Edward Steichen (1879–1973) stands out as a great photographer in photography history, together with Alfred Stieglitz, he was the most widely accredited photographer in the period from 1900 to 1950. He used to play decisive role in the struggle to have photographs recognized as art, and as an artist, he uses his prestige talent to get an acceptance for advertising photography, fashion photography and documentation photography as categories of art. Steichen used his artistic pictures in connection with advertising and exhibited his advertising pictures as art. Through his methods, Steichen became one of those of his generation who contributed most to the removal of differences between so-called higher and lower cultural phenomena. Steichen’s lack of acceptance of the distinction between high and low culture was not a whimsical belief, but rather an expression of his ideological position. Steichen saw no contrast between the artistic and the commercial aspects of his activities. He had true business acumen and an entrepreneurial spirit as his driving force. And behind all this lay a core of restless energy and a desire to experiment.
Edward (until 1919, Eduard) Steichen was born in Luxembourg on 27 March 1879 and died in 1973. His parents, who came from farming families, immigrated to the USA in 1881. Steichen’s father worked in a copper mine in Hancock, Michigan, and his mother made hats. Steichen’s mother, Marie Kemp Steichen (1854–1933), was an ambitious, hard-working woman who, following the family’s move to Milwaukee in 1889, built up a business as a milliner. Her hats were much sought-after and, in due course, the family moved up the social scale to the middle class. Steichen’s mother was his confidante, when he was a child and when he had grown up. It was she who had the greatest influence on the development of his opinions and who encouraged him in his artistic and business efforts. She also influenced his view of society and political attitudes through the radical environment of German socialists that she and her husband were part of.
Steichen bought his first camera in 1895 with money his mother gave him. Between 1894 and 1898, he worked as an apprentice lithographer and studied art in his spare time. The company he worked for operated in the fields of graphic design and advertising, and Steichen was quick to develop new methods for using photography to increase working efficiency. He learned the craft of photography on his own through trial and error. In about 1897, Steichen organised the Milwaukee Art Students’ League – a group of aspiring artists who all worked in different pictorial professions. An elderly German artist taught the group. Steichen tried even at this early stage to create emotional inflected paintings where his chosen subject was a landscape illuminated by the moonlight. He began to photograph the same subjects that he drew and painted, and tried to achieve pictorial effects in the photographs that related to what he had aimed to achieve in his paintings.
Right from the beginning, Steichen displayed an extraordinary ability to synthesise his subject and to seek, more or less consciously, the atmospheric conditions in which such a synthesis would appear – moonlight, fog, and haze. One of the hallmarks of Steichen’s work was that his subjects were taken from his immediate surroundings. The emphasis of belonging to the locality is deeply rooted in the American, pragmatic philosophy of Emerson and Thoreau. In his later years, Steichen illustrated what might be characterised as a bible in terms of the glorification of a life bound closely to the local nature – Thoreau’s book Walden.
Steichen began early to compose his pictures in rough before actually taking the photograph, and did not restrict this to compose through cropping. He acquired his inspiration for developing photographs on the basis of contemporary paintings by reading and looking through Camera Notes, edited by Alfred Stieglitz. Of the photographers that interested Steichen, it was perhaps Clarence H. White (through his romantic elegies) who was most important, and we can see a direct influence of the latter on Steichen’s work. Other photographers that were significant for Steichen at the beginning were Gertrude Käsebier and Fred Holland Day. Together with these photographers, Steichen stood out as the most important adherent of the new, American photography. They all subscribed to the so-called “pictorialistic” idiom. That is, photography that was based on the aesthetic premises of contemporary painting and graphics, emphasised the connection of artistic photographs with the pictorial forms of composition and types of subjects that had been developed using the traditional techniques of painting, drawing and printing.
Steichen held his first exhibition in 1899 and immediately won great praise for his photographs in the circle of the pictorialists. The following year he displayed 15 of his photographs at an exhibition in Chicago and was given considerable attention in an article by Alfred Stieglitz in the magazine Camera Notes.