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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Steichen

As my experience and education regarding photography continues to grow, I make a point of learning, at least broadly, the history of this amazing medium. I've always been one to hold to the maxim that if you want to fully understand something, you need to understand its history as much as its current status. This applies to photography as much as any subject. We are fortunate in the case of photography in that it is a very recent technological development and therefore well documented. As with all human endeavors, it is the human element that lies at the center of what photography is and was. This is why I've spent much of the last year studying the early masters of photography as an artistic medium.

A few moments ago, I completed Edward Steichen's incredible autobiography "A Life In Photography". I have been engrossed and moved by this man's story and the parts he played in various aspects of our recent history. I am forced to sit for a while and contemplate his story and why it affects me so.

Part of the matter, and possibly the most superficial although still important, is Steichen's direct participation in such a broad range of historical events. A brief overview:

- He taught himself photography as a young boy when the medium was still barely more than a fledgling technology and was right at the forefront of its development and ultimate acceptance as an art form.

- His relationships as a young man with some of the world's most amazing artists and influential men, in particular Auguste Rodin and Alfred Stieglitz.

- His personal contributions to photography, including aerial photography for the Allies in WWI.

- His development of portraiture as an art form while photographing many of recent histories iconic figures.

- Inventing and re-inventing the concept of fashion photography.

- Creating the first independent photographic unit within the US Navy for the purposes of documenting WWII - he was in his late 60's at the start of the war!

- Serving as the Photographic director of arts in the Museum of Modern Art after the war, assembling some 40 world class photographic exhibitions over 15 years, culminating in the matchless and world renowned 'Family of Man' exhibit, still being shown when he authored his autobiography at the age of 84.

The descriptive title 'Great Man' is one I apply very rarely. I freely apply it to Edward Steichen. Here was a man possessed of an aggressively seeking mind matched with real talent and vision. As recently as two years ago I did not know he had existed. How can it be that people of Steichen's quality are relatively unknown in our society while characters like 'The Situation' and Charlie Sheen fill the headlines during their 15 minutes of fame and are idolized by a sizable chunk of our population, only to be replaced by the next flashy, meaningless splash? As if that weren't bad enough, all this goes on while people of real ability and commitment are rarely known outside of a narrow circle of familiars. It points to something deeply broken within our society.

This small blog entry cannot do Steichen or his contributions any real justice, but I highly recommend reading up on him in detail, especially so if you have any degree of interest in photography. I will offer a couple of small examples that may, hopefully, pique your interest enough to get you to educate yourself regarding this great man. To this end, I am going to break from my usual practice of displaying and discussing my own photographic work and display that of another artist.

The first is an example of his early work from 1902 in Paris and representative of his relationship with the great sculptor, Rodin. Steichen met the older and already established great sculptor during one of his visits to Paris as a young man, still interested as much in painting as photography. Over a period of about a year, the two developed a close friendship that ultimately led to Rodin granting permission to Steichen to photograph him and his work. One of the resulting images is also one of the great, masterful portraits even to this day.
(click on image to enlarge)           'La Penseur'
Here, in this stark, simple photograph, Steichen manages to capture the utter essence of one of the world's greatest sculptors, two of his works forming the backdrop of the portrait. One of the things that I really like about this image is that it represents an intersection of talent of two of my most admired and favorite artists. I've pored over this photograph for hours and even had the pleasure of examining the original in the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently. It is one of my absolute favorite works of art.

Portraits were how Steichen made an early living in New York City and also established himself as a photographer of considerable talent. Over the years, he was employed in photographing many of the powerful and celebrated personalities of the time and exhibited a consistent ability to bring out the subject's personality. There are many, many examples of this talent, but one the most interesting to me is Steichen's photograph of the famous actress Greta Garbo, taken in 1928 and seen below. Steichen was forced to rush through the shoot in an environment where the actress' public image was rigidly controlled by managers and  the shoot also interfered with the active, tightly organized filming schedule. He was unhappy with the results as the shoot progressed, but the right moment arrived when the director shouted over that it was time to get back to filming. Steichen had the camera ready and recognized the delicate and brief moment when Greta Garbo's true personality flashed to the surface as she turned and glared at the director.

(click on image to enlarge)                   'Greta Garbo'
Here, preparation and talent combine to deliver on a moment that existed in front of the camera for the briefest of instants and the subject's personality comes right to the forefront.

The last example is another one of Steichen's earlier works, dating to 1901. It is a self portrait, done by Steichen as an experiment. It is also one of my favorites examples of his work. The print is heavily manipulated by Steichen, as much painting as photograph, as he used his considerable creative talents from both mediums and combined them on the master plate to create a subtle yet powerful image.

(click on image to enlarge)                                'Self Portrait'
In order to understand and better work within the photographic medium, it is necessary to understand its history and roots in all its creative variety. Edward Steichen embodies very nearly the entire history of photography in a single package, not only by being present during the early days of the medium making itself known as an art form, not only by participating personally in its history and development, but by actually being one of the creative spirits to make that history, and then guide its progress through nearly a century of growth and development. A unique and great man indeed.

2 comments:

  1. Whenever I have run across his work, writing or art historians who knew about him, I find myself also becoming fascinated by this extremely talented and interesting man. In the course of your research and study, have you ever run across the war of words that went on for years between Steichen and Ansel Adams? Apparently they hated each other's work and took every opportunity to tear each other down. Any idea where to read about this? I guess the Center for Creative Photography would know where to find the exchanges. They occurred very publicly in newspapers and magazines, besides through letters.

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  2. thanks for your post on Steichen. Now I want to read the book. I have a MA in Photography but learned nothing in college. I used the darkroom and met other photo lovers and that is what college was for. The teacher I had copied my hand coloring work and even wrote a book about it.
    I was mad for a few months as I thought he was my friend. Then I went on to teach myself wax painting and other mediums. Artists are in school for life. Its ongoing. My father is 87 and paints every day and told me once that had he known how great painting was he would have started when he was younger.

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