When variety is the spice of photography
LINCOLN — There’s a reason “Edward Steichen: Twentieth-Century Photographer” has that title. The show runs through March 26 at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. Steichen’s life spanned nearly three-quarters of the last century, 1879-1973; and no other photographer had as long and varied a career.
How varied? Steichen excelled at portraiture, still life, fashion, and nature studies. He took reconnaissance photographs for the Army, in World I, and led the US Navy’s Naval Aviation Photographic Unit, in World War II. Between the wars, he was the Conde Nast publications’ chief photographer and did extensive advertising work. Examples of each might appear in the same issue of Vogue or Vanity Fair.
It could be hard to tell one from the other. “All my work is commercial,” he once said, adding with some justification (and much self-justification) that “the great art in any period was produced in collaboration with the particular commercialism of that period.”
After World War II, Steichen was photography curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. At MoMA he organized what remains the best-known of all photography exhibits, if also one of the most problematic, “The Family of Man” (1955).
Steichen’s variedness went even deeper. He mastered two very different styles. He started out as a Pictorialist, dedicated to soft focus and giving photography the appearance (and status) of painting or etching. This was photography as a self-consciously “fine” art. Pictorialism went out of fashion after World War I, and Steichen’s photographs became crisper and declarative. This was photography as a self-consciously modern art.
Both styles, as practiced by Steichen, were highly theatrical. In moving beyond Pictorialism, he exchanged a theatricality based on texture for one based on contrast (between light and dark).
The show includes two self-portraits, and they speak to this division. In the first, from 1917, “Self-Portrait With Studio Camera,” Steichen looks positively Lincolneseque. The emphasis is on artist rather than implement. A dozen years later, in “Self-Portrait With Photographic Paraphernalia, New York,” the ratio of apparatus to person has radically shifted. It’s easy to imagine the man in the first photograph reaching outside the frame for brush and palette. The man in the second could ring up a sale at an electrical-supply store.
The 51 photographs in the show are largely drawn from the deCordova’s collection. There are another half dozen Navy photographs, one of them taken by Steichen, as well as copies of “The Family of Man” catalog and Camera Work, the immensely influential quarterly put out by Alfred Stieglitz in the early years of the last century. Stieglitz encouraged Steichen, who was a significant contributor to Camera Work.
The show includes a Steichen portrait of Stieglitz, from 1915. It’s one of the few images from before 1920. The museum’s holdings very much tilt toward Steichen’s post-Pictorialist work. Photographs from the ’20s and ’30s dominate. Some are famous. Charlie Chaplin takes a bow in 1925, and the shadow he casts makes two. The playwright Noel Coward looks preposterously suave in a 1932 portrait. A year later, the singer-actor Paul Robeson glowers at the camera as the Emperor Jones, seeming almost to hide behind one of his costume’s epaulettes.
More often, there are surprises. Several involve actresses. There’s a variant of the famous portrait of Greta Garbo. Here she looks less moody — and you can see why the other is better known. The famous Steichen portrait of Gloria Swanson has her veiled. Here there’s nothing between her and the camera. She looks a little Carly Fiorina-ish: ready to take charge and confront the board of directors. A portrait of Marlene Dietrich manages to make her look sedate and slightly intimidated (well, almost). Lillian Gish, knowing and undaunted, strikes a pose that would seem more in the Dietrich line.
Several examples highlight Steichen’s weakness for technical trickeration (double exposures, superimposition, overly elaborate lighting). His view of the Empire State Building as a kind of Manhattan maypole is justly famous. The others, also justly, are not.
The happiest surprises rely on simplicity. Steichen shot a sunflower from behind, in a 1920 still life. Without the title, you couldn’t tell it’s a sunflower. That’s all right. It’s the effect that matters, and it’s as voluptuous as it is unexpected. The fact that one of Gary Cooper’s collar points is curled up (you have to look closely) lends added charm to a 1930 portrait. Three years later, a shot from above of a New York breadline and elevated train could have been taken by Berenice Abbott. She would be Steichen’s chief rival for having the longest/most varied 20th-century photographic career. So it’s nice to see her included, however tangentially.
EDWARD STEICHEN: TWENTIETH-CENTURY PHOTOGRAPHER
At: deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, 51 Sandy Pond Rd., Lincoln, through March 26. 781-259-8355, www.decordova.org