Masters of Photography: Edward Steichen (1879 – 1973)

A photographer establishes a relationship, an intimate relationship between himself and whatever he is photographing, whether it is a can of beans, a landscape or Greta Garbo … I was coming to realize that the real magician (in photography) was light itself —mysterious and ever-changing light with its accompanying shadows, rich and full of mystery.

– Edward Steichen, photographer (1879 – 1973)

Edward Steichen, circa 1960

Born in Luxembourg in 1879, Edward Steichen rose to become one of the most influential photographer of the 20th century. He was a photographer whose work spanned the gamut, from fashion, industrial, nature to war, portrait to commercial. His portraits of Gershwin, Garbo, Eugene O’Neill, Marlene Dietrich, Chaplin and George M. Cohan are the definitive images by which we remember those celebrated artists.

Steichen is also known for his famous “Family of Man” exhibition which he curated as director of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)’s Department of Photography. The exhibition of 503 pictures by 273 artists from 68 countries was first shown in 1955 from January 24 to May 8 at MoMA, then toured the world for 8 years to record-breaking audience numbers. An immersive installation of monochrome prints, the exhibition was grouped by themes thought common across all cultures: birth, love, labor, joy, and others. The roster of photographers included many unknown artists, as well as some that have gone on to achieve legendary status. Among them are Elliott Erwitt, W. Eugene Smith, Alfred Eisenstaedt and Nina Leen. Commenting on its appeal, Steichen said the people “looked at the pictures, and the people in the pictures looked back at them. They recognized each other.”

Selected works of Edward Steichen

White Lotus, 1940
Two fashion models wearing gowns by Madeleine Vionnet. Marion Morehouse (in black) was one the Steichen’s favorite models. The name of the model in white is unrecorded.
Model Margaret Horan in a black dress by Jay-Thorpe, 1935.
Match sticks, design for Stehli Silks, 1926.
Model wearing white sandals, 1934.
Actress Greta Garbo, 1928.
The Isadora Duncan Dancers of Moscow, 1929. The lighting in this photograph highlights the dancers’ bare skin and flowing garments to create texture and drama, a method Steichen used as one of the first modern fashion photographers.
Actress Gloria Swanson, 1924.
American aviator Emelia Earhart, 1931.
Maurice Chevalier, 1929
Foxgloves, France, 1925
Actor Charles Chaplin, 1931
Actress Marlene Dietrich, 1932
Empire State Building, 1932

This half-hour documentary of Steichen was shot in 1964, when he reflected on his long life and many achievements. “Photography,” he says, “is both ridiculously easy and impossibly difficult.”

Leave a Reply