Talk to most any professional photographer today and Edward Steichen (1879-1973) is acknowledged as an influence and respected for his pioneering work that helped establish the medium as fine art. He bucked conventional standards as he experimented with filters and manipulation of images, using techniques considered to be radical at the time that are standard tools today, techniques that took photography beyond mere reportage.
The Whitney Museum has mounted a major retrospective exhibition of some 200 Steichen works, including mostly vintage prints, as well as Steichen paintings and textile designs. The works are organized as a chronological survey, but seem naturally grouped by subject matter as well.
It is especially interesting in the early works to see what Steichen painted – impressionistic romantic landscapes in which the effects of light and shadow are of central interest. The1902 "Landscape with Avenue of Trees" has a very flat, smooth surface, the light radiating out from the sun which is hidden behind the central tree, the row of trees fading into the background. A landscape from around 1910 has a crescent moon hanging in a cobalt sky, mountains silhouetted on the horizon, outlined with a glimmer of pinkish light, the darker river gently rippling in the foreground. In his landscape photographs from the period, the same viewpoint is engaged — soft focus, romantic images, light and shadow both evoking mood and shaping form. Steichen as artist used both photography and painting as alternative methods of expressing the same aesthetic and each of his media seems to inform the other.
That aesthetic extended to idealized female nudes and muted soft-edged portraits as well. He was already doing portraiture of prominent people, such as a rather traditional 1903 shot of J.P. Morgan which has a dark background framing the face, with highlights on his wing collar, his watch fob, his hand on the arm of a chair – the play of light and dark balancing the composition. There are also some early cityscapes
After World War I, Steichen changed course and utilized sharp focus and strong contrast, further emphasized by tightly cropped images lending a monumental, almost abstracted feeling to a series of flower studies, for example, or to the 1920 "Pear on a Plate," in which the plate fills the image, its extreme edges cropped, the pristine pear offside to the right, casting its shadow onto the plate.
In 1923 Steichen was appointed chief photographer for The CondeNast Publications and his highly-paid work became almost exclusively fashion photography and celebrity portraiture. (He worked for ad agencies and did photo-based textile design as well.) Over his fourteen year tenure at Conde Nast, Steichen became America’s celebrity photographer himself, wealthy and traveling in the circles of his glamorous subjects. He defined the elegance of the period and his models were an expression of the developing independence of the American woman. His fashion photography (in rather sharp contrast to some styles today)was formal, idealized, and streamlined (a la Deco) with sharply lit, high contrast compositions that kept the attention focused on the clothes against simple, often geometric backgrounds.
The portraits are flattering, bringing out the best in the appearance of his subjects, but invariably keeping them at an emotional and psychological distance from the viewer. It is no wonder that he was sought out by the rich and famous–Steichen perpetuated their images in an idealized way, never letting the warts show through. The images are beautiful, the composition and contrasts always exquisitely wrought.The subjects include Norma Shearer, Gloria Swanson (face framed by a turban and encased in elaborate lace netting bringing out the intense eyes and bow lips), Chaplin, Garbo, Barrymore, Churchill, Coward, Mann–it’s a veritable Who’s Who of the celebrities of the day. Part of the success of these pictures rested on the very celebrity of the subjects. Viewers knew about these people from their political or creative accomplishment, so perhaps they could fill in the richer level of character missing in the photo; the photos are like publicity glossies carried to an ultimate level.
Rarely does Steichen embellish with props or special effects. When he does, it is a relief from the cool isolation of most of the work. A portrait of Mrs. William Wetmore (1933) has her smoking a cigarette and playing cards– even with those hints of a life, we don’t know much about her, but that little we do know is a welcome supplement to the physical presence. A montage of George M. Cohan sitting on a stool, as actor in O’Neill’s Ah Wilderness!, has a larger shot of O’Neill looming behind–the writer and his interpreter. That added context significantly enhances the resonance of the photograph.
In the latter part of his life Steichen’s most significant accomplishment was the landmark 1955 photo exhibit, The Family of Man, which included the work of 273 photographers from all over the world. It was the culmination of his eight year tenure as director of Department of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The Whitney show has a small sampling of the exhibit’s installation, but could not possibly demonstrate the scope and impact of the original.