Steichen Then, Now, and Again:
Legacies of an Icon
by A. D. Coleman
On February 14, 2006, an auction at Sotheby’s in New York City set a record for the highest price ever paid for a single photograph. The image in question, a moonlit landscape created in 1904, was a complexly handmade object: a platinum print coated with several layers of gum bichromate, the multiple emulsions and printings giving it a rich, burnished, distinctive blue-green cast. It stands as a masterpiece of what have become generically referred to as “alternative processes,” an umbrella term covering the wide variety of formerly obsolescent but now revitalized photographic negative-making and print-making methods utilized by photographers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
“The Pond — Moonlight,” one of only three known prints of this image, came to the block with impeccable provenance, deaccessioned from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which owns one of the two other variant prints, and which acquired this print by donation from Alfred Stieglitz. Peter MacGill, of New York’s Pace/MacGill Gallery, purchased this nocturne (depicting a scene in then-bucolic Mamaroneck, a town in Westchester County, New York) on behalf of a private collector. The print went under the hammer for $2,928,000 (including the buyer’s premium). That final bid tripled its estimated sales price — an unprecedented Valentine’s Day gift to the medium of photography.
That this previously little-known and now world-famous print came from the hand of Edward Steichen should not surprise us. In tandem with his longtime colleague Alfred Stieglitz, and on his own after they took separate paths, Steichen continues to loom large as one of the germinal figures of twentieth-century photography. His career in the medium spanned three-quarters of the last century; his multiple legacies, generous and problematic, endure into the new millennium. “The Pond — Moonlight” and the Pictorialist movement in photography for which it has now become iconic seem as good a starting point as any for investigating what we have inherited from the man called by many “the Captain,” since that image distills the essence of Pictorialist practice and represents a highlight of the first phase of Steichen’s career.
Movement I: From Pictorialism to Modernism
Because Steichen made this work during the course of his long partnership with Alfred Stieglitz, and published it first in Camera Work, the journal that Stieglitz edited and funded, let us begin with that relationship. Steichen’s many-sided involvement with his mentor went well beyond the working relationships with Stieglitz developed by other members of the Photo-Secession, the loose collective of like-minded Pictorialist photographers (most of them from the United States) that Stieglitz shepherded for a number of years.
Steichen initially shared Stieglitz’s vision of photography’s future, as well as his proselytizing tendencies. Consequently, he involved himself deeply in Stieglitz’s various projects. They first collaborated on the production of Camera Notes, the short-lived journal of the Camera Club of New York (1897-1903). When Stieglitz resigned from that organization and the editorship of its journal, Steichen assisted at the birth of an autonomous periodical, Camera Work (1902-1917), that would operate entirely under Stieglitz’s control.
Steichen designed the cover and other components of this exquisitely produced journal. It served as the Photo-Secession’s house organ and Stieglitz’s platform for a decade and a half. Camera Work’s high production values included subtle, delicate, hand-pulled ink gravures. These prints, from plates sometimes made directly from the original negatives, proved so sensitive to the nuances of the original prints from which they derived that, for more than three decades now, they have sold separately in the market for collectible photographs, considered as, in effect, limited-edition prints of those works.
Because Camera Work immediately established itself as the ne plus ultra of photography publications, those same production values shaped the future of the serious photography journal as a special type of periodical. The assumption implicit in Camera Work — that, de facto, such a magazine involved expensive state-of-the-art reproduction of images — became a given in the field. Subsequent periodicals often sought to emulate that model. The one that has endured the longest. surviving as a not-for-profit operation with substantial corporate and foundation support, is Aperture, founded in 1951 by a cluster of major figures in the field who looked consciously to Camera Work as the desideratum. Others have lasted for shorter periods, but some still persist, mostly as house organs for non-profit organizations and institutions: San Francisco Camerawork, Katalog (Denmark), Luna Cornea (Mexico), for example.
The list of “little” photography magazines that have died while striving to imitate Camera Work stretches from Contemporary Photographer in the 1960s to See in the 1990s. Thus, as a model, Camera Work in its physical form has proved problematic. For every variant that has survived — Aperture, 21st — one can point to dozens of failures, some of them disastrous, as editorial aspirations outstripped fiscal common sense. Nonetheless, notably, the physical model established by Steichen and Stieglitz has remained seductive and magnetic from the moment of Camera Work’s debut through the present. In the minds of many, it continues to define the high-end photography journal, even well into the digital era.
Camera Work manifests a second level of ongoing influence, in the area of content. It seems reasonable to propose that Camera Work constitutes the first true critical journal in photography. The magazine included no tutorial material on photographic craft and only a modicum of technical discussion; most of its texts were polemics, profiles, interviews, reviews, and other forms of commentary. In addition to offering regular contributions from Stieglitz himself, and periodic ones from other Photo-Secessionists, it served as a frequent platform for two prominent art critics who were not themselves photographers, Charles H. Caffin and Sadakichi Hartmann. Moreover, it functioned as a vehicle for occasional texts from other writers — poets, novelists, playwrights — who elected to address the medium of photography or other subjects the editors considered relevant.
And, in terms of both the images it reproduced and the essays it presented, Camera Work sought to position itself, and the medium to which it was devoted, within the larger context of creative activity in all the art forms of its time. Thus, unlike virtually all previous photography journals (and unlike most since then), it did not target amateur and professional photographers as its exclusive or even primary audiences. Instead, it sought to appeal to a broader audience for discourse about the cultural issues of its day.
Steichen did not generate much of that textual content himself, though he did contribute several pieces of writing. But responses to him and his work appeared in those pages regularly, as did his images. Perhaps more important, he served Stieglitz as a pipeline to the European branch of modernism. Many images by the European photo-pictorialists — plus paintings, drawings, and other works by such major figures in European art as Auguste Rodin, Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and Constantin Brancusi — that first came to the U.S. via Camera Work , got there through Steichen. So did texts by Gertrude Stein, Maurice Maeterlinck, and other Europeans and Europe-based U.S. expatriates that appeared in the magazine. Thus, as a behind-the-scenes “finder” for the Camera Work project, Steichen also helped to establish the concept of the critical journal in photography as one that considered the medium in relation to work in other media, taking the most expansive and encompassing approach to the field of ideas that the discourse around photography could address.
The same works that Steichen located in Europe for the pages of Camera Work often ended up in exhibitions held at the Little Galleries of the Photo Secession that Stieglitz ran in Manhattan. (Steichen’s own prints frequently graced those walls as well.) Initially the galleries occupied a rental unit vacated in 1905 by Steichen, who promptly collaborated with Stieglitz on redesigning it as a suite of exhibition rooms. They visualized this environment as a decisive break with the floor-to-ceiling jumble of elaborately framed works set amid velvet curtains, faux-Greek pedestals, and other decorative trappings then typical of salon-style presentations of works of visual art. These new spaces remained clean and spare, free of extraneous decor, painted in white or neutral colors interspersed with burlap-covered panels, with the works on display framed minimally and given breathing space between themselves, either clustered in small groupings or run in a single line at eye level around the walls.
As Olivier Lugon argues elsewhere in this book, this represents the emergence of the modernist vision of the gallery as a quasi-sacred, meditative space, the presentational format that, decades later, Brian O’Doherty would dub “the white cube” and propose as a central facet of the modernist project. Here we have the white cube’s precise point of origin: spaces designed by Stieglitz and Steichen for the display of photographs, modernist artworks in various media, African sculpture, and more.
This marks Steichen’s first powerful influence on the presentation of photography — and, more broadly, works of art in all media — in public spaces. The prototypical “white cube” environment that he and Stieglitz initiated came to pervade the art world, not just in galleries but in museums as well. It continues today as the dominant assumption in the design and architecture of display spaces for all forms of art.
Movement II: Into the Mainstream
Photographers in our day take for granted the option of moving between projects of their own devising (often self-supported) and various forms of bespoke or commissioned work. Those include editorial imagery, advertising imagery, still photography for commercial films, illustrations for corporate annual reports, studio portraiture, and many other variants of applied or functional photography. This has become so commonplace that it goes largely unremarked as a phenomenon. The list of photographers who have supported themselves and subsidized their more passionate creative commitments in these ways goes far back, in a lineage that runs from William Wegman, Sarah Moon, and Duane Michals today back through Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon in the post-World War II years to Lisette Model, André Kertèsz, Edward Weston, and Man Ray in the first half of the last century.
Many think that tendency begins with Edward Steichen. In fact, however, more than a few notable photographers before him, such as Mathew Brady in the second half of the 19th century and William Henry Jackson well into the 20th century, had sustained their creative efforts by soliciting clients for studio portraits, by licensing reproduction rights to their images for mass distribution, or by other commercial applications of their talents. Steichen’s name has become closely associated with this practice because, in his instance, the decision to undertake such work — and, more important, to endorse it publicly and justify it unapologetically — sparked a substantial controversy within the microcosm of the photography world at the time.
Steichen produced his first portraits on assignment — studies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft — for Everybody’s Magazine in 1908. The designer Paul Poiret commissioned his first fashion photographs in 1911. By 1923 Steichen had begun working for the J. Walter Thompson Company, a New York-based advertising agency, while also serving as Chief Photographer for Condé Nast Publications. His efforts in this territory went well beyond the mere provision of images on demand. Aside from contributing the strength of his own photographic style, Steichen had considerable input into layout, design, and other aspects of the presentation of his own images (and those of others) on the printed page.
This decision to move into the terrain of “useful” photographic imagery, and to prioritize imagery that would reach its audience through the vehicle of ink reproduction on the printed page of mass-circulation periodicals, struck many of Steichen’s former colleagues (including Stieglitz) as a betrayal of the principles on which the Photo-Secession had been founded. It also marked the beginning of Steichen’s gradual abandonment of the hand-worked “alternative process” approach to printmaking, in favor of a less elaborate (though no less carefully nuanced) involvement with gelatin-silver paper as a vehicle, and his more abrupt leaving behind of the painterly visual style of most pictorialism, replaced by a hard-edged, sharp-focused approach to photographic picture-making.
These new methods became defining markers of photographic modernism (the U.S. version thereof in particular). We can see Steichen exploring this approach as early as “Heavy Roses,” from 1914, and “Lotus,” from 1915. He would continue to employ assorted pictorialist tropes for another decade (see, for example, “Dana and the Orb” from 1923). And he would use the more hand-worked processes for awhile longer as well. The print of “Dana and the Orb” in the collection of the George Eastman House is a platinum and ferro-prussiate print; the Museum of Modern Art in New York has a 1921 “Harmonica Riddle” in palladium. But by the middle 1920s Steichen’s involvement with the “alternative processes” of photography had become marginal. Thereafter he would experiment with new materials as they emerged (notably color films and papers), but would not devote further effort to pursuing the earlier printmaking techniques of his medium.
Well ahead of many, then, Steichen understood and adopted a modernist position in his own picture-making. He began to work in the approach that in Europe would become known as the “New Objectivity” (Neue Sachlichkeit). In the States, that tendency would get dubbed “purism” by devotees of the Group f.64 in which such figures as Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Imogen Cunningham joined, and would be referred to as “straight photography” by others who favored it. As modernism emerged in his medium, Steichen set aside some previous photographers’ attempts (including his own) to position the medium among the fine arts through labor-intensive production of hand-crafted objects that could lay some claim to what Walter Benjamin would later describe as the “aura” of unique handcrafted works of art, and moved away from such efforts by his contemporaries. Instead, he plunged himself into what Benjamin memorably named the “age of mechanical reproduction,” embracing that phenomenon wholeheartedly and exploring its possibilities. More than a decade before Benjamin issued his now-famous hypotheses, therefore, Steichen was operating according to the principles that Benjamin would subsequently articulate.
In doing so, Steichen established as respectable a photographer’s decision to move at will between the gallery wall and the printed page of newsstand magazines as vehicles for imagery. He thereby enhanced the credibility of the photographer who switches readily between personal/creative projects and commercial/applied commissions. His example of cross-pollination would stand subsequent generations of working photographers in good stead. By now the issue has lost its controversial edge. But it remains a subject of debate, with proponents of strong conviction on each side. In the event, the ranks of photographers with feet in both camps have swelled continuously, including ever more with serious credentials in creative photography. As a result, the skepticism that once attached to such dual allegiances has long since evaporated.
Movement III: Peacetime to Warfare
During World War I Steichen had served in the Allied forces, pioneering aerial photography and the analysis thereof. (His siding with France contributed to the schism between himself and Stieglitz, who supported Germany.) In World War II Steichen took on another role, becoming what we would now call “embedded.” Volunteering his services, he worked for the U.S. Navy as a filmmaker, documentary photographer, and photojournalist, while heading up a handpicked team of photographers generating imagery intended as unequivocally supportive of the Allied Forces and pro-U.S. in particular.
Photographers covering that war generally operated on the sufferance of the military; access to combat zones and other newsworthy situations required passes and other forms of approval from the relevant chains of command. The photographers’ output (like that of most journalists) usually underwent rigorous censorship, if not immediately by military offices set up for that purpose then by editors back home operating under strict guidelines imposed by the armed forces. Thus “shooting the war” necessarily involved cooperating with the chain of command of one side or the other and submitting one’s imagery and written stories and captions to a censorial process, a fact taken for granted by such staff and freelance photojournalists as Margaret Bourke-White, W. Eugene Smith, Lee Miller, Robert Capa, and countless others working on assignment in that era.
In addition to photographers like those, employed by the various press services, periodicals, and picture agencies, all branches of the U.S. military had their own photographic and film divisions, staffed with enlistees and draftees. Steichen organized and commanded such a unit. This willing embedding of himself anticipates the practice that would become widespread with the onset of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” in March 2003. Controversial now, due to doubts over the latitude allowed to embedded photographers and the potential biasing of and restrictions on their documentation that such involvement could generate, it was not considered suspect to any notable degree in photography or journalism circles at the time Steichen undertook that project.
His own photographic output during the war and that of his team, widely circulated by the Navy press service, appeared in countless publications internationally, as individual images and clusters thereof. In addition to that, Steichen himself supervised the creation of several large-scale projects drawn from this ever-growing collective archive of war-related material. These included:
* the exhibition and book version of “Road to Victory” (the show premiered in 1942 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, with accompanying text by Carl Sandburg and exhibition design by Herbert Bayer);
* the film The Fighting Lady, a U.S. Navy-sponsored documentary titled after the nickname of the aircraft carrier that served as home base for Steichen and his team (released in 1944, directed by William Wyler, the film’s production was supervised by Steichen, who also generated all of the full-color cinematography used in it);
* the exhibition and catalogue Power in the Pacific: Battle Photographs of Our Navy in Action on the Sea and in the Sky (which premiered at MoMA in 1945);
* and the book U.S. Navy War Photographs: Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Harbor (1946, sponsored by the U.S. Navy).
Steichen had orchestrated previous publications and exhibitions of work by himself and others, but never on this scale. These wartime projects reached larger, more far-flung, and more diverse audiences than anything under his absolute editorial control that he had attempted until then. They departed radically from the determinedly elitist, small-circulation journal Camera Work, the rarefied environment of the Photo-Secession’s “Little Galleries,” and other vehicles intended for the display of photographs as precious objects, and they obviated the making of photographs specifically conceived and created for such display.
These World War II productions took an unabashedly populist stance on every level, from purchase price to distribution to accessibility of content to intended audience size. Steichen’s high-profile activity during this war not only established the public precedent of the voluntarily embedded photojournalist in wartime but pointed him toward usages of the thematic group statement in photography as a vehicle for mass communication and a means of persuasion. In short, this experience with the propagandistic potential of his medium gave Steichen tangible proof that his photography and that of others could serve not only to materialize “a way of seeing” but also to promote a particular point of view.
Movement IV: Maker Turned Impresario
Nowadays the large-scale thematic group show and/or book is a commonplace, not only in photography but in all the visual arts. So, too, is the blockbuster traveling museum exhibition. When we trace such ambitious — and, in the minds of some, grandiose — undertakings to their origin, one enterprise signals (more than any preceding it) the introduction of this type of project into the international circulation of art in general and photographs in particular: The Family of Man, Steichen’s liberal-humanist magnum opus, which opened at the Museum of Modern Art in January of 1955.
By then Steichen had become entrenched as the Director of the Department of Photography at MoMA, a position he assumed in 1947, a platform that historian Christopher Phillips has called “the judgment seat of photography” and that this author has described as “unquestionably the single most influential sponsorial position in contemporary creative photography.” Steichen’s appointment to that position over the head of Beaumont Newhall added yet another layer of contention to the Captain’s career.
Steichen’s entry into full-time museum curatorship seems in retrospect both inevitable and inevitably controversial. But Steichen had proved himself a subject of dispute well beyond photo-world circles even before taking over the MoMA department. He and the issues he represented in the mid-’40s were considered of broad enough interest to warrant a skeptical, often acidulous two-part profile by Matthew Josephson in the influential periodical The New Yorker in 1944.
Nor did the dispute over his arrival at MoMA restrict itself to issues of photographic esthetics, or to the MoMA administration’s disregard of Newhall’s tacit prior claim on that position. Steichen’s plans for his MoMA position included the raising of $100,000 from ten manufacturers of photography equipment to subsidize his own salary ― the first time that commercial/corporate monies had entered the museum in such a fashion. This set another precedent that has turned into a commonplace in the museum world, albeit one hotly debated at the time and far from resolved today.
Ultimately, however, the uproar centered on the direction Steichen’s detractors assumed the department’s exhibition policy would take under his leadership. In the years leading up to his resignation from MoMA, Beaumont Newhall, Steichen’s predecessor, had positioned himself (and was seen by the photography community) as the champion of the “purist” or “straight” lineage that presumably ran from the Scottish team of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson through Eugène Atget to Stieglitz and thence to Walker Evans, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, and Ansel Adams. The faction within the photo world that endorsed this vision of the medium’s evolution viewed Steichen, with his populist tendencies and track record in the fields of commercial and applied photography, as a traducer of that photography-for-photography’s-sake tradition.
From their perspective, Steichen had long since revealed himself as a renegade who would doubtless skew the department’s exhibitions toward functional photography — fashion, photojournalism, illustrational work, and the like — and away from the creative and documentary end of the spectrum. Characteristically, in the uproar following the announcement of his MoMA appointment, Ansel Adams (of all the Group f.64 members the one closest to Newhall both professionally and personally) excoriated Steichen as “the anti-Christ of photography: clever, sharp, self-promoting and materialistic.”
Yet if one compares the photographers, the images, and the types of work that Steichen elected to show during his tenure at MoMA (which lasted till 1962) with what Newhall had already shown there (1940-47) during his own MoMA stint and later chose to show at the George Eastman House in Rochester, his next and final curatorial appointment (1948-71), the overlap is almost perfect. Moreover, within the architectural limitations of the MoMA photo gallery and the other MoMA spaces to which Steichen (and Newhall before him) had periodic access, on the one hand, and those of the Eastman House spaces under Newhall’s supervision on the other, one can say that both curators applied the same “white cube” approach to the large majority of shows under their control. In short, the differences between their separate and independent overviews of the medium, and their approaches to the museum presentation thereof, seem negligible, at least in retrospect.
The major exception, of course, would be Steichen’s chef-d’oeuvre, The Family of Man, an ambitious experiment that one cannot imagine Newhall either conceiving or undertaking. Applying a combination of picture-press layout methods and innovative exhibition design ideas in collaboration with architect Paul Rudolph, choosing and juxtaposing and scaling images according to his own editorial decisions, Steichen ignored what were then already standard methods for display of photographs as objects of art. In so doing, he created what we would now call an installation — and a massive one at that, utilizing 503 pictures by 273 photographers from 68 countries. With that act he and his project team moved the museum display of photography decisively from exhibition to spectacle.
Had this vast survey simply enjoyed its scheduled run at MoMA, where it broke all attendance records, viewed there by tens of thousands of New Yorkers and visitors to the city, The Family of Man would have made a considerable mark on the field by demonstrating to museum directors around the world the drawing power of spectacular exhibitions of photography. But Steichen and his colleagues had planned a widespread dissemination of the project, which they achieved.
Much of The Family of Man’s lasting influence resulted from Steichen’s application of lessons in the distribution of imagery and ideas that he’d gleaned from his several wartime projects. But this extravaganza’s reach exceeded those prior efforts by far. The exhibition only began its life at MoMA, on West 53rd Street in Manhattan. Produced in multiple copies, the show traveled internationally for years, touring for seven years in multiple sets throughout 38 countries. An estimated nine million people attended those various showings into the 1960s.
The show inevitably partook of (and consciously took part in) the ideological struggles of the Cold War. Prominently displayed at the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, the site of the famous “kitchen debate” between Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. Vice-president Richard M. Nixon, The Family of Man contributed to a perception of the United States as a functioning, thriving democracy, an “open society,” in Karl Popper’s term, as distinct from the barred and gated nations of eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R’s then-ally, China.
The Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, already famous in the Soviet Union, attended the show, where he met both Steichen (who made his portrait later on that trip) and his brother-in-law, Carl Sandburg. Yevtushenko still recalls the power of that exhibition in that particular place at that historical moment: “So many Muscovites lined up for that exhibition — thousands, every day. Maybe especially those from our generation, my generation. [He was born in 1933.] My friends and I were all dreaming of Russia again being part of the common civilization. We didn’t feel completely lost or culturally isolated; we had some great Western books, French, American, English books in translation. And we were brought up to understand Russian culture as a part of European culture. But we wanted some sense of physical connection with the rest of the world, some feeling of contact. This great show gave us that. It was a revelation.”
The Family of Man also found itself subject to internal as well as external political considerations. Eric J. Sandeen has pointed out that a centrally placed and chilling image that appeared in all the exhibition versions — a 6×8′ back-lit color transparency of a hydrogen bomb test — did not find its way into the book version. He proposes that this resulted from self-censorship on Steichen’s part rather than from pressure from the publishers or other parties.
The book version of The Family of Man came out in at least four separate forms: hardbound, fancy softcover, cheaper softcover, and pocket-sized paperback. The book remains in print more than half a century after its first release, and it endures as the single book of photographs most likely familiar worldwide to someone not otherwise concerned with the medium. With millions of copies in circulation, it stands as the longest continuously published book in the medium’s history.
Nor has the final curtain rung down on the exhibition. In 1993 one of the traveling versions of The Family of Man, lovingly restored, opened to a new generation of viewers in Toulouse, France, then went on to Tokyo and Hiroshima, Japan, before returning to Europe in 1994 for permanent installation in a specially designed museum space in the Château de Clervaux, Luxembourg — the only photography exhibition to date ever so honored anywhere. This site is now inscribed on UNESCO’s “Memory of the World” register. It is almost impossible to calculate the number of people worldwide who have encountered this project of Steichen’s in one or another of its forms. And that number increases daily.
Controversial even during its prenatal phase, since its public birth The Family of Man has sparked a subsequent half-century’s worth of argument and research. Photographer, teacher, and editor Minor White would publish a critique of The Family of Man in Aperture that attacked Steichen for decontextualizing individual images from photographers’ bodies of work in order to reshape their meaning to suit himself. Roland Barthes gave it a pithy semiological pummeling upon the occasion of its arrival in Paris. Commentators from Jacques Barzun to Susan Sontag show up on the list of those who have felt the need to respond to this venture, pro and con, in the decades since its emergence. So that controversy has not ended: witness the publication of recent books and essays on this subject, evidence of the enduring potency of Steichen’s culminating effort.
The Family of Man remains a reference point and subject of animated debate. This is not due to dispute over the relative merits of the photographers included (many of whom have become canonical, all of whom have entered the history books, at least as footnotes), nor does it stem from disagreement over the relative value of the particular images chosen to compose it. The argument revolves around the specific curatorial concept used to organize the show — its sociopolitical message, its theme of transnational and transcultural human solidarity — and, more broadly, the curatorial power of image contextualization that it demonstrates so vividly.
Other projects of Steichen’s aside from The Family of Man still resonate. In 1972 theorist Allan Sekula provided a dissection of the entry into the art market of “vintage” prints of Steichen’s World War I aerial photographs for the military. In 1991, under the auspices of MoMA’s “Projects Room” series, artist Dennis Adams’ show “consisted of site-specific installation work including a chain of hand-crafted vitrines, wall-size photographs of MoMA’s ‘Road to Victory’ exhibition from 1942.” And now a print of Steichen’s, made at the beginning of the last century, has set a new high price for photographs at auction. More than four decades after he largely retired from public life, and more than three decades after his death, Edward Steichen remains very much with us — perhaps more so, and in more ways, than at any time since he left the Museum of Modern Art.
Take your choice, then. We have Steichen as print-maker extraordinaire, ultimate vindicator of what Lyle Rexer has dubbed “the antiquarian avant-garde.” We have Steichen as co-inventor of the critical journal and “little magazine” of photography. We have him as co-designer of “the white cube,” the prototypical art-display space of modernism. We have him as introducer of European modern art to the U.S. We have him as adroit, pathbreaking navigator between the realms of creative photography and applied photography, including advertising, editorial, military, and wartime propaganda. We have him as curator of the most powerful museum department of photography of his era. We have him as pioneer of the museum exhibition as installation. We have him as advocate of the didactic, thematic group exhibition. And we have him as the organizing force behind the single most influential and most widely seen internationally traveling museum-scale photography exhibition with accompanying monograph ever created.
Whichever Steichen you choose, he remains pertinent to virtually every issue actively debated in photography today. One can approach all of these aspects of Steichen’s cumulative lifelong project in his chosen medium from many different standpoints. I do not intend to make a case for any one of them outweighing the other, nor to take a position in favor of or against any phase of his work. I think it more valuable to point out that, taking all his legacies into account, he remains a central figure — perhaps the central figure — of twentieth-century photography.
The ramifications and influence of Steichen’s activities in the field endure. From the beginning of his life in photography to its end, he and his works have continuing relevance to the medium in our own time. Edward Steichen appears as one of those cultural forces that each generation must discover anew and reevaluate for itself. This round of the discussion has only begun.
斯泰肯是照片制作方面出色并终极的维护者，即所谓“复古的前卫”(the antiquarian avant-garde)；他是批评杂志和摄影“小众杂志”的共同创办人；他是“白立方”这种现代主义艺术展示空间原型的共同设计者；他是将欧洲现代艺术引入美国的第一人；他是创意摄影与应用摄影——包括广告、编辑、军事和战时宣传——两个领域之间巧妙而具开创性的领跑者；他是那个时代影响力最大的美术馆摄影部的策展人；他是美术馆展览成为装置的开创者；他是具有教化意义的主题性群展的倡导者；他也是一次影响力最大、观众最为广泛的国际美术馆摄影巡展——连同其专著——背后的组织力量。无论是哪一个斯泰肯，实际上他始终与今天摄影界仍在热烈讨论的每一个问题有关。我们只就他留下的所有遗产而言，指出他依然是二十世纪摄影的一位核心人物——也许是最核心的人物，这会更有价值。