Steichen’s Sappy Photos Not Redeemed at Whitney

Time has not been kind to the reputation of the American photographer Edward Steichen (1879-1973), whose work is now the subject of a very problematic exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Although he was twice a power in the primary venues that advanced photography as a fine art in this country–first as Alfred Stieglitz’s principal collaborator in the establishment of the Photo-Secession exhibition and publications program in the first decade of the 20th century, and then as the director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art after World War II–Steichen came to be reviled among connoisseurs of the medium as a betrayer of photographic art. The late Walker Evans, for example, would lapse into some very rude language at the very mention of Steichen’s name, and he was by no means alone in his feelings on the subject.

Ansel Adams characterized Steichen’s tenure at the Museum of Modern Art as a “body blow to the progress of creative photography,” and there were many at the museum who agreed with that assessment. According to Barbara Haskell in the catalog for the current show at the Whitney, which she curated, “Even before [Steichen's] appointment was made official in July 1947, the department’s longtime curator, Beaumont Newhall, had resigned in protest, along with all 30 members of the [museum's] Advisory Committee of Photography,” which included some of the weightiest reputations in the field.

The fact is, critical opinion was often skeptical about Steichen’s work almost from the outset of his career, and it was from the outset that his talents commanded attention. At the age of 20, Steichen–who had left school after the eighth grade–was working as a designer of stylish advertisements in a lithography firm in Milwaukee. (The catalog of the Whitney show reproduces an ad, featuring a voluptuous female in a negligee, for a candy laxative called Cascarets from an 1899 issue of Collier’s Weekly Magazine .) At 23, however, he had already negotiated his first change of direction, from the world of advertising art to the creation of painting and photography in the reigning Aesthetic-Pictorial style. It was at that early age that Sadakichi Hartman, the most gifted critic of the period, praised Steichen as “thoroughly modern, the ‘enfant terrible’ of the American school,” while at the same time observing that “he does not see his subjects with his own eyes.… The impress of absolute personality does not distinguish his work.”

The “impress of absolute personality” is not, perhaps, to be expected in the work of a young artist–except, of course, in the case of real genius–yet about the young Steichen, Hartman’s observation would prove to be prophetic. For at no time in his very long career would Steichen “see his subjects with his own eyes.” He was, however, a masterly appropriator of other people’s “eyes,” and largely dependent upon them at virtually every turn in the development of his own work.

He was also a shrewd judge of where the currents of cultural fashion were heading, and quick to avail himself of the opportunities they offered. If an advantageous alliance with Stieglitz required a commitment to an extreme aestheticism, Steichen was eager to provide it–and no less eager to repudiate it when opportunity beckoned elsewhere. When ostentatious glamour was the ticket to fame and fortune in the 1920’s, Steichen went for it, signing up with Condé Nast to meet monthly deadlines photographing celebrities for Vanity Fair and fashion models for Vogue . “He became America’s most highly paid photographer,” writes Ms. Haskell, “as celebrated as the people he photographed.”

Ms. Haskell would have us believe that Steichen’s photographs for Vogue “proposed a new prototype of female beauty” and “codified the image of the liberated woman that emerged after World War I.” She even goes so far as to characterize the results of this descent into the realm of make-believe glamour as “inherently populist,” forgetting perhaps what sort of market Steichen was serving in his Vogue and Vanity Fair pictures.

Still, when social conscience became the vogue in the 1930’s, Steichen was more than ready to join that bandwagon, too. In 1929, he was already declaring that “art for art’s sake was dead,” but he still vigorously defended commercial photography, fatuously asserting that “there has never been a period when the best thing we had was not commercial art.” Less than a decade later, he announced his retirement from commercial photography. The heightened political atmosphere of the Depression era had finally gotten to him, whetting his appetite for yet another change of direction–as propagandist for the “little guy.”

In 1938, writes Ms. Haskell, “Steichen saw an exhibition that included photographs of rural poverty taken under the auspices of the federal government’s Resettlement Administration (RA) and Farm Security Administration (FSA). In his report on the exhibition for U.S. Camera , he heralded these visual records of Depression-era America as ‘the most memorable human documents that were ever rendered in pictures.'” If it was too late for Steichen to join this movement as a photographer, he nonetheless began to harbor an ambition to serve its political goals as an organizer of large-scale war-themed exhibitions.

It was World War II that provided Steichen with the opportunity to pursue this last and most successful of all his ambitions. In September 1941, he was asked by MoMA to organize an exhibition on the theme of national defense, to be called The Arsenal of Democracy . When the United States entered the war three months later, the project was re-named Road to Victory . It was his success with this project that led to his appointment as MoMA’s photography czar when the war was over.

During the war, Steichen had also placed his vision of photography as “a medium of persuasion” at the service of the U.S. Navy, and the instructions he gave to the photographers under his command nicely sum up the spirit that governed all of his work as an organizer of big-theme shows. “Don’t photograph the war,” Steichen is reported to have said. “Photograph the man, the little guy, the struggle, the heartaches, plus the dreams of this guy.” The transformation of the fickle aesthete and the eager huckster into a master purveyor of progressivist sentimentalities was complete, though Steichen would have to wait until a decade after the war before he could score his greatest triumph, The Family of Man exhibition at MoMA in 1955.

Edmund Wilson once wrote that “one is tempted to feel that the cruelest thing that has happened to Lincoln since he was shot by Booth has been to fall into the hands of Carl Sandburg,” and I harbor a similar tendency to feel that The Family of Man was the single worst thing ever to be inflicted upon the art of photography. (Sandburg, by the way, was Steichen’s brother-in-law and sometime collaborator.) I loathed the exhibition at the time and wrote one of the few negative reviews of what remains, to this day, the single most widely seen photography exhibition in the history of the medium.

The fragments of The Family of Man that are included in the current show at the Whitney do nothing to persuade me otherwise. It still strikes me as progressivist cant from start to finish, with its phony parallels of “families” the world over and its reduction of all human life to a few simple-minded liberal formulas. This was an exhibition that corrupted the meaning of virtually every photographic image it embraced. No wonder so many serious photographers despised it.

As a historical account of one of the most overrated reputations in the annals of American photography, the current show at the Whitney is not without interest, to be sure; but for anyone with a serious grasp of photography as an art, this retrospective is a depressing experience. Steichen’s work doesn’t finally lend itself to a retrospective on this scale. And it suffers from the additional handicap of having been organized by a curator who does not seem to be at home in either the history or the aesthetics of photography. If Ms. Haskell really believes Walker Evans looked upon his “photographs as tools to effect social change,” as she writes on this occasion, then she is definitely in the wrong field. But with the Giorgio Armani fashion show at the Guggenheim and the Open Ends show at MoMA, this Steichen retrospective doesn’t even have the distinction of being the worst of the exhibitions on offer in the museums at the moment. It remains on view at the Whitney through Feb. 4.