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Friday, March 25, 2011

In Memory of Mr. Steichen

On this day in 1973, one of my photographic heroes, Edward J. Steichen died. He was one of the most famous and accomplished photographers of all time, largely invented the art of fashion photography (he was a fixture in the pages of Vogue) and changed the way the world looked at and appreciated photography, helping it gain acceptance as a fine-art form.

Several years prior to his dying, my mother bought me a copy of his autobiography Edward Steichen: A Life in Photography (now out of print--but do look for it at used book sales) and reading it changed my life: it was the single thing that made me decide to become a photographer. My mother was a pretty amazing person that way: even though she much preferred that I go to law school or be a plumber--something that I could actually use to earn a real living--she couldn't resist buying me books to inspire the artistic side of me. She saw that book on sale one day and knew she wanted me to understand why this man, who had sat in our kitchen once (I was about eight or nine at the time), was so important to the world of photography and so bought it for me.

My father was a photographer, so I was inclined in that direction already, but reading Steichen's biography hooked me on photography forever. Just the idea that he was doing something that he loved (and getting rich and famous) was very inspiring. But more than that, he seemed like such a soulful, interesting human being, I saw him as a role model for character, as well. Among his huge accomplishments in life was being the curator of the famous Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art--easily the most famous photography exhibition ever mounted and one of the bestselling photo books of all time The Family Of Man.

I remember clearly coming into my parents' house one afternoon and my mother handing me the front page of the Bridgeport Post (now the Connecticut Post) with Steichen's picture on the front page and telling me that he had died. He was in his 90s, he had an amazing life, but it was still sad to think that that sweet man who only lived about 20 miles from me (in Redding, Connecticut), was gone. I clipped that obit and put it in my copy of his autobiography, and there it remains today. I haven't read it in a while, but I think it even mentioned that he had a three-legged dog named Tripod, which as a kid, one just one more kernel of interest to fascinate me.

Interestingly, while Steichen died on the 25th of March, his birthday was the 27th. And on that day, Sunday, I'll tell you more about this amazing man. The photo here is one of many portraits he did of Greta Garbo--and she wrote later that it was her favorite portrait.


Barrier Island Girl said...

How interesting and how amazing that you met him. Even though you were a child it is a special memory you hold of an extraordinary man.

Jeff Wignall said...

Here's another interesting tidbit: When I was in my 20s I entered a photo in an juried exhibit and his daughter was the juror--and my photo made it into the exhibit! I really didn't care that much about the show, but that *she* chose my photo was pretty exciting. Strangely enough, that was the last photo I ever exhibited in a show!