Friday, June 16, 2017

Edward Steichen in the Great War

The first modern fashion photographer, best known for his shadowy portraits of movie stars like Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich and Louise Brooks, Edward Steichen (1879-1973) hardly needs an introduction. We mentioned Steichen briefly in our book American Cinematographers in the Great War, because he was in 1917 one of the first cameramen to join the U.S. Signal Corps when America entered the Great War.



From painter to photographer: self portraits by Edward Steichen (1902/1917)




Steichen (second from left) with the Signal Corps in France, 1918

Newest weapon of war 

As mentioned before in an earlier weblog, when Steichen joined the Signal Corps he initially worked with Albert K. Dawson and Edwin F. Weigle, two war photographers who had been with the German and Austro-Hungarian army before the United States entered the war. In his autobiography A Life in Photography, Steichen described how in July 1917 he entered active duty with the goal of becoming “a photographic reporter, as Mathew Brady had been in the Civil War”. He quickly abandoned this romantic notion to help implement the newest weapon of war, aerial photography. While on military duty in France, Steichen helped adapt aerial photography for intelligence purposes, implementing surveillance programs that had a lasting impact on modern warfare.

In his memoirs he later reflected: “The wartime problem of making sharp, clear pictures from a vibrating, speeding airplane ten to twenty thousand feet in the air had brought me a new kind of technical interest in photography … Now I wanted to know all that could be expected from photography.”



Pictures from Steichen's World War I photo album: American bomber over enemy trenches and the ruins of Forges, French Argonnes



Steichen, photographed in 1918 when he was Chief Photographic Section U.S. Air Service


From June until October 2014 the Art Institute of Chicago held an exposition on Steichen's photographic work during World War I. Focusing on rarely seen Steichen photographs drawn from the Art Institute’s collection, this exhibition included a unique album of over 80 World War I aerial photographs assembled and annotated by Steichen himself.

As these pictures show, Steichen's personal and professional experiences during the Great War contributed in developing a more crisp photographic style. Although the exposition has been closed his work for the U.S. Signal Corps in France can still be seen online at the website of the Art Institute of Chicago.

In 2015, the book Camera Aloft: Edward Steichen in the Great War appeared. Author Von Hardesty in this book described how Steichen volunteered in 1917 to serve in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). He rose rapidly in the ranks of the Air Service, emerging as Chief of Air Photography during the dramatic final offensives of the war.

Here is a presentation on this remarkable book by researcher Gene Eisman.





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