A Photographic Journey
Edward Steichen’s life was as multi-facetted and prolific as was his career, and there would be many ways to tell his story, as a photographer, a curator or a 20thcentury art ‘influencer’. Considering his life story, there certainly is the perspective of the migrant family, forced to leave a native country that offered no hopes for the future and to seek a better life elsewhere. Home was Luxembourg, more precisely the village of Bivange where Steichen was born in 1879, and elsewhere, the land of limitless possibilities, the United States. Marie Steichen embarked with her infant son Eduard in 1880. The father, Jean, had arrived in the USA a year earlier already. From this point of view, the Steichen family was one of many who set out for the New World. Over 72.000 is the estimated number of Luxembourg migrants between 1841 and 1891, while the country counted a total population of 212.800 people in 1891. Few however had an equally brilliant ascension as Edward Steichen. In fact, he lived “the American dream”, climbing every sprout of the social ladder -from the son of immigrants confounded in the masses, to the very top of the heap as one of America’s most prominent and most influential figures in the field of photography. He portrayed the rich (J.P. Morgan), the powerful (Theodore Roosevelt), the illustrious (Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin); he befriended the esteemed (Rodin, Brancusi), championing their work, building bridges between European and American artistic communities. Steichen’s story is a tale of success and, ultimately, of fame.
His career spanned over eight decades, from the early 1890s to his death in 1973. At an early stage of his life in photography, as pictorialist, he helped establishing the medium as an art form, together with his mentor and friend Alfred Stieglitz in New York. This was an important step: for decades the mechanical fabrication of images had mostly been valued as a tool to imitate or reproduce fractions of the outside world. Now photographs could be exhibited for their artistic and aesthetic qualities too.
Steichen however would not be confined to one single field of action. To him photography had many applications and uses, and he experimented with them all. In World War I, he conducted missions of areal photography, while he directed a group of war photographers on an aircraft carrier during World War II. He worked in advertisement and in fashion: he knew the power of photographs to tell stories and convey messages, in black and white and in colour. His ubiquity and expertise finally promoted him at age 68 to one of the most desirable positions in the art world, the Photography Department of New York’s Museum of Modern Art that he would direct from 1947 to 1962. Here, in the judgement seat, he shaped photography in yet another way, opening the museum beyond the art canon to practices ranging from documentary, to photojournalism and amateur image-making.
And all along, Edward Steichen never ceased to be a tireless networker and a fervent promoter of new talents. Not only did he have a keen sense for artistic drive or potential, but, considering Steichen’s vast career and particularly keeping in mind his passion for flower breeding and gardening, he must have had a profound pleasure in watching and helping things grow. Here, a petal-heavy rose; there a blossoming sculptor or photographer.
It is this generosity that we, as an association, want to honour, and a legacy that we want to sustain: contributing to the development of promising artistic careers and creating opportunities for professional and personal growth.
ESAL Board Chair