We’ve got another instalment of our Masters of Photography series for you today. This series looks at some of the most influential photographers of the last hundred years and examines their life and work.
Today we’re looking at the work of Edward Steichen.
Steichen was born in 1879 in Luxembourg, though he immigrated to the United States with his family when he was very young. He began working in lithography printing at the age of 15, and during his time off he would draw and paint.
Soon after he began visiting a camera shop near his place of work and it wasn’t long before he bought himself a pre-owned Kodak box “detective” camera.
Steichen was a frequent contributor to Camera Work a photography journal published in the early 1900s, and he was one of the earliest people in the United States to start using the Autochrome Lumière process.
He is also recognised as the first photographer to conduct a modern fashion shoot, after being dared to promote fashion as an art form through photography.
Steichen served as a military photographer in WWI, commanding the photographic division of the American Expeditionary Forces, before returning to straight photography and then fashion photography once again.
During WWII, Steichen served as the Director of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit and his documentary The Fighting Lady won an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1945.
Steichen remained active in photography and art until his death, curating art exhibits and producing work for publications. A print of his 1904 image, Pond-Moonlight, was sold at auction in 2006 for $2.9 million which made it the most expensive photography print ever sold at the time (it currently holds 10th place.)
Where some photographers are known for a single style that they mould their careers around, Steichen’s style evolved throughout his career. His early images made heavy use of soft-focus to give the images an ethereal and dream-like quality which was popular during the start of the 20th century. This was useful for his work in fashion photography to make his images of clothing appear as artworks themselves, and not just flat pictures showing the garments.
But this style eventually gave way to a very crisp, matter of fact style which left little room for subtlety through effects.
At his 90th birthday, Steichen is said to have declared that “When I first became interested in photography, I thought it was the whole cheese. My idea was to have it recognized as one of the fine arts. Today I don’t give a hoot … about that. The mission of photography is to explain man to man and each man to himself”.