Steichen: A Biography

Steichen: A Biography

by Penelope Niven
     
 

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Not since 1929 has there been a biography of Edward Steichen, photographer, painter, and a pivotal yet enigmatic figure in twentieth-century art and culture on two continents. Steichen, who died just short of his ninety-fourth birthday, was fifty and internationally famous when Steichen the Photographer was written by his brother-in-law, the poet and biographer Carl

Overview

Not since 1929 has there been a biography of Edward Steichen, photographer, painter, and a pivotal yet enigmatic figure in twentieth-century art and culture on two continents. Steichen, who died just short of his ninety-fourth birthday, was fifty and internationally famous when Steichen the Photographer was written by his brother-in-law, the poet and biographer Carl Sandburg. Now Penelope Niven, whose highly acclaimed biography of Sandburg appeared in 1991, has written the first comprehensive biography of Steichen.

Here, she illuminates the full story of Steichen's avant-garde life in Paris and New York and his roles in introducing modern art to the American audience, in shaping aerial reconnaissance photography in World War I and navy photography in World War II, in revolutionizing American fashion and portrait photography through his years as chief of photography at Vanity Fair and Vogue, and in creating the unprecedented photographic exhibition The Family of Man, which has touched a global audience of millions since it opened in 1955.

Searching the world over for Steichen's letters, paintings, and photographs, Niven has reconstructed his major, pioneering achievements. Steichen's enduring contributions to the fine art of photography have not been fully recognized because they have not, until now, been fully documented and placed within the context of his times and his turbulent, romantic, and often tragic personal life.

With the help of public and private papers and interviews, Niven builds a compelling portrait of the charismatic, complex, very human man behind the camera. We explore Steichen's gardens and his artful love of nature, manifested in hisobsessive achievements as a master breeder of delphinium. We step inside his intimate, private world—and view his passionate attachment to his mother, his sister, and his two daughters; the heartrending battles of his first marriage; and his alleged and actual love affairs. This biography also explores Steichen's catalytic relationships with August Rodin, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Alfred Stieglitz, Gertrude and Leo Stein, and Carl and Lilian Steichen Sandburg.

"Steichen was a rebel, stubbornly independent and largely self-taught, who also believed passionately in the fundamental intersections of art and life," Penelope Niven writes. As this biography reveals, Edward Steichen's life, like his art, was brilliantly original, dramatic, and unforgettable.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In 1895, when he was 16, Edward Steichen bought his first box camera; when he died at 94, he had long been both an eminent art photographer and the most famous fashion and documentary cameraman in America. Remembered now for his collaboration with his one-time rival Alfred Steiglitz, Steichen was a photographic revolutionary, the most successful commercial cameraman of his time and a leader in aerial reconnaissance photography in both world wars. Also a painter and an impresario, he exhibited Matisse, Rodin and Picasso in Paris, London and New York while promoting inventive American photographers at home and abroad. In trying to write about Steichen, Niven, the biographer of his brother-in-law Carl Sandburg, encountered the opposition of Steichen's third wife, who at 26 married the 81-year-old bearded veteran. Many photographs were denied to Niven, as well as permission to quote from Steichen's unpublished letters. Still, Niven evokes the colossus of American photography in sometimes swamping detail. By the end, Steichen was less passionate about photography as "one of the fine arts," feeling that its primary function had become "to explain man to man and each man to himself." Niven's crowded narrative chronicles that personal and professional transition. Photos not seen by PW. (Nov.)
Kirkus Reviews
While working on her well-received biography of Carl Sandburg (1991), Niven became fascinated by the poet's brother-in-law, the pioneering photographer Edward Steichen (18791973). That fascination led to this massive volume.

Steichen is a pivotal figure in the history of the visual arts in 20th-century America, a brilliant photographer who was at the center of the battle for recognition of that medium. A protean figure, Steichen was not only an artist but a scientist and a war hero. He acquired his first camera at 16; by the age of 20 he was exhibiting in prestigious juried shows. But the key event in Steichen's young adulthood was his sojourn in Paris, where he discovered his true calling as an artist, forged friendships with a number of influential artists, including Rodin and Picasso, and emerged as a major figure in the burgeoning world of photography. He would push his art form to the forefront with the exhibit "The Family of Man" in the mid-'50s, still the most widely seen photo show in history. All through his lengthy career, Steichen would be hounded by an unhappy marriage that left him estranged from one of his two daughters for many years (his granddaughters cooperated with Niven for this volume). His achievements are so many, his career so long and the ripples emanating from his circle of acquaintances of photographers, painters, and writers so variegated that it would be hard to encapsulate his life in fewer pages than Niven uses. One seldom has a strong sense of Steichen's complex personality, but the life is rich enough that one's attention never flags. And Niven's handling of Steichen's turbulent personal life is candid without being prurient.

Highly informative, and an absolute necessity for understanding the development of photography as an art form in the first half of this century.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781590910269
Publisher:
Eastern National
Publication date:
07/23/2004
Edition description:
REV
Pages:
808
Product dimensions:
6.14(w) x 9.21(h) x 1.60(d)

Meet the Author

Penelope Niven is the author of Carl Sandburg: A Biography (1991) and coauthor, with James Earl Jones, of James Earl Jones: Voices and Silences (1993). She has been awarded two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and honorary doctorates from Greensboro College and Wake Forest University, where she received her undergraduate and graduate degrees. Penelope Niven lives and writes in North Carolina, where she is currently working on a novel and a biography of Thornton Wilder. She is the mother of award-winning screenwriter Jennifer Niven McJunkin.

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