Look at the subject, think about it before photographing, look until it becomes alive and looks back into you.
--E.S., private notes
n the course of Steichen's lifetime, photography firmly replaced painting and drawing as the medium for literal representation. Portraiture was one of photography's first strongholds, and Steichen made himself known as the portraitist in demand early on. His thick files of photographs of leaders and shapers started long before he went to work as a magazine photographer. They led the editor of Vanity Fair, Frank Crowninshield, to proclaim in print that Steichen was the greatest portrait photographer in the world. On the basis of that statement, Steichen demanded what was considered an astronomical salary in 1923 when he was offered the job of photographer in chief of Condé Nast. For Vanity Fair and Vogue, he photographed almost everyone in the public eye in New York and Hollywood and, periodically, in Paris. Whole books can be devoted to Steichen portraits of the famous, but they still represent only one aspect of his photographic virtuosity, so I have chosen a small selection of the images in several categories that illustrate best how Steichen zeroed in on a salient feature of each individual.
Bernard Baruch (plate 63), the financial wizard, shown half in light, half in shadow that suggests deep secrets, wears a benign but sly smile, the cat that swallowed the canary. Steichen devised a more predatory shadow and added the tiny flicker of a match's flame to suggest that the powerful, politically reactionary gossip columnist Walter Winchell might be the devil incarnate (plate 64). Robert Moses, the long-term czar of New York's highways and bridges, a man who always got his way, seems made of steel springs, poised to strike any opponent (plate 65). Amelia Earhart's soft pose suggests a shyness in face-to-face situations that was not uncommon in pioneering aviators; determination lies in the strong, straight arm braced against a square shoulder (plate 66).
Steichen spent weeks approaching the life mask of Abraham Lincoln, studying it from all angles in every kind of light before he found the combination that brought the strong, grave character of that face to life on paper (plate 58). The portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (plate 67) is an example of Steichen's own choice to crop a negative. The uncropped negative shows a standard pose, the decisive leader erect in his chair, but Steichen preferred to emphasize the sad and serious face of a visionary personally acquainted with suffering. Although the picture was made when FDR was governor of New York, I believe Steichen chose to crop it much later in response to FDR's record as president.
Steichen photographed four presidents, but none after FDR. During Lyndon Johnson's presidency, LBJ employed a photojournalist whom we knew, Yoichi Okamoto, as his personal photographer to accompany him everywhere and make a full-time pictorial record of his term in office. Oke made the mistake of giving an interview to Newsweek in which he mentioned making thousands and thousands of negatives. That volume of shooting is standard for photojournalists, but, at a time when Johnson was going around the White House personally turning off lights to emphasize the need for economy, such figures stated in public marred the image. The photographer was fired. Several months later, the day after Agnes Meyer's party for Steichen's eighty-fifth birthday, we were invited to tea at the White House. Steichen took advantage of his introduction to the President to tell him he had made a terrible mistake in firing "that young man." I have a memory of Steichen grasping the lapels of Johnson's jacket, but this may be simply a visual translation of the force of his argument. "Just think," Steichen concluded, "what it would mean if we had such a photographic record of Lincoln's presidency." Okamoto was rehired promptly.
One could do a whole study on Steichen's use of the armchair. Writers loll in them, relaxed. Actors are draped over them in preposterous character. But bankers and financiers invariably assume a stiffer pose, backs straight, arms planted firmly on the chair's arms. Here, an almost identical pose serves to emphasize contrasts in character and relationship. Steichen's fierce, richly shadowed portrait of J. P. Morgan (plate 62) was commissioned merely as an aid to the memory of a portrait painter, Frederick Encke, who found the financier--probably the most powerful financier America has ever known--an impossibly impatient sitter. In order to complete the photographic sitting in just three minutes, Steichen had the janitor of his building sit in the portrait position while he arranged the chair in exactly the right light. Morgan arrived and sat down in the portrait pose. Steichen snapped the shutter, then put in another plate and asked the financier to shift his position. Morgan was irritated, moved, returned spontaneously to the requested position, and Steichen, having engineered a moment of real emotion, snapped again. He always claimed that the chair arm's resemblance to a dagger was purely accidental.
Morgan had a hideously diseased nose that was never shown in painted portraits. When Steichen brought the finished prints to Morgan, he completely retouched the nose, as the painters did, in the official pose, but he left the other very close to its natural state. Morgan, incensed, tore up the unretouched print. Later, when Morgan's librarian, Belle Greene, saw a print of the rejected photograph, she declared it the best portrait of Morgan that ever had been made, and Morgan ordered some prints. In revenge, Steichen kept him waiting three years.
It's no accident that the chair's arm in the portrait of Eugene Meyer (plate 61) did not look like a dagger. Meyer, an investment banker, government adviser and publisher of the Washington Post, was the man Steichen called his best friend. Sympathetic noncompetitors, they could share their troubles equally in long night walks and enhance each other's lives with very different talents. Steichen encouraged the Meyers to buy four Cézanne paintings that have long since become priceless and now hang in the National Gallery in Washington. The Meyers frequently came to Steichen's aid. They financed the packing and shipping of Brancusi's sculptures for the 1914 exhibition at 291. They sent the telegram that warned the Steichen family to leave France barely ahead of the German troops in the same year. In the 1920s and '30s, Eugene Meyer's insistence on always investing a little more money than the busy photographer had saved made it possible for Steichen to have a comfortable, well-attended old age.
Excerpted from Steichen's Legacy by Joanna Steichen. Copyright © 2000 by Joanna Steichen. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.