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Edward Steichen - Gifted Gallery

Edward Jean Steichen, born March 27, 1879, was a Luxembourgish American photographer, painter, and curator, renowned as one of the most prolific and influential figures in the history of photography.

His artistic career began in 1894 after quitting high school where he began a four-year lithography apprenticeship with the American Fine Art Company of Milwaukee. After hours, he would sketch and draw, and he began to teach himself painting. Having discovered a camera shop near his work, he visited frequently until he persuaded himself to buy his first camera, a secondhand Kodak box "detective" camera, in 1895. Steichen and his friends who were also interested in drawing and photography pooled their funds, rented a small room in a Milwaukee, WI office building, and began calling themselves the Milwaukee Art Students League.

Steichen was credited with transforming photography into an art form. His photographs appeared in Alfred Stieglitz's groundbreaking magazine Camera Work more often than anyone else during its publication run from 1903 to 1917. Stieglitz hailed him as "the greatest photographer that ever lived".

As a pioneer of fashion photography, Steichen's gown images for the magazine Art et Décoration in 1911 were the first modern fashion photographs to be published.

From 1923 to 1938, Steichen served as chief photographer for the Condé Nast magazines Vogue and Vanity Fair, while also working for many advertising agencies, including J. Walter Thompson. During these years, Steichen was regarded as the most popular and highest paid photographer in the world.

After the United States' entry into World War II, Steichen was invited by the United States Navy to serve as Director of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit. In 1944, he directed the war documentary The Fighting Lady, which won the 1945 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

From 1947 to 1961, Steichen served as Director of the Department of Photography at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). While there, he curated and assembled exhibits including The Family of Man, which was seen by nine million people. In 2003, the Family of Man photographic collection was added to UNESCO's Memory of the World Register in recognition of its historical value. His exhibition history can be viewed here.

Steichen had bought a farm that he called Umpawaug in 1928, just outside West Redding, Connecticut. He lived there until his death on March 25, 1973, two days before his 94th birthday. After his death, Steichen's farm was made into a park, known as Topstone Park. As of 2018, Topstone Park was open seasonally.

Steichen's career, especially his activities at MoMA, did much to popularise and promote the medium, and both before and since his death photography, including his own, continued to appreciate as a collectible art form. In February 2006, a print of Steichen's early pictorialist photograph, The Pond—Moonlight (1904), sold for US$2.9 million—at the time, the highest price ever paid for a photograph at auction.

Steichen took the photograph in Mamaroneck, New York, near the home of his friend, art critic Charles Caffin. It shows a wooded area and pond, with moonlight appearing between the trees and reflecting on the pond. While the print appears to be a color photograph, the first true color photographic process, the autochrome process, was not available until 1907. Steichen created the impression of color by manually applying layers of light-sensitive gums to the paper. Only three prints of the Pond—Moonlight are still known to exist and, as a result of the hand-layering of the gums, each is unique. (The two prints not auctioned are held in museum collections.) The extraordinary sale price of the print is in part attributable to its one-of-a-kind character and to its rarity.



Reading Recommendations & Content Considerations

The Early Years Lives in Photography

Joel Smith Todd Brandow & William A. Ewing


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