The collection features a broad range of Steichen’s work. The oldest photograph, dated 1898, is a self-portrait of Steichen at the age of 19, while the most recent, dated 1959, is a portrait of his third wife, Joanna. Other subjects include portraits of famous people, landscapes, still lifes, sculptural and architectural depictions, advertising, war documentation and nudes. The majority of the images date from Steichen’s most prolific and significant creative period, from the end of the 19th century to the late 1920s.
Steichen’s career as a photographer is inseparable from his intense preoccupation with classic art forms in painting and sculpture, a result in particular of his friendship with Rodin. After an initial apprenticeship as a lithographer, Steichen devoted himself to drawing and painting but it was thanks to photography that he quickly made a name for himself. In 1900, he travelled to Paris where he started studying at the Académie Julian, before devoting himself exclusively to photography and gum bichromate printing, very popular with pictorial artists at the time.
In measuring itself against painting, the pictorialism movement aimed to elevate photography, still in its infancy and deemed purely documentary in nature, to an art form in its own right. To achieve this, pictorialists made use of artistic blur (soft focus) and filters, staging photographs for dramatic effect while manipulating the development process to give them a painting-like expression. Steichen was also a member of the pictorialist Photo-Secession group, founded in 1902 by Alfred Stieglitz.
In the United States, Steichen was considered a pioneer of the European avant-garde art of his time. At the New York gallery “291”, which he ran together with Stieglitz, he organised many exhibitions featuring works by Cézanne, Rodin, Picasso, Matisse, Manet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and Brancusi, to name but a few.
The exhibition also showcases examples of Steichen’s innovative fashion shots and celebrity portraits, which he created from 1923 onwards for Vogue and Vanity Fair in his role as head photographer for Condé Nast.