Edward Steichen was one of the great photographers of the first half of the 20th century and was highly influential. His practice resembled rather closely what is that standard today – he would do commercial work to pay for his fine art. He also curated one of the most famous photography exhibitions in history. Additionally he was close friends with Alfred Stieglitz (another wildly influential photographer) and collaborated with him on Camera Work – what is considered one of the best photography magazine ever published.
The Big Deal
Having studied both painting and photography, Steichen was one of the founding members of the Photo-Secession – a group that promoted photography as a fine-art, specifically pictorialist photography. He was also one of the first in North America to begin experimenting with colour photography. To earn money, Steichen did commercial work and is considered one of the first “modern fashion photographers”. He went on to become the chief photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair, something that Alfred Stieglitz frowned upon. Later in life he became director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was there where he organized the show The Family of Man, it traveled to 38 countries and the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition became the best selling photographic book of all time.
Life in Brief
Born in Luxembourg in 1879, Steichen and his family moved to the United States in 1880. In 1895 Steichen bought his first camera, a used Kodak box “detective camera”. In 1900 Steichen met Stieglitz when during a stop in New York and bought a few of his prints. In 1902, he designed the cover for Camera Work, including creating a custom typeface. With Stieglitz, Steichen helped create the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession in 1905. It was in 1911 that Steichen created his first fashion photographs , they were published in the magazine Art et Décoration. During World War 1, he enlisted in the US Army and setup an aerial photography department.
In 1923, Steichen began working as the chief photographer for Condé Nast. During World War 2 he once again returned to the US Army, this time as the Director of Naval Combat Photography. He then served as the Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until 1962. During that time he organized the legendary exhibition The Family of Man. It was Steichen who picked John Szarkowski to be his replacement at MoMA. In 1963, President Lyndon Johnson presented Steichen with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Steichen died at the age of 93 in 1973.
Steichen’s photo The Pond – Moonlight (1904) was sold at auction in 2006 for $2.9 Million (USD), at the time it was the highest price ever paid for a photograph.