The man who promoted photography as a major twentieth century art form was born Eduard Jean Steichen to Jean-Pierre and Marie Kemp Steichen in Bivange, Luxembourg on March 27, 1879. In 1881, the Steichens relocated to the United States and settled in Hancock, Michigan, where two years' later they welcomed a daughter Lillian, who would later marry poet Carl Sandburg. Ever curious, young Edward once took apart the bicycle he used to deliver Western Union telegrams and reassembled it. After this success, he did the same with his watch, which surprisingly ran minus two pieces.
When the senior Steichen's health began failing due to his rigorous work in the copper mines, his wife became a successful hat merchant. She recognized her son's talent for drawing and encouraged his artistic pursuits. After quitting school at 15, Mr. Steichen worked as an apprentice at a lithography company in Milwaukee. He received his first camera the next year, and out of his first roll of 50 pictures, only one was clear enough to print. However, his proud mother assured him that one beautiful photograph outweighed the 49 unsuccessful attempts, and Edward Steichen's career as a photographer officially began. At the time, there were no formal training programs or books on photography, and therefore photographers were responsible for their own artistic instruction. In addition to drawing and painting, Mr. Steichen established the Milwaukee Art Students League in 1897 for struggling young artists like himself, and served as its first president.
For Edward Steichen, traditional photography held little appeal. He was more fascinated by the artistic possibilities the medium represented. The experimental photographer won acclaim for his 'moody' blurred photographs, two of which were featured at the Second Philadelphia Salon in 1899. Subsequent exhibitions of his works at the Chicago Salon the following year caught the attention of photographer Clarence White, who wrote to his photographer colleague Alfred Stieglitz about the impressive Steichen prints he had seen.
Riding the wave of critical recognition to Europe, Mr. Steichen was introduced to several important writers and artists, including French sculptor Auguste Rodin, who became his enthusiastic subjects. His portraits garnered much attention at London's New School of American Photography in 1901, and his first one-man photography and painting show was subsequently held in Paris. After returning to New York, Mr. Steichen established the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession with Alfred Stieglitz, soon referred to as 291 because of its location, 291 Fifth Avenue. Together, the Photo-Secessionists promoted photography as a significant form of contemporary artistic expression.
In 1917, thirty-eight-year-old Edward Steichen volunteered to serve in the U. S. Army during World War I, and pioneered the use of aerial photography for military intelligence and reconnaissance missions. After the war, he joined the publishing firm of Conde Nast, and his fashion portraits were published in Vanity Fair and Vogue. When the United States entered World War II, Mr. Steichen again wanted to serve his country, and after receiving a lieutenant commander commission, he presided over the Navy's combat photography. During the war years, he served as creative advisor for the naval film, The Fighting Lady, and produced two wartime exhibitions for the Museum of Modern Art: Road to Victory (1942) and Power in the Pacific (1945).
In later years, he served as the Museum of Modern Art's director of department photography, and organized the famous exhibit, The Family of Man (1955). He worked into his nineties, experimenting with color photography and cinema. Married three times and the father of two daughters, Edward Steichen's amazing life ended at the age on March 25, 1973 at the age of 94.
2008 Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 1485-1489.
2008 Great Lives from History: The Twentieth Century, pp. 1-3.
2002 Photography: A Cultural History (London: Lawrence King Publishing Ltd.), pp. 184-185.
Copyright © 2002 - 2019 Historic Camera