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Edward Steichen

Edward Steichen

Edward Steichen (1879-1973)

Steichen was widely thought of as being photography’s greatest artist ( “More than any other photographer, he stretched the technical parameters of the medium through mastery of a range of printing processes.” (Holme, 1905). He produced spectacularly toned prints by skilfully applying successive layers of pigment to gum bichromate or platinum and few other photographers attempted this (Haskell, 2000). Steichen was amongst the first photographic artists to experiment with aesthetics, emotional effects, personal expression and the manipulation of the photographic surface, using various materials and techniques in order to distance himself from the so-called ‘straight photographers’ who would capture and represent reality untouched by the photographer’s perspective or artistic hand (Rahmlow, 2016).



Although originally a professional lithographer and self-taught painter producing poetic beautiful tonalist paintings, Steichen spent most of his time focusing on photography. Taking influence from painters Corot (1796-1875), Millet (1814-1875) and other members of the Barbizon School (1830-1870) who softened their brush work for misty atmospheric effects, he applied their techniques to his photography (Doty, 1978). Additionally, he used brushes, pencils and the fine sharp handheld steel tool known as an etcher’s burin (Doty, 1978).

Whistler’s “Nocturnes” (1834) was the inspiration for Steichen’s iconic image of the twenty-two story Flatiron building in Madison Square in New York at the height of the Pictorialist movement in 1905. This was when he was part of the Photo-Secession group, striving to make photography a recognized and legitimate art form (Sharpe, 1988). Steichen himself was confirmed as a bona fide photographic artist by Caffin (1854-1918), an advocate of modern art in America as well as a renowned writer and art critic at Harpers Weekly and the New York Evening Post (Lewin, 2018).

This text is an excerpt from my dissertation for my Masters Degree in fine art and is COPYRIGHT Ian Phillips-Mclaren

Original title:
Can the photograph be anything other than flat and one-dimensional?
Examining the material complexities of the surface and the photograph as an ontological object.

images copyright The Estate of Edward Steichen