; I’d have to research this as I’m not entirely sure.

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