Steichen In Light And Shadow

After decades of unwarranted neglect, a colossus of modern American photography is ready for his closeup once again.

Forty years ago, Edward Steichen was the indisputable dean of American photography, the grand old man whose epochal career spanned half the history of his profession. Steichen's pictures were ubiquitous, constantly reproduced in books and magazines, and he was universally celebrated for The Family of Man, the most popular photography exhibition ever. Today, however, he is nowhere nearly as highly regarded as he was at the apex of his career in the 1960s. By the time he died, in 1973, two days short of his ninety-fourth birthday, his standing was already precarious. Amid the social upheavals of the counterculture, Vietnam, and Watergate, his rigorously composed, dramatically lit black-and-white pictures had come to look artificial and dated, in contrast to the loose improvisational mood of those fevered years.

But Steichen's dimmed luster could well brighten with two important exhibitions and a spate of new publications that reveal much about this major master in unjustified eclipse. Edward Steichen, a superb retrospective on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York through February 4, 2001, brings together 200 of his incomparable vintage prints as well as rarely seen examples of his paintings and designs for textiles and exhibitions. Curated by Barbara Haskell and accompanied by an excellent catalogue, this much-needed reassessment is the first comprehensive Steichen survey since the Museum of Modern Art tribute he organized for himself in 1961, shortly before he resigned after 15 years as director of its department of photography.

Overlapping the Whitney show is an exhibition and sale of some 100 vintage Steichen photographs from the personal collection of his third wife and widow, Joanna, at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York through December 2. Priced from $20,000 to $100,000, Steichen's favorite prints will reacquaint the market with the extraordinary beauty of these painstakingly crafted artifacts. And this year Mrs. Steichen is donating the priceless negatives she inherited from her husband to the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, recipient of the bulk of Steichen's prints after his death.

Steichen was as shrewd as he was gifted, and his readiness to shift directions was the secret behind his extraordinary staying power. During the 1920s and 1930s he was the highest-paid cameraman in America. He worked as chief photographer for Condé Nast Publications, and at one point he earned $40,000 a year from the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency alone, back when that was big money. As he boasted of his record-breaking rates, "That's the greatest thing I've done for photography."

That commercialism cost Steichen dearly in terms of his artistic credibility in the end, but it served to keep him in touch with a vast public whose tastes he anticipated and often helped to mold. He was a populist through and through, although his elegant touch and haughty demeanor often obscured that elemental fact.

All along the way, Steichen created many of the indelible images of the twentieth century, in an enormous range encompassing everything from abstractions, advertising, architecture, and fashion to landscape, public service, still-lifes, and wartime propaganda. His impressionistic vision of New York's Flatiron Building in a twilight drizzle, his study of a single perfect lotus blossom afloat in a pond, and his shot of a toga-clad Isadora Duncan raising her arms in supplication at the Parthenon remain classics of the modern canon.

Not all of Steichen's work has held up so well, however. His moody turn-of-the-century landscapes, such as The Pond—Moonlight, now look much like other Arts and Crafts-period work, and their painterly stylization and inert airlessness recall the scenic tile plaques that Rookwood and other American potteries were making at the time. Steichen's tight-focus takes of mollusks, fruits, and vegetables lack the emotional impact of Edward Weston's somewhat later photographs of the same subjects. Weston's renowned image of a chambered nautilus is far superior to Steichen's rather dull spiral shell, and Weston's erotic studies of deeply contoured peppers are in a class by themselves.

Similarly, the abstract compositions Steichen produced during the 1920s, like his portentously titled Time-Space Continuum and Triumph of the Egg, don't begin to approach László Moholy-Nagy's contemporary experiments with nonobjective form or Man Ray's equally audacious "Rayographs." And when Steichen tried his hand at Social Realism during the 1930s, creating posed tableaux like his group Homeless Women: The Depression, the stagy effect was nowhere near as moving as the unvarnished documentary work of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.

Interestingly, when Steichen wasn't trying so hard to be arty, his real talents came through. Milk Bottles: Spring, New York, a disarmingly direct photo taken on a Manhattan fire escape, captures the inimitable light of that season and place to perfection. Even his pictures of clothes for Vogue could exude authenticity, particularly when he was shooting his favorite fashion model, Marion Morehouse, a vibrant spirit who married e.e. cummings and whom Tennessee Williams memorably called "one of the numbered beauties."

Though they were elaborately conceived, Steichen's portraits have survived the test of time best of all. With uncanny intuition for how to distill the public personae of the famous and make them at once familiar and iconic, he was a founding father of our present-day cult of celebrity. For who, having seen it, could ever forget his startling depiction of J.P. Morgan as the archetypical robber baron, clutching the chair arm that resembles a gleaming dagger? And when has there ever been a more alluring epitome of Hollywood glamour than his closeup of a feline Gloria Swanson, glowering behind black-lace foliage like a panther in heat?

Steichen was a genius at coaxing his sitters into heightened extractions of themselves, conspiring with them in the outward expression of their innermost character. He once considered going into the movies, and there was indeed a cinematic quality to much of his work. As Greta Garbo told him after one shoot: "Oh you, you should be motion-picture director. You understand." Sometimes performing artists even made his ideas their own. Steichen's impossibly debonair portrait of Fred Astaire silhouetted against his own larger-than-life shadow was the inspiration for similar setups in the dancer's later films.

Several new books on the photographer are also helping to revive his reputation. Published last year, Joel Smith's handsome Edward Steichen: The Early Years (Princeton University Press), based on The Metropolitan Museum of Art's trove of his pre-World War I prints, revisits the phenomenal rise of the ambitious Milwaukee boy who became an esteemed artist before the nineteenth century was out. Focusing on a later and more controversial phase is Patricia Johnston's fascinating Real Fantasies: Edward Steichen's Advertising Photography (University of California Press), being brought out in paperback in December. Johnston uncovers a vast body of work used to coax female consumers into buying everything from Jergens Lotion and Pond's cold cream to Welch's grape juice and Scott toilet tissue. Occasionally the photographer felt remorse, confessing his dislike of "the sex-appeal approaches designed to sell lotions or cosmetics or hair preparations by implying that a girl had no chance of finding a mate unless she used these products."

The most personal of the new books is Joanna Steichen's lavishly illustrated anthology and memoir, Steichen's Legacy: Photographs, 1895-1973 (Knopf), published to coincide with the Whitney retrospective. In 1960 the 26-year-old Joanna Taub, a Smith College graduate who had been working as an advertising copywriter in New York, raised eyebrows and made headlines by marrying the once-divorced, once-widowed Steichen a week before he turned 81, a mere eight months after they had first met over lunch at "21." Today she lives and practices psychotherapy in a Manhattan loft a few blocks away from both the Flatiron Building and the site of 291, the pioneering modern art and photography gallery that her husband set up with Alfred Stieglitz on Fifth Avenue in 1905.

Although Joanna Steichen has been a faithful keeper of the master's flame as the sole executor of his estate, she does not gloss over his shortcomings or the failings of their March-December relationship. With unusual candor for an artist's widow, she makes plain that, as much as she reveres his work, the man was something else. "I appealed mostly to men looking for the ideal caretaker I never wanted to be," she writes. "Steichen was too proud to admit that he was one of those men, and I was too blindly infatuated to notice until after we were married. . . . Later, slowly, we learned to accommodate our mutual disillusionment." At the beginning, however, the attraction on both sides was a powerfully physical one. "The contact between our eyes was a supercharged, sexual infusion of zest for life," Joanna Steichen recalls of their flirtatious first encounter. Within weeks, her octogenarian beau was enjoying sleepovers at her New York City apartment and she at his estate in West Redding, Connecticut. It was Steichen, she recounts, who insisted they get married for propriety's sake, though there was no dispute on either side that children were unwanted.

Accustomed since birth to getting his own way in everything, Steichen began bullying his wife on matters large and small as soon as the marriage vows were spoken. The new Mrs. Steichen had hoped to continue freelance writing, but her husband, she said, "exploded with rage the first time I was offered an assignment." Instead, he pressed her into unpaid service as his bookkeeper, office manager, and all-purpose assistant. Like Picasso, whose career Steichen's equaled in length and versatility, the photographer left behind resentful children, exploited acolytes, and an exhausted wife.

Yet Steichen came by his egotism honestly. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, he had a fiercely determined mother convinced even before his birth that her first child and only son was preordained for greatness, and she did everything in her power to make her prophecy come true. By the time Eduard Jean Steichen (he later anglicized his given name) was born in Luxembourg in 1879, his mother had already dispatched his father to America, where greater opportunities awaited, herself emigrating with destiny's tot 18 months later.

In his teenage years Edward became intrigued with the new hobby of photography, made accessible to a mass public with the low-cost Kodak camera, which his mother bought for him. Though the first roll of film he took was a disaster—just one shot came out—his adoring mother zeroed in on the one good snapshot and made much of it. How could he fail?

Soon young Steichen got a better camera that allowed him to develop his own prints. His quick grasp of the technical aspects of photography, confidence in experimenting with new approaches, innate eye for composition, and self-education in the history of art as well as its latest advances put him in the forefront of his field by the time he was twenty, when his photographs were granted exhibition space at the prestigious Philadelphia Salon.

Because of the lingering prejudice that photography was a science, not an art at all, Steichen and his like-minded American contemporaries, the Pictorialists, labored to make their work look as artful as possible. Using innovative printing methods and early color processes that gave his prints the rich brushwork of a painting or the suffused tonality of a lithograph, Steichen moved to the opposite end of the spectrum from the matter-of-fact documentary approach of much 19th-century photography.

To burnish his artistic credentials, Steichen left Milwaukee in 1900 to study painting in Paris. As it had been for so many Americans before him, the City of Light was a revelation to the young man. There he found his spiritual father, Auguste Rodin, whom he photographed repeatedly and insightfully, and with whom he forged a profound emotional bond. But the American's facility with portraiture left him unsatisfied, and the juncture of World War I, when Steichen supervised aerial photography for the U.S. Air Force, brought back his lifelong love of a fresh challenge.

In the brave new world of the 1920s, Steichen saw that the future of photography lay in mass communications. The man who more than any other American had made his medium into an art form suddenly turned his back on pure aesthetics, shocking his colleagues and followers by declaring, "There never has been a period when the best thing we had was not commercial art." Toward the end of his life he rubbed salt in that old wound with the assertion, "I don't give a hoot about photography as a fine art." In fact, even Steichen's advertising and fashion photographs are seen as art now, at a time when the barriers between high and popular culture have broken down completely.

After another stint of military service, as chief of Navy combat photography during World War II, Steichen gave up assignment work altogether and turned to what he regarded as his crowning achievement: a grand thematic project that would advance the cause of world peace. The result was The Family of Man, an exhibition of 503 pictures taken by 273 photographers from 68 countries. Depicting experiences common to all mankind and reflected in diverse cultures, it stressed global understanding in the same ecumenical spirit as the fledgling United Nations. But as the show traveled to 72 foreign venues over the next decade, some critics found its earnest message naïve and sentimental, condescending and out-of-touch with the complexities of a world in chaotic change.

In his final years, before he drifted into senility, Steichen was to return to the nature studies that had first brought him national attention. His poignant photographic and film portraits of a graceful shadblow tree perched on the side of a pond on his Connecticut property became his moving valedictory to a world whose beauty overwhelmed him, and which he transmitted with such consistent passion and aptitude. But the living thing on which he lavished more love than he did on his own family did not long survive him. As Joanna Steichen writes, "The shadblow's roots weakened, and the little tree succumbed, like Ophelia, to the water."

Collecting Steichen

"Steichen is unquestionably one of the most important 20th-century photographers," says art dealer Howard Greenberg. "But, unlike his other famous peers, he hasn't had a major show and a major book in forty years. The Whitney exhibition will be the largest display of his work since the MOMA show in 1961, back when he was alive." Concurrent with the show, Greenberg's eponymous gallery will be showing 80-100 vintage Steichen photos that have never before been available for sale or exhibition, compiled from the personal collection of Joanna Steichen. Priced from $20,000 to more than $100,000 and dated from the turn of the century through the 1940s, they include such iconic images as the 1924 portrait of Gloria Swanson behind black lace, a spare 1928 portrait of Greta Garbo, and the 1921 still life Three Pears and an Apple.

At the Howard Greenberg Gallery through December 2nd; 120 Wooster Street, New York, NY 10012; 212-334-0010.

In addition, you can often find Steichen prints at auction houses such as Sotheby's, Christie's and Philips. Here's what to look for:

There is an active market for the high-quality Steichen photogravures (images printed from metal plates) that were reproduced in Camera Work, a quarterly magazine produced by Alfred Stieglitz at the turn of the century. Price: $300-$3,000.

Posthumously Made Prints
Several years ago a number of individual prints and portfolios were made. Price: $1,000-$1,500.

Prints Made by Steichen Himself
Steichen had a very long career. The early prints from the Photo-Secessionist period (pre-WWI) are the most valuable and desirable and can easily cost six figures. (For instance, a Steichen master print of a nude sold last year for $450,000 at a Sotheby's auction in London.) Steichen also did personal, experimental work. The most common prints are those from the 1920s and 1930s, including his advertising work and celebrity portraits, and fashion photos for Condé Nast.—E.R.S.

Martin Filler has written on photography for The New York Times and Vanity Fair.