Dusk is coming again with its revelation of light.
But it is not here yet.
It is the late afternoon. I take your hand.
Watch, I say.
The light seeps into the cracks of the dark places, wraps its warm arms lightly across the sharpest angles. Everything softens. Everything radiates at once.
A man emerges from a walking path between the trees. He is wearing a beret pulled down to the tops of his ears. He carries a 35 mm camera in one hand, and a cigar between two of his fingers of his left hand[i].
You squint. You cannot see who it is because the light creates a transitory penumbra around his person. He’s in eclipse.
And then the light moves again, rapid, quicksilver, fugitive, and the man is revealed in full:
It is Edward Steichen. He has finally arrived.
And Stiechen cannot see us. We are here in the same place, but we are not here at the same time. It is a cold day in 1962. Steichen is here to photograph his shadblow tree[ii]. In the next millennium, we wait and watch in the modern cold as this man goes about his private hours.
A documentary filmmaker and his crew are coming tomorrow morning to do some more filming of Steichen amongst his prizewinning Delphiniums.
Joanna T. Steichen[iii] is inside, fixing a light supper.
Steichen’s wife is a shy creature in an Irish sweater and stovepipe trousers. We know her. We’ve met her in passing in a fog.
Joanna Steichen will be the beautiful Cerberus that guards the treasure when Steichen dies. She is also the one who will bequeath the entire Steichen legacy to the George Eastman House in two installments: Five thousand film negatives went to this photographic museum in 1979[iv], and the remaining 8,000 prints and negatives followed suit in 2001.
In the meantime, Edward Steichen is outside considering “the little girl” — his Shadblow tree.
In the meantime, Joanna Steichen, who is 53 years his junior, is singing folk songs with her characteristic mezzo-soprano quiver while she assembles sandwiches.
In the meantime, the wind stirs the trees. Steichen carefully raises his camera to his eye, with his cigar held aloft.
In the meantime, you and I hold hands in the gloaming.
The wind lifts, rises. Between one breath and the next we fall back into 1951, four years prior to the opening of The Family of Man exhibit at the Modern Museum of Art (MOMA)[v].
It is hours before dawn. Steichen is lying in bed next to his second wife, Dana Desboro Glover[vi]. He cannot sleep. Steichen is thinking about war. Specifically, Steichen is thinking about his own experiences in WWI[vii] and WWII.[viii]
Steichen turns on his back in bed to stare at the ceiling. After WWII, he has tried—repeatedly—to mount shows of his own work that showed war in a negative light. Viewers were visibly moved while visiting his exhibitions.
Once removed from the gallery into the open air on the street, those viewers forgot everything Steichen transmuted about war. Why?
That’s what’s keeping him awake at two a.m. Why didn’t it work?
Negative. He thinks. The message is too negative. What am I trying to say? That in fundamental ways we have an essential oneness[ix]. But how…?
The first light of dawn clears the windowsill. He drifts back to sleep. How?
Time shudders. We blink and find ourselves in 1953, two years before the opening of The Family of Man. Steichen, in his role of Photography Curator for MOMA, sits at his desk looking at a three-dimensional diorama of the MOMA exhibition space for the show. His head swims. Steichen lights a cigar and stares up into nothingness.
For the exhibition, his team examined and whittled down entries to ten thousand photographs. Now, Steichen and his team need to edit these remaining photographs to a number of images that will fit within the themes Steichen envisions, as well as what will fit on the moveable walls of the MOMA exhibition space allocated for this show.
In other words, there are limits.
Steichen puts down his cigar in a saucer, and stares for so long at the moveable walls inside the diorama that his vision blurs the boundaries.
An idea is coming to him.
Wires. Air. Space.
He knows what he has to do now.
He has to take some of these photographs off of the walls and hang them in the air. He has to take other photographs and put them on the floor.
A third set will be layered three-dimensionally on the moveable walls. Big, small, enormous. Like an idea you can walk through.
No one has ever styled a show like this— most artistic mediums don’t often lend this sort of flexibility in the way they are displayed[x].
It has started to occur to Steichen that this exhibition[xi] may be his most important show to date.
He picks up his cigar and draws a thoughtful mouthful of smoke.
Steichen exhales. Time begins to move again.
This is a story.
There was once a man named Edward Steichen who created at least one aspect of every kind of photography that we use now.
He helped us become modern when we needed to become modern. He taught us how to make photography a commercial art without flattening the essential qualities that make a photograph its own medium.
He photographed war to teach us peace.
And when we didn’t understand, he devised an exhibition for MOMA in 1955, consisting of 503 photographs from 68 countries[xii] to teach us the simple fact that we are, in the most fundamental and meaningful ways, a family.
Don’t look for Edward Steichen in all the familiar places. He is everywhere except for the places he ought to be.
The fact is, he’s standing right behind you.
The fact is, he’s holding a stubby cigar between two fingers of his right hand.
The fact is, he is watching the light draw and seep across the pond next to his glass house on Umpawaug Farm.
And he lifts his camera to his eye in a single, unbroken gesture.
Watch. Just watch.
[i] Image derived from the 1964 documentary, Masters of Photography: Edward Steichen, which is embedded in this story. Details surrounding the filming of the documentary have been wholly imagined based on ideas in the documentary itself.
[iv] Also derived from Joanna Steichen’s obituary.
In the obituary, she goes on to say that she bequeathed them to Eastman House instead of the Modern Museum of Art (MOMA) because Eastman House’s collection was entirely dedicated to photography, whereas MOMA—where Steichen was the photography curator for fifteen years—was not a photography specific museum.
MOMA has a decent Steichen collection, donated by Steichen himself.
[v] Steichen donated the whole of this exhibit to the Commune (a term for a specific region of local government) of Clervaux Luxembourg. Luxembourg created The Family of Man Museum in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, his birthplace. The complete Family of Man show will reopen in Summer 2013. Details are available at the official website for Clervaux Luxembourg’s Family of Man Museum
[vii] WWI: Steichen served as the Commander of The Photographic Division of the American Expeditionary Forces.
[viii] WWII: Steichen served as the Director of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit.
[ix] Quote taken directly from Edward Steichen’s introduction to the “Family of Man” exhibition book. He goes on to describe all the ways in which humanity is the same, everywhere.
[x] Except for artist/sculptor/ thinker Alexander Calder, whose work was all about creating the illusion of three-dimensional space. I wonder how much Steichen was inspired by the huge three-dimensional works of Alexander Calder?
Steichen had made a similar attempt with a prior exhibition: Power in the Pacific.
A NOTE ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHS: All images are by Edward Steichen. TOP: “Heavy Roses.” MIDDLE: A photograph of Martha Graham, probably for Condé Nast. BOTTOM: An early self-portrait. The Feature photograph is a shell. When I find the name of that photograph—or if you know it, let me know— I will post it.
What I’m reading right now: The Family of Man. Created by Edward Steichen. Prologue by Carl Sandburg.
NEXT WEEK on OUR SUNDAY BEST: The CONCLUSION of this part of our modern photography series! Where are we going after this story? We will talk about it NEXT SUNDAY!
BEFORE NEXT SUNDAY, you may want to catch up or refresh yourself on the two movements of this larger series on the history of modern photography. I would LOVE for you to VISIT the newly created GUIDE, A Smörgåsboard of Posts.
Or you may want to read just the last five installments:
[My photography, and all of my writing on photography, is inspired and informed by my mentor, photographer and writer Donald Ewers. This work-in-progress is dedicated to him.]