Edward Steichen Archive: The Photographer in Front of the Lens

Unknown White House photographer. "For Edward Steichen with memories of a gay afternoon, Lady Bird Johnson." From left, Edward Steichen, Lynda Bird Johnson, First Lady Claudia Taylor (Lady Bird) Johnson, Carl Sandburg. Rose Garden, The White House, Washington, DC, (April 10, 1964). Chromogenic color print. Edward Steichen Archive, VIII. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York

Among his many contributions to photography in a long and productive life, Edward Steichen (1879-1973) was a master portraitist, capturing, in now-iconic images, sitters as diverse as Gloria Swanson,  Winston Churchill, and Walt Disney (and friends).

Finding a wealth of portraits while processing the Edward Steichen Archive has, therefore, not been unexpected. Instead, the surprise has been one of the subjects: Steichen himself. Fellow photographers who captured him on film include Henri Cartier-BressonBruce Davidson, Lotte Jacobi, Joel Meyerowitz, Wayne Miller, Irving Penn, Milton Rogovin, and many others.

Processing this part of the collection has been, for me, an intensive seminar in mid-20th-century photography. The wealth of images and variety of photographers represented in the Edward Steichen Archive serve to situate him squarely in the artistic and photojournalistic context of his time.

Many images of Steichen in the Archive show him at his Connecticut farm,  and as he prepared exhibitions at MoMA during his tenure as Director of the Department of Photography from 1947 to 1961. The photograph at the left is unusual in showing him on the national stage: in the White House Rose Garden with Lady Bird Johnson, President and Mrs. Johnson’s daughter Lynda Bird, and Steichen’s brother-in-law, Carl Sandburg.

Earlier the same day, Steichen and his wife Joanna had joined the Johnsons and Sandburg for tea. Their more intimate gathering is captured in another image below, also by an anonymous White House photographer, which is not included in the Edward Steichen Archive but currently held at the LBJ Presidential Library:

Unknown White House photographer. Lady Bird Johnson visits with Edward Steichen and Carl Sandburg, Lincoln Room, White House, Washington, DC, April 10, 1964; LBJ Library

So many portraits of Steichen in the Archive make me wonder what it was like for him to be in front of the camera, rather than wielding it himself.

I have found the items concerning Steichen, and a wealth of information about their creator, in the Edward Steichen Archive. Assembled in the Museum’s Department of Photography from 1968 to 1980, as a study resource on Steichen’s life and creative output, the Archive includes original correspondence, photographs and sketches, still and moving images, tear-sheets, and much more material still to be documented.

In September 2010, I began a one-year project of rehousing and fully describing the Archive under the auspices of MoMA’s Museum Archives. When the project is completed later this year, the collection will be fully accessible to researchers and scholars. Look for one final blog entry marking the completion of this project.

Thanks to NARA archivist Abbey Malangone for her help in identifying and providing a date for the Rose Garden image, and adding the additional, more private, photo.