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He apprenticed with the American Fine Art Company, a lithography firm. Painting and drawing regularly, his natural talent developed and soon he was designing posters for the company. Steichen was introduced to photography and bought his first camera, a Kodak 50-exposure box camera, in 1895.
Steichen’s artistic instincts and abilities were only transferred to the camera, and within a few years he was exhibiting photographs rather than his paintings. By 1898, he had his first show with the Philadelphia Photographic Salon, which had one juror, Clarence White. One year later, Clarence White and Alfred Stieglitz were the judges for a photography show to be held at the Chicago Art Institute, and almost all of Steichen’s entries were accepted. In 1900, F. Holland Day opened The New School of American Photography in London, and Steichen’s photographs were included. That same year, Steichen decided to go to New York.
During Steichen’s brief visit to New York, Stieglitz bought some of Steichen’s photographs for only $5 each! They were the first photographs Steichen had sold. A restless artist, in May 1900 Steichen went to Europe on the S.S. Champagne to visit F. Holland Day and see the school. He lived in Paris until 1902 where he exhibited widely and met Rodin. When Steichen returned to New York, Steiglitz hailed him as “the greatest photographer.” Steichen did not believe in “specialism.” He said, “I believe that art is cosmopolitan and that one should touch all points. I hate specialism. That is the ruin of art…” While in Paris Steichen experimented with pigmented processing and upon his return to America, he furthered his experimental stages with photography, working with platinum, gum bichromate, gelatin silver carbon and any combination of the mentioned. The photography magazine Camera Work was Steichen’s perfect artistic avenue.
In 1902, Steichen and Stieglitz began their long and productive relationship and became the founding members of the Photo-Secession. The No. 2 issue of Camera Work was dedicated almost entirely to Steichen’s photography. Over the life of the magazine, Steichen was published more than 70 times. This was more than any photographer collected and published by Stieglitz. In addition to his photographic contributions, Steichen also edited, designed the layouts and wrote critical essays. His work with the magazine was interrupted in 1906 when he returned to Paris where he and his family (he married in 1903 to Clara E. Smith) lived until 1914.
Although over seas, Steichen continued his contributions to Camera Work, and while in Paris he learned of many artists and sent information about Cezanne, Picasso, Rodin and others who eventually were shown in New York at gallery 291. While remaining active with photography in America and experimenting with the Autochrome process in Paris, Steichen went to Paris to concentrate on painting. He helped organize the New Society of American Painters in Paris. He also exhibited at the Albright Art Gallery at the International Exhibition of Pictorial Photography in New York. The catalogue for the show read, “in the struggle for the recognition of photography, Mr. Steichen’s work has been one of the most powerful factors, and his influence on some workers, both in America and Europe, has been marked.” Alfred Stieglitz has been proclaimed as the one person responsible for bringing modern art to America, but it was Steichen who introduced it to Stieglitz in many respects. Steichen also experimented with photography as art more expansively than most photographers of his time. This was not, however the extent of his work.
By 1911, Steichen began fashion photography with Art et Decoration. This marked a new era in his life and the beginning of the end of his relationship with Stieglitz who did not agree with commercial photography. However, as Steichen is quoted, he wanted to explore the many aspects of the art of photography. He once said, “I shall use the camera as long as I live, for it can say things that cannot be said with any other medium.”
Steichen returned to the United States in 1914 and eventually joined the Army during World War I and helped to establish and became commander of the photographic division of the Army Expeditionary Forces, devoting much his work there to aerial photography. He left the service in 1919 with a rank if Lt. Colonel. This experience had made its impression. He was to return to fashion and commercial photography, but with a new outlook. The success of aerial photography lay in the high definition. Steichen saw the beauty of clearly focused photography and by 1920 he completely rejected Pictorialism, burned his paintings and devoted himself entirely to modernist ideas. “As a painter I was producing a high grade wall paper with a gold frame around it….we pulled all the paintings I had made out into the yard and we made a bonfire of the whole thing….it was a confirmation of my faith in photography, and the opening of a whole new world to me.”
From 1923 until 1937 Steichen worked for the Conde Nast publications, Vogue and Vanity Fair and freelance commercial work with great financial success. He raised the standards of fashion and commercial photography, taking portraits of the likes of Chaplin, Gershwin, Mencken and Garbo. During this time he divorced his first wife and remarried to Dana Desboro Glover and took permanent residence in the United States. He retired from fashion and commercial photography in 1937. A few years later he was commissioned Lt. Commander in the United States Navy Reserve and eventually became director of the U.S. Naval Photography Division during World War II. His first unit held seven young men, who Steichen expressed the importance of photographing the men in the army. He said, “the ships and planes, they would be obsolete before long, but the men never go obsolete.” By the end of his Navy career in 1945 he had been placed in charge of 4,000 men, all of the navy combat photographers, and was ranked Captain. Also during his service he directed the two shows for the Museum of Modern Art, The Road to Victory and Power in the Pacific. Steichen also supervised the filming of The Fighting Lady. And yet, his career was not yet over.
Two years after he retired from the Navy, Edward Steichen became the director of the Photography Department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. There he created what has become the most famous photographic exhibition of all time, The Family of Man. It opened in January, 1955. For three years Steichen traveled the world to form this exhibition. The main purpose or theme of the exhibit, according to Steichen, was to create “a mirror of the essential oneness of mankind.” Photography as the universal language inspired him to compose the exhibit with more than 500 photographs from 273 photographers from 68 different countries. Amateur to professional photographers, including Ernst Haas, Robert Capa, Eugene Smith, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Andreas Feininger were sought for The Family of Man. All rights of the images were forfeited and Steichen had complete creative control. He would crop, blow-up, reduce the images as he pleased to have his visual message read that all the world experiences happiness of love and sorrow of death. Although considered one of the greatest exhibitions, seen by 9,000,000 people, it did have its critics, however. Photography critic for the New York Times, Jacob Deschin wrote, “the show is essentially a picture story to support a concept and an editorial achievement rather than an exhibition of photography.”
The exhibit toured for eight years. It saw 37 countries on 6 continents and holds the record for the highest attendance of any exhibition. At the end of its tour, the exhibit experienced thirty years of neglect. Finally, it made its way to Luxembourg in 1994 where it is now conserved in the Steichen museum. During his directorship until 1962 Steichen curated numerous other exhibits and collected diverse photography for the museum.
Throughout his lifetime Steichen received countless awards and honors. He has been the subject of numerous articles, books and exhibitions. His obvious contribution to photography led to his induction into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 1974. Before his induction he served on the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum’s Advisory Board. The museum holds several of Steichen’s photographs, including several from Camera Work and one of his most famous, The Flat Iron.