October 17, 2011  |  Behind the Scenes, Library and Archives
The Edward Steichen Archive: The Collection in Context

Edward Steichen Photography Study Center. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1967. Reports and Pamphlets, 1960s. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York

The Edward Steichen Archive processing project is now complete. The collection’s finding aid is available and searchable online from any Internet-enabled device, along with MoMA’s other archival collections. The physical materials can be consulted, by appointment, at MoMA’s Queens Reading Room.

Unlike museum objects, which are organized, cataloged, and viewed individually, archival collections are created and arranged in series, grouping together materials that are similar in time period, subject, or medium. The Edward Steichen Archive is organized into 12 series, in chronological order for the most part. Some individual items of note are highlighted in the collection’s Finding Aid, but emphasis is given to the way items were created or collected together. Such groups give wider meaning to individual documents and photographs, and provide important information about the intentions of the collectors who originally gathered them.

The Edward Steichen Archive is a free-standing research resource, understandable to the user without any additional information. However, it can also be thought of as part of a series; it exists within and benefits from the context of other MoMA archival collections that illuminate the Museum’s history.

Among these are the papers of René d’Harnoncourt, MoMA’s Director during Steichen’s tenure as Director of the Department of Photography from 1947 to 1961; Beaumont Newhall, his predecessor in the Department of Photography; his colleagues and peers William S. Lieberman, Curator of Prints and Drawings, and Dorothy C. Miller, Curator of Paintings; and Grace M. Mayer, originally hired as his personal assistant, who later served as Curator of Photography and Curator of the Edward Steichen Archive. Her papers provide extensively detailed background on the daily work that went into amassing the Archive from the 1960s through the 1980s.

The Museum’s Exhibition Files may provide more details about some of the shows Steichen mounted at MoMA. Information about MoMA events in which he participated can be found in the Museum’s Press Releases; and works by and about him are represented in MoMA’s collections and its Library holdings.

In addition to documenting the detailed facts and events of Steichen’s long and influential life, the archive creates a wider context in which to see him as a person and as a professional. Its contents illuminate, for example, the artistic world in which he functioned and which he influenced unalterably, as well as international events and politics during and after his life.

From the aggregate of the archive’s thousands of individual items, I’ve learned so much more than a collection of separate facts and events. The archive has shown me that Steichen was a person who reinvented himself continually, who saw age as no impediment to constant growth (he had already had at least two careers when he started at MoMA in 1947, at age 66), and who brought passion and energy to all his varied endeavors: painting, promoting modern art, taking photographs, organizing exhibitions, supervising photographers, serving as an ambassador for human understanding, breeding delphiniums, or documenting a single tree over each season and many years.

If you have a chance to read the finding aid online, or consult the collection in person at MoMA, I’ll be interested to hear what you might learn about Edward Steichen.

The Edward Steichen Archive was assembled in the Museum’s Department of Photography from 1968 to 1980, as a study resource on Steichen’s life and creative output. It includes original and photocopied correspondence, photographs and sketches, still and moving images, tear-sheets, catalogues, posters, and other published materials. In September 2010, I began a one-year project of rehousing and fully describing the Archive under the auspices of MoMA’s Museum Archives. The project is now completed and the collection is fully accessible to researchers and scholars by onsite appointment at the MoMA Archives’ Queens Reading Room. The finding aid (inventory) is available on the MoMA website.

Thank you to my colleagues in the Museum Archives, Library, and departments of Photography, Conservation, Imaging Services, Film, and the Inside/Out blog for their assistance in the completion of the project, and its promotion through this year of entries on Inside/Out.

Funding for the processing of the Edward Steichen Archive was provided by The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, Geoffrey and Sarah Gund, The Cowles Charitable Trust, The Bernard Lee Schwartz Foundation, The Gage Fund, Sondra Gilman and Celso Gonzalez-Falla, The Contemporary Arts Council of The Museum of Modern Art, The Coville Photographic Art Foundation, Israel and Caryl Englander, and Anne Kennedy.