The name of Edward Steichen has popped up many a times during research for other famous photographers and I just cannot believe it has taken me this long to do a bit on him! I have chosen more images than normal to show at the end, just because I had such a hard time choosing my favorites. If you like this artist, watch some clips on the ‘video page’ (I promise you they are worth watching!).
Steichen was born Éduard Jean Steichen on the 27th of March 1879 in Bivange, Luxembourg, the son of Jean-Pierre and Marie Kemp Steichen. Jean-Pierre Steichen initially immigrated to the United States in 1880. Marie Steichen brought the infant Eduard along once Jean-Pierre had settled in Chicago, in 1881. The family, with the addition of Eduard’s younger sister Lilian, moved to Milwaukee in 1889, when Steichen was 10.
In 1894, at the age of fifteen, Steichen began a four-year lithography apprenticeship with the American Fine Art Company of Milwaukee. After hours he would sketch and draw, and began to teach himself to paint. Having come across a camera shop near to his work, he visited frequently with curiosity until he persuaded himself to buy his first camera, a secondhand Kodak box “detective” camera, in 1895. Steichen and his friends who were also interested in drawing and photography pooled together their funds, rented a small room in a Milwaukee office building, and began calling themselves the Milwaukee Art Students League.
Steichen was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1900, and signed the naturalization papers as Edward J. Steichen; however, he continued to use his birth name of Eduard until after the First World War. He also met Alfred Stieglitz in the same year while stopping in New York City en route to Paris from his home in Milwaukee. In that first meeting, Stieglitz expressed praise for Steichen’s background in painting, and also bought three photographic prints of Steichen’s. In 1902, when Stieglitz was formulating what would become Camera Work, he asked Steichen to design the logo for the magazine, with a custom typeface. Steichen would become the publications’ most frequently featured photographer in it’s run from 1903 to 1917.
In 1903, Steichen married Clara Smith. They had two daughters, Katherine and Mary. Steichen began experimenting with color photography in 1904, and was one of the first people in the United States to use the Autochrome Lumière process. In 1905, Steichen helped create the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession with Stieglitz which was eventually known as 291, after its address. This gallery presented among the first American exhibitions of (among others) Henri Matisse, Auguste Rodin, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and Constantin Brâncuşi.
In 1911, Steichen was “dared” by Lucien Vogel, the publisher of ‘Jardin des Modes’ and ‘La Gazette du Bon Ton’, to promote fashion as a fine art by the use of photography. Steichen took photos of gowns designed by couturier Paul Poiret which were published in the April 1911 issue of the magazine ‘Art et Décoration’. According to Jesse Alexander, This is “…now considered to be the first ever modern fashion photography shoot. That is, photographing the garments in such a way as to convey a sense of their physical quality as well as their formal appearance, as opposed to simply illustrating the object.”
After World War I, during which he commanded the photographic division of the American Expeditionary Forces, he reverted to straight photography, gradually moving into fashion photography. He was a photographer for the Condé Nast magazines ‘Vogue’ and ‘Vanity Fair’ from 1923–1938, and concurrently worked for many advertising agencies including J. Walter Thompson. During these years Steichen was regarded as the best known and highest paid photographer in the world. Steichen’s 1928 photo of actress Greta Garbo is recognized as one of the definitive portraits of this great actress.
In 1922 Steichen divorced from Clare Smith and married Dana Desboro Glover in 1923.
During World War II, he served as Director of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit. His war documentary The Fighting Lady won the 1945 Academy Award for Best Documentary. After the war, Steichen served until 1962 as the Director of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Among other accomplishments, Steichen is appreciated for creating The Family of Man in 1955, a vast exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art consisting of over 500 photos that depicted life, love and death in 68 countries. Steichen’s brother-in-law, Carl Sandburg, wrote a “Prologue” for the exhibition catalog. As had been Steichen’s wish, the exhibition was donated to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. It is now permanently housed in the Luxembourg town of Clervaux.
In 1957 Steichen’s second wife Dana had died of leukemia and in 1960, at the age of 80, Steichen married Joanna Taub. Steichen purchased a farm that he called Umpawaug in 1928, just outside West Redding, Connecticut where he lived until his death in 1973. After his death, Steichen’s farm was made into a park, known as Topstone Park. Topstone Park is open seasonally to this day.
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