„Vanity Fair” and shadberry blossom

12 October 2023

The American artist Edward Steichen had a long and varied career: he was a painter, designer and pioneer of the pictorialism technique in photography, and a war, aviation, fashion and commercial photographer; an artist who created abstractions and photomontages, a documentary-maker, editor of lifestyle magazines, exhibition curator and a passionate horticulturalist.

Dorota Dziunikowska

He moved in the circles of some of the most acclaimed personalities of his time and he co-wrote the history of contemporary photography and museology. He served as Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) for fifteen years; one of his greatest accomplishments was the 1955 exhibition The Family of Man, shown all over the globe. It is the only exhibition included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World programme, and it is currently on display at the National Audiovisual Centre in Luxembourg.

The exhibition at the Museum of Photography in Krakow is the first monographic presentation of Steichen’s original works in Poland,” explains Dominik Kuryłek, curator of the exhibition. “It is surprising that this is the first time that Poland is presenting a proper, dedicated monographic exhibition showing Steichen’s own works, given his impact on the world of photography. The Museum of Photography strives to introduce its audiences to some of the most important phenomena from the genre, and this exhibition of works by one of the greatest photographic artists of all times is a perfect example.” The exhibits are on loan from the National Museum of Archaeology, History and Art (MNAHA) in Luxembourg; the artist donated a part of his oeuvre to the institution. “We are showing a selection of photos taken between 1899 and 1959, 80 gelatin silver prints made by Steichen himself,” adds the curator.

Born in Luxembourg, Steichen was a child when his family emigrated to the US. At the turn of the 20th century, his creative drive brought him back to Europe and France where he honed his painting and photographic technique, and moved in circles of acclaimed artists, sculptors, photographers, authors and politicians. He frequently photographed friends and acquaintances. The exhibition presents images from this period, made using the pictorialist style, popular before the First World War. Steichen was a master and proponent of the genre, and a member of the American Photo-Secession association which strived for widespread recognition of the style. As well as portraits of J.P. Morgan, George Bernard Shaw and Theodore Roosevelt, this section of the exhibition features stunning landscapes, including the acclaimed Moonrise – Mamaroneck from 1904, described as a “high point of pictorialism and a unique artwork… one of the world’s most valuable photographs”.

The largest part of the exhibition showcases portraits taken by Steichen between 1923 and 1937 for “Vanity Fair” and “Vogue”, depicting artists, actors, scientists, authors, politicians and business magnates, including Pola Negri, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Winston Churchill and Thomas Mann. “As we admire them, we can learn about the early days of using photography to create someone’s public persona,” adds Kuryłek. The dynamic portraits of celebrities of the time, inspired by Modernism, cinema and Art Deco, revolutionised fashion, advertising and commercial photography of the interwar period.

The exhibition culminates with the colour photo showing a shadberry growing in Steichen’s garden at his home in the US. The artist dedicated his final years to documenting the shrub at different times of day throughout the year.

Edward Steichen (1879–1973). Photographs from the Collection at MNAHA in Luxembourg
MuFo Rakowicka
14.10.2023 – 28.01.2024

The text was published in the 3/2023 issue of the "Kraków Culture" quarterly.

OK We use cookies to facilitate the use of our services. If you do not want cookies to be saved on your hard drive, change the settings of your browser.