Edward Steichen is one of the key figures in the history of photography. Beginning as a leading exponent of the 19th-century romantic movement called Pictorialism, Steichen metamorphosed rapidly into one of the leading lights of modernism. For more than half a century he occupied centre stage as the most famous living photographer, the medium’s first household name. However, until now Steichen, — a Luxembourger by birth — has never been the subject of a significant retrospective in Europe.
As a photographer of great renown in both amateur and professional circles, an editor, curator, horticulturalist, entrepreneur, promoter, and showman, Steichen’s reach was extraordinary. His picture-making interests and enthusiasms were extremely diverse: portraiture, the nude, flower photography, fashion, dance, theatre, still life, landscape and nature. He was one of the first to bridge the gap between creative photography and editorial, illustrational, and other applied usages of the medium.
In the early decades of the century Steichen, in collaboration with Alfred Steiglitz, helped found the Photo-Secession and its influential journal, Camera Work. He was largely responsible for introducing to the U.S. audience the work of such European modernists as Rodin, Matisse, and Picasso. Between the two world wars Steichen achieved the pinnacle of success in commercial photography as photographer-in-chief for the Condé Nast publications Vogue and Vanity Fair. During the two world wars he served with distinction as a military photographer and propagandist, organizing influential and highly innovative exhibitions in support of the war effort. Later he helped chart the course of post-war photography from his position as photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, during the course of which he produced the most widely-seen photography exhibition of all time, The Family of Man, along with its widely distributed catalogue.
Steichen’s career was filled with controversy. His early partner, Alfred Stieglitz, considered Steichen’s move into the world of fashion and advertising treasonous, while his old Pictorialist colleagues were outraged at his seeming abandonment of their noble aims. Some critics saw his work for the Condé Nast empire as obsessed with glamour. Many opposed his replacement of Beaumont Newhall as head of the Photography Department at MoMA. Others criticized The Family of Man as naively sentimental, and questioned his use of photographers’ work to further polemical aims.
The tension between ‘art photography’ and ‘commercial photography’ endures even today. Emblematic of that, Steichen remains a polarizing figure, which perhaps explains the lack of serious retrospective consideration until now. Younger people, however, are intrigued by his commitment to defending the commercial/utilitarian role of photography while championing with equal vigor its artistic potential. Hence this survey provides a most timely opportunity to reconsider Steichen’s various activities and their implications while focussing on the central but too-often overlooked component of his project – his five decades’ work as a photographer.
Produced with generous loans of original Steichen prints from a number of public and private collections in Europe and North America, the Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne, and FEP curated together this unique Steichen exhibition, the most comprehensive exhibition of his work ever, representing all aspects of his oeuvre.