joanna steichen    
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  Preparing Steichen's Legacy
In a sense, I've been working on this book for forty years. When Steichen and I married in 1960, I expected to pursue my own freelance writing. He expected me to devote myself entirely to his projects. There was no question as to whose priorities would prevail. The work at hand then was preparation of material for his 1961 retrospective exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art and his 1963 pictorial biography, A Life in Photography. At the time, acknowledging my help never occurred to Steichen, but he did give me permission to assemble a large collection of vintage prints for myself. Eventually he must have decided that I cared and understood his values and intentions very well, because he left me his negatives outright and put me in charge of distributing his own extensive collection of his prints. So I became the guardian of his artistic legacy.

Steichen had considered destroying all his negatives, the surest way of preserving the artistic integrity of his work. Instead, because he believed in photography's value as a source of information, he decided the negatives should be preserved for study and limited reproduction in publications. For twenty-seven years, I've had to make difficult decisions about permissions for reproduction. I've written essays for exhibition catalogues, given talks about Steichen and produced a slide lecture. I've dealt with impossible requests for new exhibition-quality prints, which I had to deny, except for a set of limited edition portfolios produced under very special circumstances. And I've lived with a changing assortment of framed Steichen prints on my walls.

When he died in 1973, I knew I would write a book eventually, but I thought in terms of a personal memoir and a separate picture book. (Steichen's Legacy is a picture book, a large one surveying seven decades of his work, but it also tells all I want to say, right now, about our life together.) In 1973, I was busy establishing myself in my new profession of psychotherapy. I needed time to put in perspective the difference between the difficulties I had in living with the man and my appreciation of his great contribution as an artist. Until Steichen's Legacy, there has been no book readily available for thirty years that even suggests the scope of his work or the number and quality of his cutting edge innovations. So about three years ago I realized it was time to make one.

I was fortunate to be able to enlist George Tice to provide prints and digital reproductions for use in the book. Tice, a master printer and fine photographer, credits Steichen with launching his career some forty years ago by acquiring some of his prints for the MoMA collection. Tice was also the last person to print for Steichen in his lifetime. Together, we went through seven file drawers of eight-by-ten negatives, plus many boxes of glass plates, autochromes, slides and smaller negatives, as well as parts of my print collection and first editions of Camera Work. The choices were sometimes wrenching. While not every Steichen photograph is a masterpiece, there are enough superb ones for a series of books.

In working with Steichen, I had learned to trust my eyes. In the course of the selection process for Steichen's Legacy, I looked long and hard. Qualities that represented Steichen particularly began to emerge: a combination of grace, elegance, mystery often, a kind of velvet intensity, an impression of texture unusual in photography, a dramatic sense of composition and total mastery of light, as well as that ability to make just the right connection with the subject -- person or object -- so that something live and true seems to be happening at the moment the picture is made. I chose pictures that best represented these qualities, regardless of the fame or importance of the subject or the original purpose of the sitting. I concentrated on photographs that I felt only Steichen could have made. When the choices were narrowed down to only twice as many as could be included in the book, I pinned good photocopies of all of them on large, portable panels arranged around my living room and spent months looking and looking, and looking again.

Groupings began to suggest themselves according to visual themes. Since I wanted to give the readers a chance to experience the pictures for themselves, without didactic steering, I grouped them in sections according to these visual themes rather than in chronological order or according to the purpose for which the photograph had been made (e.g. advertising, fashion, etc.) or in illustration of a particular theory or movement. The sections have names like Reverie, Improvisation, Style, Challenging Women, and Forces of Nature. These groupings also make it clear that, while Steichen changed equipment and direction, there was continuity in his esthetic and emotional vision over all those years.

Originally, I planned to write only an introduction. However, by the time I explained my choices and groupings, described my own background in working with Steichen's material and explained where Steichen came from, how he worked, and how events in his own life helped to shift his focus from producing unique works of fine art to using photography to communicate with a large public, I realized I had written much more, but everything I wanted the book to say.

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