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|American Dream Weaver
by Cara Maniaci
|Edward Steichen, Oct. 5-Feb. 4, 2001, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y., 10021
As a breeder of prize-winning delphiniums, Edward Steichen was a master at manipulating appearances for the utmost dramatic effect. This skill he employed judiciously, becoming not only president of the American Delphinium Society in 1936 but also chief photographer for Condé Nast (1923-1937) and photo curator at the Museum of Modern Art (1947-62).
Steichen seems to have created the very image of 20th-century American culture, or so one might conclude from the restrained retrospective of his work now on view at the Whitney Museum. Early on we see him in 1904, with a photo of New York's Flatiron Building that has itself become a Pictorialist landmark. Next, he heads an Army aerial reconnaissance division in World War I, a job he returned to as an advisor both during World War II and the Korean War. In between, Steichen worked for J. Walter Thompson, made glamorous portraits of Marlene Dietrich and Leslie Howard and devised witty Art Deco silk patterns based on photos of mothballs and sugar cubes. He died in 1973, two days before his 94th birthday.
Curated by Barbara Haskell, the exhibition brings a certain amount of pomp and circumstance to Marcel Breuer's Brutalist gallery spaces. The show contains a crowd-pleasing selection of Steichen's most renowned portraits of Hollywood celebrities as well as fashion photography published in Vogue and Vanity Fair. Even better is the scaled-down reconstruction of "The Family of Man" (whose appeal for global humanism today seems unabashedly conservative and nationalistic).
As if it were a time capsule filled with the glamorous and domestic fantasies that sustained the nation through two world wars and an economic depression, the exhibition presents Steichen as an American Dream-weaver. In many ways, the installation feels more like a history lesson than an exhibition of art photography. But for Steichen, history is artifice. In a 1902 self-portrait, he fashions himself as a van Dyck-like figure, presaging his role as photographer to the court of celebrity royalty and producer of wartime propaganda.
No wonder that Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times compares Steichen to contemporary artists who stage elaborate photographic fictions based on the motifs of pop culture. But Steichen maintained an unflinching idealism in the social value of his work, however seductively proffered.
We may be skeptical of his plea for a universal "family of man" or his consistently optimistic documentation of the world wars. But we cannot help but feel nostalgia for his bygone era of dapper leading men in top hats and sultry starlets with dangling pin curls.
CARA MANIACI is a New York writer and critic.