Artist Profile: Edward Steichen’s Foray into Color Photography

Edward Steichen, Self-Portrait, silver print, circa 1929.
Edward Steichen, Self-Portrait, silver print, circa 1929. Estimate $2,500 to $3,500.

Our winter-spring 2020 sale of Classic & Contemporary Photographs on February 25 is set to offer a rare color image by Edward Steichen. Here, Daile Kaplan, the house’s director of photographs and photobooks, reflects on Steichen’s love for horticulture, the way the hobby influenced his practice as an artist and his employment of color images.

Steichen and Gardening

Edward Steichen, Heavy Roses, Voulangis, France, from the portfolio The Early Years 1920-27, 1914
Edward Steichen, Heavy Roses, Voulangis, France, from the portfolio The Early Years 1920-27, 1914, printed 1981. Estimate $3,000 to $4,500.

Steichen’s lifelong and inveterate passion for gardening spanned more than five decades. His love of nature is evident in the range of horticultural subjects he photographed, among them daisies, delphinium, foxgloves, geraniums, primroses, lotus, roses and sunflowers, which were rendered in different photographic processes. In addition to his photographs, he proudly exhibited a live delphinium at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936.

“By using the term nature, we mean reality, and once we become consciously aware of reality and see with all our knowledge, experience and senses, not just our eyes, and feel with all our being, the grounds begins to open toward creativity. We can theorize and intellectualize to our heart’s content in analyzing and soul-searching time, but if a photograph is to become alive, our instinct and intuition must be allowed to fire up our vision, our imagination and sensitive our awareness to the rushing, living compulsion that produces a fine photograph–perhaps a great one.”

Edward Steichen in a keynote speech he delivered at the Photojournalism Conference 1961, Steichen wrote about nature as a source of creativity.

A Master of Photographic Technique

Edward Steichen, The Flatiron, New York, from the portfolio The Early Years 1920-27, 1905, printed 1981. Estimate $3,000 to $4,500.

An artist and photographer, Steichen’s first forays into color occurred early in his career. His pioneering use of a hybrid technique, in which he combined painterly gum bichromate pigments and hand-coated platinum, may be seen in his iconic image The Flatiron Building, N.Y., 1905. Soon after, he discovered the Autochrome, a sumptuous color process in which images were produced on glass.

Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, Autochrome print, 1907.
Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Autochrome, which was invented by the Lumiere Brothers in 1907, is considered the first practicable method of color photography. In Steichen’s hands, the process was employed masterfully to depict friends and family members in a luscious palette of color. Given his background as a painter, it is perhaps not surprising that he explored more complex photographic techniques that rendered a full-color palette.

White Lotus

Edward Steichen, White Lotus, dye transfer print, 1939, printed 1940. Estimate $50,000 to $75,000.

White Lotus was shot at Steichen’s nursery in Umpawaug, CT and was printed by Noel Deeks, who was associated with the master photographer from 1917 to 1942. Deeks had been employed in Steichen’s New York advertising studio, where he produced commercial and editorial prints for magazines, particularly color work. After Steichen’s retirement, Deeks set up his photo lab at Umpagwaug, where he continued to focus on printing color negatives. Among Steichen’s papers at the Center of Creative Photography are pamphlets that describe his exploration of early color processes invented by Hiram C.J. Deeks, who printed Steichen’s color negatives with Noel. The Center. is also a repository for Noel Deeks’s papers.

Browse the complete catalogue for the winter-spring 2020 Classic & Contemporary Photographs auction.