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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Edward J. Steichen (1879–1973): The Photo-Secession Years

As he headed to Paris to study painting and to see the Rodin Pavilion just outside the 1900 Exposition Universelle, twenty-one-year-old Edward J. Steichen stopped in New York. An aspiring painter and an accomplished photographer in the soft-focus, self-consciously artistic style that distinguished serious amateurs from casual snapshooters and commercial studios alike, Steichen made a pilgrimage to the Camera Club of New York to show his work to Alfred Stieglitz, the leading tastemaker in American photography. Stieglitz, vice-president of the Camera Club and editor of its journal Camera Notes, was impressed by the young artist from Milwaukee and bought three of his photographs—a self-portrait and two moody, atmospheric woodland scenes printed in platinum—for the impressive sum of five dollars each. Elated, Steichen (who told Stieglitz that he’d never before sold a photograph for more than fifty cents) left additional photographs from his portfolio for Stieglitz to publish or send to exhibitions, as he saw fit, and then boarded the ship for Europe.

Once in France, Steichen quickly abandoned his painting studies at the Académie Julian, but he took heed of both the French academic tradition and the latest trends in painting and sculpture, including the work of Whistler and Rodin. More important, he began to focus his energies on photography. He learned the technical intricacies of the gum bichromate process, popular among the members of the Photo-Club de Paris, and developed a reputation as a portraitist of noted artists, writers, and members of society. By the time Steichen returned from Paris, in August 1902, he was perfectly positioned to launch his own career and to serve as Stieglitz’s chief acolyte. Arriving back in New York, Steichen rented a studio on the top floor of a brownstone at 291 Fifth Avenue and “hung out [his] shingle as a professional portrait photographer.”

That same year, Stieglitz announced the formation of the Photo-Secession—the name he gave to the loose-knit group of photographers he exhibited, published, and promoted during the next decade and a half—and the publication of a new, still more lavish journal, Camera Work. Over the fifteen-year, fifty-issue run of Camera Work, no other artist would be featured as prominently as Steichen, who had sixty-five photographs and three paintings reproduced in fifteen issues, including a “Special Steichen Supplement” in April 1906 and an all-Steichen double issue in 1913.

In 1905, Steichen arranged for Stieglitz to take over the lease of his studio and two adjacent rooms for use as a showcase for the best of artistic photography and avant-garde art; they called it the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession but insiders knew it simply as “291.” Among the hundred photographs in the first show, which opened on November 25, 1905, were eleven by Steichen, including The Flatiron (33.43.43), In Memoriam, Portraits—Evening, and Rodin—The Thinker (2005.100.289). Among the exhibitions at 291 the following year was the first of four solo shows that Stieglitz would grant Steichen; on view from March 7 to April 5, 1906, the first Steichen show included many photographs now deemed to be among his early masterpieces: Rodin—The Thinker (2005.100.289); Richard Strauss; Portraits—Evening (titled Mr. and Mrs. Steichen); Alfred Stieglitz and His Daughter Katherine; In Memoriam; The Little Round Mirror; La Cigale; The Brass Bowl; The Big Cloud, Lake George; The Pool—Evening; and The Pond—Moonrise (33.43.40). Here were the themes that Steichen had already developed in Milwaukee and Paris: celebrity portraits, twilit woodland scenes (though far more graphically powerful in The Pond—Moonrise), and painterly nudes. There was something new as well: The Flatiron (33.43.43). In 1904, with the lessons of his first Paris sojourn still fresh in his mind, Steichen had turned his camera to his newly adopted city and to the astonishingly tall skyscraper designed by Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham for a triangular lot at the intersection of Fifth Avenue, Broadway, and 23rd Street. In The Flatiron (33.43.43), Steichen’s chromatic range consciously echoed Whistler‘s Nocturne paintings, and the branch jutting in from the picture edge recalls similar devices found in Japanese ukiyo-e prints, which were very much in vogue in turn-of-the-century Paris. Although indebted to these influences, Steichen’s iconic photograph is decidedly modern and American in its subject, with the soaring structure rising so high above the activity of the street that it cannot be contained within the frame.

Steichen’s work as a professional portrait photographer flourished, not least in the wake of his famous portrait session with J. P. Morgan in 1903, which was initiated at the request of German painter Fedor Encke, who sought the assistance of a photographer to minimize the sitting time required of his busy subject. After photographing Morgan in the pose requested by the painter, Steichen was permitted to make a second negative for himself, one that shows an intense and assertive Morgan provoked by the photographer’s posing instructions to reveal more personality than he intended.

Notwithstanding his prominence in the pages of Camera Work and on the walls of the Little Galleries and his success as a portrait photographer, in the autumn of 1906 Steichen determined “to get away from the lucrative but stultifying professional portrait business” and return to France with his family in hopes of resuscitating his idled painting career. It was a move with numerous consequences. For one, it positioned him to embrace the Autochrome, the process for making glass-plate color transparencies introduced by the Lumière brothers in 1907. Steichen—who had experimented with various methods such as gum bichromate to introduce color into his photographs—was enthralled by the technique, which he promptly introduced to Stieglitz, who was traveling through Europe that summer. Steichen also made what he called his “first attempt at serious documentary reportage” in the summer of 1907, using a borrowed hand camera to photograph the beau monde at Longchamp, the famous horse-racing venue in Paris’s Bois de Boulogne; the results were startlingly fresh, unstructured pictures far removed from the highly posed portraits that had long been his livelihood. And finally, Steichen’s return to Paris helped rekindle his friendship with Rodin and led to an invitation the following autumn to photograph the artist’s monumental sculpture of Balzac, whose brooding hulk of a figure, the fruition of years of planning and countless studies, had remained covered in Rodin’s studio since the 1900 exposition. Now, a decade after its rejection by the writer’s group that had commissioned it, Rodin was trying anew to have the sculpture cast and erected in Paris in memory of the writer. (In fact, it would remain uncast during Rodin’s lifetime.) In October 1908, Rodin moved the plaster to the terrace of his studio in Meudon, southwest of Paris, and invited Steichen to photograph it by moonlight. Steichen did just that, relying on exposures ranging from fifteen minutes to an hour. The resulting prints convey all of the commanding presence Rodin had envisioned for the piece: “You will make the world understand my Balzac with your pictures,” he told Steichen when given a set of prints a few days later. Steichen sent a second set of prints to Stieglitz for display at 291, and Stieglitz purchased them immediately for himself.

Although Steichen had played a critical role in broadening Stieglitz’s interests by sending European modern art to New York for display at 291—Braque, Picasso, Cézanne, Rodin, Matisse—the two began to grow apart in their aesthetic ideas about photography. To glimpse this philosophical rift (which in turn led to a personal estrangement), one need only compare the now familiar style of Steichen’s images in the 1913 Steichen double-issue of Camera Work with the provocative contents of the Armory Show, an exhibition bursting with the revolutionary ideas and artists that had been championed at 291 in the preceding years and which were already causing Stieglitz to rethink what a modern photograph could be. What remained of their association ended with the outbreak of World War I and Steichen’s return in 1914 from France, which over the years had become “another mother country” to him. Stieglitz, in contrast, was conflicted about the war and felt a continued fondness for the German people and culture.

The audience for Steichen’s early photographs—readers of Camera Work, visitors to 291, and members of amateur camera clubs—were important within artistic circles, but their number was small compared to the audience he would address following the war. Indeed, Steichen’s large and painterly early prints, perhaps because of their rarity, are now far less known by the general public than his portraits of Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Gloria Swanson, and other celebrities that appeared in Condé Nast’s Vogue and Vanity Fair in the 1920s and 1930s, or his fashion and advertising photographs that shared those same pages. Moreover, while the circulation of Camera Work never topped a thousand (and was often much less) and its intended audience was an intellectual elite, the Condé Nast publications catered to a much larger and broader readership, one hungry for just the sort of glamorous celebrity portraiture at which Steichen excelled. Steichen’s embrace of editorial and commercial photography in his own work—to Stieglitz’s mind, nothing less than apostasy—drove a still greater wedge between the former mentor and protégé. Similarly, Steichen’s role as scout and collaborator for cutting-edge exhibitions at 291 contrasts dramatically with the content and popular impact of the single most memorable event of his tenure as curator of photographs at the Museum of Modern Art (1947–62), the 1955 exhibition The Family of Man, a sentimental spectacle that, in various incarnations, was seen by nine million people around the world and whose frequently reprinted catalogue has sold more than four million copies.