Despite his innumerable achievements during a life in painting, photography, horticulture and curating, Edward Steichen has a present-day image as soft and murky as one of his circa-1900 impressionistic night landscape photographs. In this first major biography of Steichen, Penelope Niven illuminates and clarifies her subject, who, she writes, was capable of "ingeniously converting his particular circumstances to the right place and time." In other words, he was a chameleon. Steichen so effectively adapted to his varied, tempestuous environments that his own mark was often well hidden.
History has largely conflated Steichen with Alfred Stieglitz. But their march through time will never be arm-in-arm: Steichen seems destined to remain a royal, deferential step or two behind Stieglitz. In the first quarter of this century, they campaigned tirelessly to make photography an autonomous art form. They promoted European and emergent American modernism in other creative media; among the artists they championed were Picasso, Rodin, Cezanne, Marin, Hartley and O'Keeffe. And just between the two of them they produced enough ground-breaking photography to fuel a half-century's worth of debate and imitation.
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