Steichen Portraits – National Portrait Gallery

Americans visiting London sometimes express surprise at coming across the National Portrait Gallery close to Trafalgar Square, so perhaps I should make it entirely clear that the show of portraits by Edward Steichen (1879-1973) is not at that venue, but in the National Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Fortunately some 21 of the portraits are in a web gallery, and a good reminder of why, as the site reminds us, in the 1920s Vanity Fair called him “the greatest of living portrait photographers” although this was perhaps coloured by the fact that he was being taken onto the staff as chief photographer for Condé Nast publications.

There are several very fine photographs among those on the web, including his well-known self-portrait as a young artist and his dramatic image of J P Morgan, both made in 1903, although perhaps the selection of later images misses some of his best. You can see a wider range of his work on Luminous Lint, or of course on Google Images, which includes one of my favourite portraits by him, of Greta Garbo, hands on head. It’s interesting to see it along with other images of the star on the Greta Garbo page (click on the images for larger versions.)

Here is something from my notes about the Morgan picture:

Use of the gum process, together with high contrast lighting led to a powerful effect. Morgan sits on a chair, facing the photographer squarely. Virtually all of his dark suit merges into the dark background, leaving his face with it’s piercing eyes staring intensely out. The lighting falling at an angle across his hand and on the arm of the chair produces a sunlight shape that can only be seen as a dagger in his grip, grasped and menacing. Also emerging from the dark background are Morgan’s white business collar and his watch chain – clearly symbolising the industrial process by which human labour was combined and synchronised to the clock.

The show ‘Edward Steichen : Lives in Photography‘ opens at the Palazzo Magnani, Reggio Emilia, Italy today, until June 8, and then travels on for a showing in Madrid. A collaboration between the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography and the Swiss Musée de l’Elysée, curated by William Ewing and Todd Brandow, it has already been shown in Paris and Lausanne, but surprisingly there is no British showing planned for this major show with over 250 original prints and considerable supporting material.

Or rather it isn’t surprising, just a reflection of a continuing lack of real recognition for photography in the UK.

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