Looking Back on Edward Steichen

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1927, Conde Nast Publications.

Fred Astaire in Top Hat, 1927.

The elegant, extensive retrospective Edward Steichen Lives in Photography, which opened this week at Paris' Jeu de Paume, begins with a giant 5 m by 4 m shot of Manhattan's George Washington bridge. Feel free to make your own analogies. After all, Steichen (1879-1973) bridged the transition from photography's early soft-focus, pictorialist style to crisp modernism. He also linked the art world between New York and Paris, and made his own life a bridge from artist to critic to commercial photographer to museum curator. He has been hailed as the greatest photographer of the 20th century, and the Jeu de Paume show — with more than 400 works on display — helps support the claim. This exhibition, surprisingly the first Steichen retrospective in Europe, continues until Dec. 30, before going to Lausanne, Zurich, Reggio Emilia, Madrid, Wolfsburg, New York and Toronto.

Born in Luxembourg, Steichen emigrated to the U.S. with his parents when he was two. After training in lithography, he began careers in both photography and painting. Though he abandoned painting in the 1920s, he spent his long life making the case for photography as fine art. He also believed that serious photography could be both artistic and commercial, an insistence that led to his falling out with the more high-minded Alfred Stieglitz, his mentor, friend and co-founder of the Photo-Secessionist movement.

The Steichen who emerges in the Paris show is an innovator, a perfectionist and a self-promoter. He experimented with the latest gadgets and technology, using an early pocket camera to capture the crowd at Paris' Longchamps racetrack, and portraying artist Auguste Rodin by combining two negatives, one of him with his Victor Hugo sculpture and another with his The Thinker. (The critics loved it; so did Rodin.)

Steichen is credited with creating the first fashion photographs, for an article on the French designer Paul Poiret commissioned by the magazine Art et Décoration in 1911. Pages from the magazine are on display, with the models looking stiff despite their glorious capes and dresses. Contrast these wooden images with the imaginative fashion shots of Steichen's later years, like White, a classy composition of three women and a horse. One of the exhibition's surprises is a silent publicity film, Edward Steichen, America's Foremost Photographer, showing the cigar-smoking, three-piece-suited artiste surrounded by assistants and equipment, coaxing a beautiful model to pose, and then selecting the best images to print.

Early on, Steichen recognized the value of networking. He started his Great Men series in the early 1900s and continued doing portraits of the likes of J. Pierpont Morgan, Richard Strauss, Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill for much of his life. It didn't hurt his reputation that his brother-in-law, the well-known poet Carl Sandburg, published a biography, Steichen the Photographer, in 1929. In later years, Steichen's portraits tended toward show-business types like Gloria Swanson, mysterious behind a layer of lace, and W.C. Fields, hamming it up in his pajamas in one of the exhibition's few candid shots.

But in for all his commercialism, Steichen had a human side. He served his adopted country in World War I, and his work in aerial reconnaissance photography persuaded him to abandon the painterly pictorialist style for clear, precise images. At 60, he enlisted in Word War II, specializing in public relations photos and documentaries. From time to time, Steichen would drop out of commercial life to tend his own garden, literally. He loved flowers, breeding them (an iris is named after him) and photographing them. His floral pictures provide almost the only color in this dramatic, black-and-white show.

And as curator of the Museum of Modern art in the early 1950s, he organized perhaps the most ambitious, most successful photo exhibition of all time, The Family of Man — 503 shots of shared human experiences gathered from around the world. Edward Steichen Lives in Photography concludes with a large, computerized, virtual reconstruction of the Family of Man. Steichen — the perfectionist, innovator and promoter — would have loved it.