Steichen's Legacy

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9780679450764: Steichen's Legacy

A magnificent book--315 photographs by Edward Steichen, the man Auguste Rodin called "the greatest photographer of his time."

        This is the first gathering in thirty years of Steichen's photographs, spanning seven decades: the landscapes, the haunting studies of flowers, the portraits of friends and family, the still lifes and cityscapes. Here are fashion photographs taken during the fifteen years Steichen worked for Vogue. And here too are the breathtaking portraits he made for Vanity Fair: Colette, Noel Coward, Greta Garbo, Willa Cather, Isadora Duncan . . . William Butler Yeats, Henri Matisse, Thomas Mann . . . George Gershwin, Amelia Earhart, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (taken when he was governor of New York--a standard pose, the decisive leader in his chair--but later, when FDR was president, cropped by Steichen to show the sad, serious face of a visionary acquainted with suffering).

        In a personal and illuminating text, Joanna Steichen writes about her husband's passionate views on photography; about how he moved away from painting (his understanding and support of modernism helped bring the movement to this country); about his experiments with abstraction; about the repercussions of commercial success in his life as an artist; about how he and Joanna first met (through the mischievous intervention of Steichen's brother-in-law, Carl Sandburg) and how their relationship changed as they became lovers, man and wife and, finally, artist and assistant.

        Joanna Steichen writes about Steichen's days as a colonel in World War I, in charge of aerial photography for the Air Force in France, and then as a captain in the Navy--past the age of retirement--in World War II, in charge of combat photography in the Pacific. She writes about his years as the European art scout for his friend Alfred Stieglitz, and of how Steichen later designed the gallery for the Photo-Secession's 291 and arranged exhibitions of the work of Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso and Brancusi, long before these names were known in America. And she writes about the couple's farm in Connecticut, which Steichen landscaped out of woods and rocks and hollows and photographed over the years, as well as the new hybrid of delphinium Steichen produced and the sunflowers he raised and studied through his lens.
        
Carl Sandburg said: "A scientist and a speculative philosopher stands back of Steichen's best pictures. They will not yield their meaning and essence on the first look nor the thousandth--which is the test of masterpieces."
        
Steichen's Legacy is a book of masterpieces.

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Review:

Edward Steichen was a visionary determined to show that photography was an art form as well as a craft, which explains the painterly style characterizing his early images. His portraits resonate with echoes of Whistler and Sargent; like Whistler, he used terms such as pastorale and nocturne as titles for his landscapes to suggest their affinity with music. His experiments with color images of flowers, dating as early as 1907, look back to the paintings of Fantin-Latour yet anticipate Robert Mapplethorpe. He explored photography's potential to immortalize the chance play of shadows on flat surfaces and the unexpected beauty of decayed plants. Beyond his artistic eye, Steichen's sensitivity and daring were evident in the international photographic exhibition The Family of Man that he organized for the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. The text of Steichen's Legacy is written by the photographer's widow, Joanna, who met Steichen when he was 80 and she was 28. Though her intensely personal recollections are a unique window on Steichen's life and an excellent source of anecdote, they form an uneasy mix of art history and biography--the loving memories of one so intimate with Steichen do not form the most solid base for analyzing his work. Her choice of images, however, and the book's rich visual presentation make it a magnificent tribute to one of photography's great interpreters and innovators. His legacy is well served by the 300 high-quality duotones, tritones, and full-color images that illustrate this substantial volume, printed in Italy on fine art paper and a tour de force of book production. --John Stevenson

About the Author:

Joanna Steichen was born in New York City and is a graduate of Smith College and the Columbia University School of Social Work. After brief careers in theater and advertising, she worked with Steichen on his 1961 retrospective exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art and on his 1963 autobiography, A Life in Photography. She has lectured on Steichen's work and written numerous exhibition catalogues. For the last twenty-five years she has had a private practice in psychotherapy, and she is on the faculty of the Center for the Advancement of Group Studies in New York City. Joanna Steichen lives in New York City and Montauk, New York.

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