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Edward Steichen

A black-and-white photograph of a man dressed in a suit. He wears a bowtie and looks solemnly into the camera. He leans on something to his left, and to his right is an old-fashioned camera.
Edward Steichen. Self-Portrait with Camera, about 1917. Restricted gifts of Brenda and Earl Shapiro and the Smart Family Foundation; Laura T. Magnuson Acquisition, Comer Foundation, The Mary and Leigh Block Endowment funds; restricted gifts of Sidney and Sondra Berman Epstein, Karen and Jim Frank, Marian Pawlick; Ethel T. Scarborough, Hugh Leander and Mary Trumbull Adams Memorial Endowment, Betty Bell Spooner funds; restricted gifts of Vicki and Thomas Horwich, Robin and Sandy Stuart; Samuel A. Marx Purchase Fund for Major Acquisitions, S. DeWitt Clough, Photographic Society, Irving and June Seaman Endowment, Morris L. Parker funds.
Also known as
Edouard J. Steichen, Edward Jean Steichen
Date of birth
Date of death

One of the most influential photographers of the 20th century, Edward Steichen was a groundbreaking innovator in the fields of art photography, aerial photography, and fashion and commercial photography

Steichen’s artistic career began at the age of 16, when he apprenticed at a Milwaukee lithographic firm, creating photographs that were used as models for illustrated advertisements. Steichen then spent two years in Paris before moving to New York and opening a portrait studio in 1902. By then he was known for atmospheric photographs in the Pictorialist style—an aesthetic that valued retouching and evident handicraft to create a “painterly” effect, and that aimed to distinguish serious artists from amateur or merely professional photographers. He soon became the protégé of Alfred Stieglitz, a pioneering photographer who championed photography’s place among the modern fine arts. Together, they opened the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession (later known simply as “291”) and were the first to present Picasso, Brâncusi, and a range of progressive photographers to the American public. 

With his family, Steichen relocated to Voulangis, France, in 1906, where he immersed himself in European modern art. They remained there until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. In 1917, Steichen entered active duty with the goal of becoming “a photographic reporter, as Mathew Brady had been in the Civil War,” but quickly abandoned this romantic notion to help implement the newest weapon of war—aerial photography. Steichen was assigned to the newly formed Photographic Section and promoted to commanding officer during the war’s critical final battles. Steichen presided over training programs, darkroom operations, print distribution, and supply channels. Although he likely participated in several test flights, there is no evidence that Steichen took operational photographs himself during the war.

When Steichen returned to New York in 1923, he assumed two positions that would make him the best-known and highest-paid commercial photographer of his time: chief photographer for Condé Nast’s Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines and consultant for the J. Walter Thompson advertising company. Steichen immediately embraced celebrity, fashion, and advertising photography. At Condé Nast, Steichen began to use artificial light sources, high contrast, sharp focus, and geometric backgrounds—techniques borrowed from fine-art and stage photography—which gave his images a fresh, unprecedentedly modernist feel. Steichen’s greatest accomplishment was to blur the lines between celebrity portraiture, fashion photography, and advertising, creating a hybrid genre of images with a potent mix of glamour and desire that dominates magazine photography to this day.

Later in his career, Steichen became an influential impresario, promoting photography as a tool of mass media while retaining his fierce dedication to craft. He upheld these views as head of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, from 1947 to 1962. 

Explore Steichen’s extensive career in photography in this archive, which includes a rare World War I album.

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