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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

The Frustrating Genius of Edward Steichen

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

This is what you must keep in mind when considering Edward Steichen:

In 1900 – more than a century ago – a breathtakingly ambitious, and very talented, Steichen, then age 21, went to New York to show his work to the legendary photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz, with whom no one ever associated the words warmhearted or outgoing, liked what he saw in the young photographer/painter's work. Almost immediately he bought three of Steichen's photographs – for five dollars apiece.

More than a generation later, during World War II when many men his age would have been nearing retirement, Steichen accepted a commission as a Navy lieutenant commander, and over the next four years supervised all Navy photography until he resigned his commission as a captain in 1946. (The starkly beautiful documentary photographs that Steichen himself produced during his wartime service stood in contrast to his ethereal, equally beautiful, still lifes and landscapes that had caught the eye of Stieglitz decades earlier.)

In between these two periods, Edward Steichen carved out a career as one of the most successful portrait photographers of his age, with studios in New York and Paris. He also enjoyed huge success in the then-new industry of advertising photography and became a star fashion photographer at Conde Nast.

In short, during his nearly 94-year life, Edward Steichen had not one but four, five, even six, separate careers. After the war for example, as director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Steichen mounted what many have called the greatest photography exhibit of all time: the monumental "Family of Man" show, featuring 503 photographs from 273 photographers in 68 countries. (To be sure, the life-affirming show, mounted at the height of the cold war in 1955, was derided immediately by some critics as mawkish and superficial – and was savaged by some of Steichen's younger photographic colleagues. It says something about the staying power of this exhibition, however, that its catalog not only remains in print, but also is a bestseller, after nearly a half century.)

The current 40-year retrospective on Steichen at New York's Whitney Museum does a creditable job of encapsulating the work of a photographer whose different periods and aesthetics cover everything from misty gum bichromate prints to starkly lit glamour and celebrity shots. Walking through the museum's heavily hung halls, I could not help but think of Picasso, another restless, creative soul who seemed to abandon one way of working as soon as he mastered it. But in fairness, where Picasso is widely viewed as having been miraculously successful in virtually all of his "periods," Steichen's legacy is more clouded and problematic – some work clearly is better than some other. Yet much of what I have seen written about this show, and about Steichen in retrospect, by critics who have not spent much time, much less made their living, behind a lens, creates an off-putting air of sanctimony that seems to pillory Steichen for his own ambition and success, while sniffing that the work really isn't as good as Steichen's promotion of it.

Both premises are wrong.

To any of us willing to be judged by what we leave behind on film, even one immortal image is a divine gift. Steichen left behind scores.

"Heavy Roses, Voulangis, France," (1914) a sensual feast of floral abundance, may be the finest such photograph I ever have seen.

Likewise, Steichen's "Three Pears and an Apple" (1921) is an arresting image and subtle, elegant composition. (The soft outline of the fruit is the result of a 36-hour exposure under dim, indirect illumination, during which time the film's emulsion expanded and contracted in the chill evening air.)

The photographer's 1920s portrait of journalist and author H.L. Mencken is a wonderful, almost abstract, composition of shapes and shadow. By the same token, Steichen's portrait of an insipid-looking Winston Churchill is lackluster compared to Yousef Karsh's later depiction of the angry English bulldog and wartime prime minister. (Karsh had grabbed away Churchill's cigar just before making the shot.)

But, what the Churchill portrait lacked, Steichen's 1903 portrait of financier J. P. Morgan reflected in spades. Morgan, his red nose glowing like a beacon even in black and white, glares at the camera in what seems like barely controlled anger. Morgan leans forward, his left hand grasping the arm of his chair. But the arm of the chair is half-obscured in dark, and what shows appears to be a menacing dagger.

A simply stunning, spot-on portrait of a robber baron.

And this is only a sampling. Never mind the classic, studio-lit portraits of Greta Garbo or Charlie Chaplin or Marlene Dietrich and the large-format, multi-image abstracts of then-novel New York skyscrapers.

Or his glorious and moody depiction of the Flatiron Building.

Where is it written that an artist has to be a wonderful person, with the temperament of Gandhi or the soul of Bambi? Or, for that matter that he or she should be devalued in the critical press for wanting to make a buck? Steichen could be overbearing and self-absorbed. That he was a promoter is beyond question. That he had a hell of a lot to promote also is obvious, at least to me.

And successful? Steichen knew great success from his 20s and parlayed that early fame into artistic success – and commercial wealth. Were he alive today and working at the height of his powers, he easily would be elbowing Annie Leibovitz, Greg Heisler and Steven Meisel for work in the slick magazines, going head to head with Sabastiao Selgado and Mary Ellen Mark for the prime editorial jobs, and sharing center stage with Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Sheila Metzner for damn near everything.

(Let it also be noted that among the foregoing photographers – all of whom are rightly viewed as masters – are a couple who might charitably be called strong personalities, accustomed to getting their own way and becoming monumental pains in the ass if they don't. Why is it that when these shooters have museum shows, the critics say nothing about their prickly personas? Could it be that these artists are not yet safely and silently dead?)

Edward Steichen's place in the pantheon of photography's greats is secure. However, it is his view of photography's purpose that seems to have rattled so many cages – and devalued his stock at least temporarily. Exhibition curator Barbara Haskell notes that "Steichen came to believe that no qualitative distinction existed between fine [art] and commercial photography and that propaganda had been art's historical function."

Such an attitude – especially put so bluntly – inevitably put Steichen at odds with more effete artists who insisted that theirs was but a search for truth. (Note too that propaganda denotes persuasion, which in turns conjures up advertising, which in turn raises the old whorish notion of doing photography for money.)

Yet if, as I believe, the purpose of art is to make the viewer feel – anger, rage, sympathy, empathy, love, humor, desire, awe – then Steichen is dead right. One might question an artist's priorities or allegiances, but the same talent that causes us to marvel at the sublime symmetry of one artist's Grecian urn, helps us also to view a photograph by another artist and a) enlist in the army to fight the infidel or b) run out and buy those cool-looking slacks.

Edward Steichen succeeded handily on both fronts. He won awards for his efforts to use photography to bolster the allied war effort. His advertising clients loved him.

It is entirely possible that if he had not been so successful so early or so universally, photography's cognoscenti might be more willing to applaud Steichen's myriad accomplishments today.

Edward Steichen. Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, NYC. Through Feb. 4.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

    
    Edward Steichen
    Marion Morehouse in
    Augusta-Bernard, 1929.

Frank Van Riper Archive:

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Pulitzer Pictures: Capturing the Moment

Extending the Holidays

Sheila Metzner's Platinum New York

Point N' Shoots Revisted

Holiday Gift Books


 Van Riper on Van Riper



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