Edward Steichen Photographer as Visionary
LiveAuctionTalk.com: by Rosemary McKittrick
Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.
From Navy photographer to fashion photographer Edward Steichen mastered the art of capturing the essence of whatever showed up in front of his camera. Much of his mastery came from using light to emphasize the features he wanted to accentuate in his subjects.
His ability to contrast shades of white, gray, and black are distinctive in his work. It didn't matter if Steichen was shooting action shots, still lifes, portraits or fashion pieces, this skillful play on light is characteristic of his work.
In 1902 Steichen met photographer Alfred Stieglitz and exhibited 14 of his works in Stieglitz's “American Photography” exhibition. They founded the Photo-Secession, a group of photographers who helped elevate photography to the level of fine art. Then Steichen moved to Paris and created a series of pigment prints of his friend Auguste Rodin and his sculpture.
During World War I Steichen took clear and detailed aerial photos for the Navy. This got him interested in the idea of "straight" photography. After the war he shot thousands of pictures to perfect the technique. He also served as a photographer in World War II.
“The wartime problem of making sharp, clear pictures from a vibrating, speeding airplane 10 to 20 thousand feet in the air had brought me a new kind of technical interest in photography,” he said. “Now I wanted to know all that could be expected from photography.”
Steichen shot over 1,000 photos of a single white teacup and saucer against a graduated scale of tones from pure white to black velvet. In "A life in Photography", Steichen said "the experiment was to a photographer what finger exercises were to a pianist."
His dramatic mixture of shadow with a light and dark background in capturing a laid-back and lighthearted Charlie Chaplin is a good example. In fact most of America's celebrities sat before his camera including Greta Garbo, Loretta Young, Claire Luce, Gloria Swanson, Noel Coward, and John Gilbert. Steichen essentially reinvented celebrity photography for magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair with his geometric backgrounds, dramatic lighting and detailed compositions.
In 1923 Vanity Fair named him "the greatest of living portrait photographers."
"When I first became interested in photography… my idea was to have it recognized as one of the fine arts. Today I don’t give a hoot in hell about that. The mission of photography is to explain man to man and each to himself. And that is the most complicated thing on earth and almost as naïve as a tender plant," he said.
Steichen believed most photographers work like there is a pane of glass between them and their subjects. They shoot with detachment. His intention was to remove the pane of glass and present his subjects intimately. The people look at his pictures, and the people in the pictures look back at them. They recognize each other. That was Steichen's goal.
"Art for art’s sake is dead, if it ever lived," he said.
On Dec. 11, Swann Auction Galleries featured a selection of Steichen's photos in its auction. Here are some current values.
Photogravure; Auguste Rodin's Sculpture of Balzac, from Camera Work 34/35, 1908; $1,000.
Book; Steichen the Photographer, first edition, signed by Edward Steichen and Sandburg, New York, 1929; $1,750.
Book; The Family of Man, first edition, signed and inscribed to Monroe Wheeler, New York, 1955; $2,125.
Silver Print; Charlie Chaplin, 1926, printed circa 1960s; $2,250.
Silver Contact Print; The Russian Pupils of Isadora Duncan, 1929; $2,500.
Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller. For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column. Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a motherlode of information about art, antiques and collectibles. Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.