Steichen, A Life in Photography – Book recommendation

It has taken me a a long time to decide to write this post because I thought I was not ready to talk about Edward Steichen. But I eventually figured out that I will never be ready to talk about Steichen, so why not introduce my followers to this book now that I can do it? Then each of you can go and make your own discoveries about this important figure in photography.

A good summary of Steichen’s life and endeavours can be found on this Wikipedia link and I will try not to repeat the information you can find there. Steichen was a central figure in the development of photography as an art form, and I think every photographer needs to know about his story and accomplishments.

Read the Book

I have the hardcover version. The plates are top quality, the font size is relatiely large (good for those of us who are getting older) and the text is easy to read. The book can be found used for less than 10 U$, google it to find the best price and deal for where you live. Here is a link to one selling Amazon as a reference.

Steichen, A Life in Photography, is narrated in the first person, by Steichen himself. It covers his journey from 1895, when he acquired his first camera at the age of 16, up to 1959, when he was 80 years old. Some interesting highlights in the book are his relationship with the apparently difficult photographer Alfred Stieglitz, which spans a number of years and yields a handful of funny observations made by Steichen thought the book; his friendship with August Rodin; and his participation in the first war as a photographer.

Steichen’s private life is not the main theme of the book, he lets very little out, except for the stories behind the photographs, his professional clubs, contests, shows. The political climate surrounding the WWI, and it’s effects on the arts and lives of artists, are also tangentially mentioned.

Steichen was primarily a portrait photographer, and that’s how he made most of his earnings in photography. For that reason perhaps, portraits dominate the book. Among the famous people he photographed are August Rodin, George Frederic Watts, Edward Everett Hale, John Pierpont Morgan, Henry Matisse, Charles Chaplin and, of course, himself. These portraits, and many more, are represented in the book.

Self Portrait, Steichen. Public domain photo downloaded from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
M. Auguste Rodin. 1911. Public domain photo downloaded from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Being a portrait photographer did not discourage Steichen from experimenting. In the first pages of the book, he honors his readers with a few photos we would call, today, “impressionist.” He writes: 

“During those teenage years, I knew, of course, that trees and plants had roots, stems, bark, branches and foliage that reached up towards the light. But 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. The haunting, elusive, quality of twilight excited in me an emotion that I felt compelled to evoke in the images I was making. Emotional reaction to the qualities of places, things, and people became the principal goal of my photography. By 1898 I was more or less in cotrol of the rendering of those moods and moments. I was an impressionist without knowing it.”

Pastoral–Moonlight. 1907. Public domain photo downloaded from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Although underrepresented in the book, and perhaps in Steichen’s life as a photographer, still life photographs and close-ups of plants and animals, as well as a few architectural photographs, are shown. Very unfortunately I am not able to post most to them here because there are still copyright restrictions on them, which I don’t completely understand.

Brooklyn Bridge. 1903. Public domain photo downloaded from WikiArt.

Summarizing, if you appreciate the very best in photography, and want to know more about Steichen, the history of photography, and how photography has become accepted as an art form, this book is for you. Get it, read it. You will not regret.

Reference

Steichen, E (1963). A Life in Photography Hardcover – Published in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art. Doubleday & Co. Inc., New York. 

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Published by Alessandra Chaves

Photographer with a preference for nature photography in black and white and other abstractions.

22 thoughts on “Steichen, A Life in Photography – Book recommendation

  1. I have this book, and agree that it’s well worth the price. Decades ago, I fell in love with the Flatiron Building during a visit to NYC, and for years a large print of Steichen’s “Flatiron Building/1905” hung on my wall. That took a hit in a move, but I still have a couple of black and white photos and a painting of the building hanging in my bedroom.

    I became even more interested in Steichen because of his relationship with Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. I’ve had this fascinating article in my files for a while; you might be interested in it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks you for the article. I’ve saved the link and will read it. The Flatiron Building, 1905 is a beautiful photograph. I love his portraits, they are so full with emotion. Alfred Stieglitz also made beautiful portraits, the one of Georgia O’Keeffe on the linked article is very powerful.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Here we are 100 years later, loving both the elegant formality and the grainy imperfection of these deceptively simple photos. And we buy software that can at least somewhat emulate the “look” of these vintage processes.

    If you’re interested in reading about another great photographer – totally different from Steichen – I give my highest recommendation to “Vivian Maier Developed” by Ann Marks.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m glad you recommended and reviewed this book, which was one of the very first not primarily technical photo books I ever found. And quoted the passage with this, with which I fully agree, and found highly present in his work, particularly during that period: “Emotional reaction to the qualities of places, things, and people became the principal goal of my photography.”

    Its true that the book is available even inexpensively, as well as available to read on the internet, but I’d point out that there are apparently no copies available from the first or, I think, also the second edition: my valued copy was stolen by an unscrupulous dealer. Those editions have have color plates that were reproduced later in bw, and provide some indication of his early color mastery, with chemical combinations and the Lumiere Autochrome process. From a more experimental mode there is one of “Dana and the Apple,b” an extension of much earlier experimentation that included the series he did of Rodin’s Balzac, and “Moonrise,” one of two of the most expensive photographs ever sold. A version of “Flatiron Bldg” just this month from the Paul Allen collection is the other). They may be seen on an internet page for Steichen (search for Steichen and choose images) by doing a lot of scrolling, but its worth it.

    Another easy to recommend companion book is Dennis Longwell’s “Edward Steichen: The Master Prints” that accompanied the beautiful show he curated.

    Liked by 1 person

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