From Edward Steichen, Stunning Portraits of Frank Lloyd Wright, Isadora Duncan, and More

May 26, 2016 4:54PM

Photography’s acceptance as an art form owes much to Edward Steichen, the 20th-century photographer who found himself in the middle of several pivotal moments in the nascent medium.

In the early 1900s, Steichen joined Alfred Stieglitz in the Photo-Secession group, which declared photographs to be objects of formal beauty, not merely documentation of the surrounding world. Later, Steichen gained acclaim as a prolific commercial photographer before, in 1947, becoming the chair of MoMA’s photography department—the first of its kind in a museum.

Gallery 270 in Westwood, New Jersey, recently presented a selection of Steichen’s images, all printed by George Tice, an accomplished New Jersey–based photographer in his own right. The two met when Steichen, on behalf of MoMA, acquired Tice’s photograph of an explosion. Tice eventually became Steichen’s printer; in fact, he was the final person to print Steichen’s images before the photographer’s death in 1973.

Steichen had a particular knack for portraits and perfectly capturing the spirit of his sitter. Among his most iconic portraits is that of tycoon J.P. Morgan, initially taken as a rushed reference for an in-progress painted portrait. Morgan’s expression, however, was so stern and unforgiving that the photograph came to overshadow its painting counterpart. Similarly imposing is Steichen’s portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright, with the famously stubborn architect dramatically backlit, staring outward as if imagining an unrealized masterpiece.

Other of Steichen’s photographs reveal his investigations of the medium’s formal concerns. His images display a masterful sense of composition, often using bold shapes or contrasting shades to create captivating scenes of people, places, and things. In photographs of Isadora Duncan, the legendary dancer poses between towering, crumbling columns like a spirit from Ancient Greece. Rockefeller Center, New York (1932), meanwhile, uses a double exposure to capture the staggering awe inspired by the monumental edifice.

Foxgloves, 1926
Gallery 270

On a smaller scale, Foxgloves (1926) delights in the delicate beauty of spotted patterns on flower petals. Micro or macro, Steichen was clearly at ease with a range of subjects. With his acute understanding of light, form, and composition, his photographs continue to be some of the most visually arresting images in any medium.

—A. Wagner

Edward Steichen: The Final Prints by George Tice” was on view at Gallery 270, Westwood, New Jersey, Feb. 18–Apr. 2, 2016.

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