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  • The "Lost Years" of Edward Steichen, 1914-1919
  • Von Hardesty (bio)

Famed American photographer Edward Steichen unexpectedly found himself caught up in the first salvos of the Great War.1 In August 1914, he was living with his wife, Clara, and their two young daughters in Voulangis, a small village near the River Marne. Here in a rented villa, dubbed affectionately L'Oiseau Bleu, he greeted the advent of war with no small amount of alarm. Steichen realized that Voulangis stood fatefully in the direct path of the advancing German army. By September, when the enemy threatened to occupy the village, he hurriedly fled with his family to Paris. Now a refugee, Steichen decided to migrate home, to New York City. The sudden crisis of the war became a traumatic and irreversible fault line in his life and career.

The loss of Villa L'Oiseau Bleu was a grievous blow. The charming villa had been fashioned by Steichen into his own rural salon, a magnet for artists, writers, and traveling Americans. Those who visited Voulangis remembered vividly a rambling house with spacious accommodations, guests arriving and departing, a well-stocked kitchen, a walled garden edged on one side with tall trees, a sunlit studio for Steichen's ongoing work as a painter and photographer, spontaneous and animated conversations at dinner, a piano for impromptu musical performances, and a happy coexistence of all inhabitants with the cats, horses, and dogs in residence.

For Steichen, the villa and surrounding countryside offered an idyllic setting for his creative pursuits as painter, photographer, and art impresario. Here, too, he won acclaim in France as a master gardener with his experiments with flowers, in particular delphiniums. By 1914, in fact, he enjoyed an international reputation as a pioneer in modern photography. Most notably, he had collaborated with Alfred Stieglitz in the publication of the influential periodical Camera Work, the opening of the Little Galleries of the Photo-Succession in New York City, and the movement to establish photography as a branch of the fine arts. Moving to France in 1906, he subsequently arranged a sequence of landmark exhibitions in America, showcasing the art of Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse, Auguste Rodin, Pablo Picasso, and Constantin Brancusi, among others. Steichen had played a major role in introducing contemporary European art to America. The Great War brought to an end this fruitful period of his career.

Once home in America, Steichen faced many challenges: personal depression over a failing marriage, irregular income and financial woes, temporary and ever-shifting residences, and dependence on the largesse of friendly patrons to sustain his career. For the next three years, Steichen lived in this twilight world of uncertainty.

Finally, in 1917, with the entrance of the United States into World War I, he sought to slow, if not end, the downward spiral of his life: at the age of thirty-eight, he boldly enlisted in the United States Army. As a soldier in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), he became a key figure in adapting the camera for surveillance and intelligence purposes. The radical new technology was destined to make a powerful and enduring impact on the conduct of modern warfare.

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Edward Steichen with camera and in flight garb. Courtesy of the U.S. Air Service.

Steichen enlisted in the army with the fanciful goal of becoming a latter-day Mathew Brady.2 He soon abandoned this romantic notion. The camera was now a weapon of war, not merely a device for chronicling events. No longer a novelty, it functioned as a probing eye to analyze the changing contours of the battlefield. In fact, the airborne camera proved to be just one of several technological innovations unleashed in the Great War. Aerial reconnaissance dictated a high degree of organization, and it offered little autonomy for a "photographic reporter" in the style of a Mathew Brady. He entered the ordered, hierarchical, and highly scripted life of the U.S. Air Service.

Steichen accepted the military ethos with no apparent regret. He was from the outset an ardent supporter of the Allied cause, a posture that was at odds with his one-time collaborator and pacifist...


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pp. 20-23
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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