1879 - 1973
"It didn't matter whether the sitter was a statesman, a writer, a poet, an actor, a prizefighter, or a musician; they were all interesting." -1963
Considered to be the best portrait photographer alive, Vogue and Vanity Fair magazine recruited Steichen in the 1920s and he became their head photographer. Steichen photographed hundreds of celebrities and public figures and quickly became the most well known photographer and portraitist in North America. As a portraitist, Steichen revelled in the opportunity to mould the public image of the celebrities he photographed, and is largely responsible for the way that we remember artists like Rodin and actors like Charlie Chaplin.
Steichen's family emigrated from Luxembourg to Hancock, Michigan when he was very young. He began his artistic career as a painter and printmaker, studying at the Milwaukee Art Students League and briefly at the Académie Julian in Paris. His experience with painting and printmaking helped him develop a fine eye for brush work, texture and design which came out in his photography. At the age of 24, Steichen launched his career with his portrait of J. Pierpont Morgan, capturing the successful financier's forcefulness and determination. Steichen's contributions to photography extend far beyond his artistic production. Alongside Alfred Stieglitz, Steichen founded the Photo-Secession group in 1902. Additionally, after advocating for a department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, Steichen would become its first Director in 1947.
In the early 1900s, Steichen was a key player in the Pictorialist movement, which attempted to merge photography with painting by using complex chemical techniques to add painterly effects and brush marks to photographs. After World War I, Steichen's style changed dramatically. He began to play with artificial lighting to achieve dramatic contrasts of light and dark, transforming his compositions so that they bordered on abstraction. Throughout his artistic evolution, Steichen's photography used light, dark and shadow as key elements in the composition of his photographs, outlining figures in white, creating dark silhouettes, or strategically positioning the shadows cast by his sitters.
Steichen is the recipient of many awards, some of which include his status as Chevalier of France's Légion d'Honneur, awarded in 1919, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1963), and the Commander of Order of Merit (1966).
Photography: © 1965 Yousuf Karsh
Born Luxembourg: Bivange, 27 March 1879
Died in West Redding, Connecticut, 25 March 1973
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