Edward Steichen: Photography's Painter of Shadow and Light

Mar 27, 2013 11:17PM

"I was coming to realize that the real magician was light itself – mysterious and ever-changing light with its accompanying shadows rich and full of mystery." -  Edward Steichen

Edward Steichen’s artistic endeavors began in the late 1890s with painting and photography. The two mediums were linked by what Steichen termed as the "problems of expression...," where capturing the mood was paramount to capturing reality. During that period, photography was still considered secondary to painting. Nonetheless, Steichen was adamant that the burgeoning photographic medium had the potential to gain widespread recognition as a valid art form, especially when rendered within the Pictorialist parameters.

Following his active duty in World War I, and in conjunction with the evolving aesthetic of the late 1910s, Edward Steichen’s approach to photography underwent a remarkable transition. Heretofore, the photographer had established a favorable reputation as the Pictorialist photographer, par excellence. His images from the turn of the last century – characterized by their soft focus, heavily crafted printing processes, effusive lighting and stylized subject matter – became emblems of Pictorialism. As one of the leading proponents of the movement, Steichen’s work was consistently reproduced in Camera Work under the auspices of Alfred Stieglitz. Steichen’s goal was to transcend the mechanical and documentarian aspects of photography, which he considered to be hindering the field’s acceptance as a veritable form of art. However, by the late 1910s, his vision of photography had changed.

By the time Camera Work’s publication came to a halt in 1917, Stieglitz had already been advocating an essentially Modernist approach, one in which photography’s mechanical and documentarian aspects were celebrated, not suppressed. Accordingly, clarity in line and tone were embraced to spectacular results. On both sides of the Atlantic, photographers such as Paul Outerbridge Jr., Jaromír Funke, László Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray, among others, intrepidly delved into the newfound Modernist approach. No longer constrained by the need to emulate painting, Modernist photographers experimented with harsh lighting, dramatic shadows and angular forms.

This period was marked by technical and stylistic exploration for Steichen. It was then that he discovered the possibility of utilizing the tenets of photography and vicariously found abstraction. By employing dramatic angles and closely cropping his frames, Steichen produced images that were more metaphoric than literal. Focusing on the form, volume and scale of his subject matter, Steichen abandoned the attempts to convey its likeness. The formalist qualities of Steichen's work, such as the sharp focus, interplay between light and shadow, and scant range of tones collectively allowed Steichen to completely separate from his former Pictorial work. By using chiaroscuro lighting, Steichen reduced the subject to its shape, nearly removing the orientation and sense of proportion within the image, further allowing the arrangement to transcend its own materiality. Even Steichen's later commercial work for Vogue became, in fact, far more of a study on the dialogue between form and light than about the romantic associations with the eveningwear-clad models.

Edward Steichen's Diagram of Doom - 2, circa 1922; The George Washington Bridge, 1931; and Givili Andre (Vogue), 1937 will be offered in our Photographs sales, 2-3 April 2013, in New York.