By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter
At the age of 62, Edward Steichen was an icon of American photography who literally invented or further developed virtually every form of fine art and commercial photography between 1903 and 1941. Some less charitable souls termed him a fossil.
Only a year later, at 63, Steichen was a senior officer in the U.S. Navy charged with organizing and commanding the Navy’s combat aviation photography worldwide. Steichen’s naval undertaking was similar to, but more complex than, the U.S. government’s famous Depression-era documentation of the 1930s. As with the FSA’s focus on farming families ruined and routed by the Depression and the Dust Bowl, Steichen urged his officer-photographers to concentrate on the young sailors who bore the brunt of the fighting.
The following year, Steichen, at 64, embarked on the aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-16) for a number of World War II combat deployments. Some of the photos made by Steichen and other officers of the Naval Aviation Photography Unit are among the best-known photos of the Pacific War. Today’s Illustration 1 shows Steichen aboard the USS Lexington in late 1943.
Steichen also directed “The Fighting Lady,” a documentary film made aboard the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown during Pacific War combat operations. That film won the 1945 Academy Award for best documentary.
After retiring from the Navy as a captain following World War II, Steichen became director of photography for New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. During the 1940s through the 1970s, MoMA was the preeminent center of American photography, and Steichen vigorously used that forum to champion the next generation of serious American photographers.
Reacting to the combat he witnessed during the Pacific War, Steichen organized and curated the most famous and widely viewed photographic exhibit of all time, MoMA’s 1955 “Family of Man” exhibit. Although derided by purists as superficial, the massive “Family of Man” exhibit included more than 500 photographs that emphasized the common bonds and hopes of people throughout the world, serving as a positive expression of American culture and diplomacy during the height of the Cold War.
The exhibit was ultimately viewed by more than 9 million people worldwide in 37 countries. Steichen’s brother-in-law, famed American poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg, turned the exhibit into a book bought by more than 4 million people. I was one of those 4 million, having purchased a copy during my undergraduate years. I think that it’s still around, somewhere.
In 1963, Steichen received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon Johnson. He was honored with a 1970 retrospective exhibit at the famous Arles, France, international photography festival. Three years later, Steichen died two days short of his 94th birthday.
During the 70 years that Steichen was active, his pioneering accomplishments were legion.
Beginning in 1903, for example, Steichen and Alfred Steiglitz collaborated to publish Camera Work, the first American magazine devoted to fine art photography, founded the first American art galleries devoted to photography and modern painting, and introduced modern European art to America. Steichen quickly became known as one of America’s preeminent fine art photographers.
His groundbreaking commercial work proved steadily lucrative. Steichen’s photographic portrait of Wall Street titan J.P. Morgan, Illustration 6, remains the definitive image of Morgan more than a century later. Steichen received $5,000 for that portrait, a huge fee for that time.
During the first few years of the 20th century, Steichen experimented with some of the earliest color photographic processes. One of those early color photos, “The Pond-Moonlight,” sold a few years ago for a then-record $2.9 million. You’ll also find that photo on our website as Illustration 7, along with another famous early color photograph of New York City’s first skyscraper, Illustration 8.
On a dare in 1911, Steichen created fashion photography as fine art. Over the next few decades, Steichen became publicly known for his iconic fashion photos made for Condé Nast publications. Illustration 9, a portrait of actress Greta Garbo, and Illustration 10, a portrait of actress Gloria Swanson, remain particularly well known.
Steichen was an immigrant, becoming a naturalized American citizen in 1900. When America entered World War I, Steichen was commissioned into the U.S. Army. He developed military reconnaissance photography to such a high standard that Steichen, then a colonel, received a personal commendation directly from Gen. John Pershing, the commander of all Army forces in Europe and later Army chief of staff.
When America was drawn into World War II 23 years later, Steichen first applied to the Army to reactivate his commission. The Army thought he was too old at 62 and declined to re-commission him.
Then applying to the Navy, Steichen’s application for commissioned officer status was immediately recognized as extraordinary, so much so that a special plane was immediately requisitioned to fly Steichen’s application to Washington, D.C., for immediate action. His command of the Navy’s aviation photography unit followed immediately.
Perhaps Steichen’s critics were correct that he was a “fossil.” Yet, as with many fossils, he left an energetic, permanent imprint, although in photographic silver rather than stone.
Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.