PRINT December 1975

The Instrumental Image: Steichen at War


LET’S BEGIN WITH THE artifacts. For several months now, an envelope full of copies of aerial reconnaissance photographs has been propped up against a concrete block of my bookshelf. They are examples of what might be termed a genre of “applied photography.” In three successive frames a farmhouse, viewed from directly above, is reduced to something less substantial than rubble. A landscape is partially obscured by clouds, smoke, and the out-of-focus strut of an airplane wing. In another picture, bombs hover in the foreground above an equally indistinct terrain. The shadow of a biplane is fixed against the outer wall of a chateau. A low sun illuminates one side of snow-filled craters; a ruined town is barely discernible among the drifts and shadows. And so on.

But literary descriptions of these photographs fail to explain how their meaning relates to the ways they have been used, or how meaning and use have shifted together over time. To what discourse, or discourses, can these nearly mute pictures be attached?1

Certainly “artifact” is a vague enough label for these things. Are they records, tools, artworks, decorations, commodities, relics? It is true that the “originals” of these photos manifest a kind of archeological presence. Detritus of a recent past, they are nevertheless remote; what they reveal first is their datedness. But in calling them artifacts I grant myself a certain critical distance from a culture that is still my own, and I feel removed from a variety of everyday production that continues in the present and thus appears as a moment of the “natural.” To regard an object as an artifact is to reinvent it, to superimpose a new meaning on the past, and therefore to obscure or mutate all earlier senses of the object. This reappropriation can be critically acknowledged or implicitly denied. If the latter, the object is fetishized, cut loose from its origins.

But consider a more or less specific and quasi-archeological sense of the word “artifact”; the range of its meaning hinges on a polarization of “tool” and “artwork,” of the functional and the esthetic. A few aerial photographs are now suspended between the extremes of these categories, and somehow we are led to expect a miraculous unification of opposites. For in addition to their “obvious” original function, these particular pictures have come in a particular way to represent elevated moments of authorship. We are confronted with the seemingly fortuitous intersection of an artist’s life and an aggressive, globalizing technology, that of air war.

The basic facts are these: Edward Steichen commanded the aerial photographic operations of the American Expeditionary Force in France during the First World War. A few of the 1,300,000 prints produced ended up in his personal collection after the war. A number of these photos are being exhibited and sold as products of Steichen’s authorship. This event is too symptomatic of certain contradictions underlying the institutionalized myth of photography to be ignored. A look at this rather minor appropriation might lead to an understanding of the inconsistencies in the “public image” of the medium.

The problem, then, is to account for a range of possible readings of these pictures, to identify the covert conditions of several “conversations” or “monologues” within which these photographs achieve significance.


THE FIRST WORLD War was the first occasion for the intensive use of aerial photography for “intelligence” purposes. The previous half-century had yielded combinations of balloons and draftsmen, balloons and cameras, rockets and cameras, and, absurdly enough, pigeons and cameras. With airplane photography, however, two globalizing mediums, one of transportation and the other of communication, were united in the increasingly rationalized practice of warfare. (I use “globalizing” not in the affirmative, communal sense of McLuhan and Fuller, but in the sense of hegemony. While the airplane lent itself to material penetration and control, the camera served mainly in a cultural and ideological campaign. Godard’s Les Carabiniers points well to this communion of the dive-bomber and the postcard.) A third medium of destruction, long-range artillery, was quickly added to this instrumental collage, making bombardment, as well as image recording, possible at a great distance.

Simply put, the problem was to decide what was there and to act on that decision before “whatever it was” moved. If the entity in question fell into the category of “enemy,” its destruction by artillery fire, or by other means, was ordered. The value of aerial photographs, as cues for military action, depended on their ability to testify to a present state of affairs. The photographic sense of “having been there,” identified by Roland Barthes,2 must submit to the demands of “being there.” The dream of “instantaneous” recording, transmission, and repressive response, finally the premonition of video surveillance, emerges from this necessity. It should be noted in passing that this quest for instantaneity was evident in the earliest stages of aerial reconnaissance. Beaumont Newhall reports that, during the American Civil War, a Union balloon observer named Lowe “devised what he called an ‘aerial telegraph,’ which operated by electric current supplied by wires in the cables of the balloon. Lowe reported his observations by reference to a gridded map, a duplicate of which was on the ground. On at least one occasion, a scaled and annotated drawing of enemy terrain was made.”3 But clearly a certain “lag time” became increasingly allowable with the development of destructive weapons that could obliterate the entire terrain in which movement might have occurred. Strategic bombing, as it was practiced in Southeast Asia, seemed to have transcended the need for refinements in reconnaissance techniques; after all, the enemy was everywhere.

But I’ve digressed from the fundamental tactical concerns which governed the reading of aerial reconnaissance photographs. The meaning of a photograph consisted of whatever it yielded to a rationalized act of “interpretation.” As sources of military intelligence, these pictures carried an almost wholly denotative significance. Few photographs, except perhaps medical ones, were as apparently free from “higher” meaning in their common usage. They seem to have been devoid of any rhetorical structure. But this poverty of meaning was conditional rather than immanent. Within the context of intelligence operations, the only “rational” questions were those that addressed the photograph at an indexical level, such as “Is that a machine gun or a stump?” In other words, interpreting the photograph demanded that it be treated as an ensemble of “univalent,” or indexical, signs—signs that could only carry one meaning, that could point to only one object. Efficiency demanded this illusory certainty.

Thus codes were developed for determining the three-dimensional identity of an ambiguous two-dimensional image, whose placement could then be fixed by a sign on a drawn map. A triangle stood for a dump; a circle with a central dot stood for a trench mortar. A terrain was reduced to a set of coded topographic features, “grounded” by the digital logic of the grid. With the development of camouflage, a low-level language game evolved in which the indexical status of the sign was thrown into question, thereby inflating the suspicions of the photo-interpreter.

In the pursuit of truth, attempts were also made to eliminate, or systematically discount, the deformations of the medium. The compression of a topologically varied surface into a single-plane image led to obvious confusions between depression and elevation. To eliminate this problem, vertical photographs were taken during hours of oblique sunlight, in order that the location of shadows might distinguish convexity from concavity. In addition, stereoscopic cameras were adopted. The quest for transparency led to the use of large photographic plates to minimize the effect of grain. Cameras were mounted on springs to reduce the blurring that resulted from airframe vibration; high-speed shutters were developed to eliminate the distortions caused by the coincidence of airplane and shutter movement. More examples could be given. As the technology of military reconnaissance developed, attempts were made to “recover” already degraded images. Today the Central Intelligence Agency funds research into “image restoration,” a body of techniques by which a motion-blurred or unfocused image can be computer-processed to obtain a picture of improved quality. With this, the search for truth transcends the actual limitations of the medium.

Airplane photography was rapidly put to strategic use during the First World War. Aerial photographs were expected to provide enough coverage, detail, and evidence of systematic change to permit the construction of a valid theory of enemy strategy. Composite photographs of an entire front were pasted together out of individual frames and regularly amended. At this upper level of the military hierarchy, the reading of the photographs became entangled in a shifting and equivocal narrative entitled “what the enemy is doing.” The whole rationalized endeavor was pushed to intensive global coverage, and toward the achievement of a “scientific” predictive capability (to use the jargon of its creators). Aerial photography can be seen as the triumph of applied realism.

But what of the relations which governed the original meaning of these aerial photographs? This systematic investigation of a landscape for traces of an enemy, coupled with the destruction of that enemy, was surely a mechanical process. Here, information was not so much exchanged as directed; meaning, severely constrained, was a means to an immediate material end. “Reading,” as it was ideally defined, consisted of a mechanical coding of the image. The logic of human language is less evident than the logic of the factory.

The making of these reconnaissance prints was one of the first instances of virtual assembly-line image production. (Henry Ford’s first automobile assembly-line became operative only in 1914.) The establishment of this method of production grew out of demands for resolution, volume and immediacy. No method of reproduction but direct printing from the original negative would hold the detail necessary for reconnaissance purposes. Large numbers of prints from a single negative had to be made for distribution throughout the hierarchy of command. In addition, the information in prints dated very rapidly. Under these circumstances, efficiency depended on a thoroughgoing division of labor and a virtually continuous speedup of the work process. Printers worked in unventilated, makeshift darkrooms; 20 workers might produce as many as 1,500 prints in an hour, working 16-hour shifts.

Edward Steichen commanded 55 officers and 1,111 enlisted men. Obviously he was not a combat photographer, although he did go for rides over the front lines with Billy Mitchell on occasion. Steichen’s job was that of a middle- to high-level military bureaucrat. He organized production, attended Rodin’s funeral, and is said to have been especially good at solving procurement problems because of his intimacy with France.


AFTER THE WAR, reconnaissance photographs ended up in scrap heaps, in military archives, in personal collections of war memorabilia, in institutional collections of military and technological artifacts, and so on. Aside from the scrap heaps, each of these could be thought of as a discourse situation in which the photograph takes on a certain synecdochal or metonymic significance, standing for some larger and inclusive or contextually related object or event. The photograph becomes a truth-conferring relic in a range of narratives, some of which possess an institutional authority and some of which carry only the authority of anecdotally rendered personal experience. Anything from the opinions of experts, the history of a battle, the history of photographic techniques, the history of flight, dissertations on the role of air power in the First World War, to digressions on the French countryside and tales from the trenches might be expected. The fact that these are photographs is, in a sense, trivial; their artifactual presence is such that they share a generic space with old uniforms, insignia, rebuilt airplanes, and convincing replicas of the original atom bombs. On the other hand, the folklore of photography also grants a pseudoartifactual existence to the thing depicted. One consumes both the picture and its object, the tarnished medium and the historical instant. To the extent that the particular arena has little or nothing to do with photography in itself, the historical instant takes precedence over the medium.

Consider the military museum as the first moment in the institutional afterlife of reconnaissance photographs. The Air Force operates a museum somewhere in Colorado that is devoted to “aerospace photography.” Other war museums offer the photographs as part of their displays. In such places, the repressive content of imperialist war is displaced into a theater of objects. An ideological use replaces the earlier material utility of the artifact. The virtual narrative is such that the historical development of the means of repression and destruction appears as a temporal accretion of hardware. War ceases to project any bodily threat; instead, the audience is offered the heroism of the machine and, indirectly, that of the arms manufacturer. The experience of war becomes explicable only in terms of an advancing militarist technology; both the human and political meanings of war are obscured. This spectacle is fetishistic and macho. Meaning is compressed into a seemingly autonomous and pseudo-human artifact, into a “battered but valiant” commodity. Warplanes were once commonly named after imaginary prostitutes.

The art gallery represents an obvious step upward, in class terms, from the pseudopopulist arena of the war museum. One could assume that Edward Steichen’s personal collection of aerial photographs was elevated from the ranks of the one million by his act of selection. But this is the precious and recuperative variant of the most simple-minded Duchamp Readymade argument. It should be noted that Steichen expressed great hostility toward the “mockery and discouragement” of prewar Dada.4 I suppose some account should be made of the possibility that Steichen himself took the photographs; since, although this is the most trivial aspect of the critical problem, it is this claim that placed the photographs in the critical arena in the first place. The argument for Steichen’s authorship cannot be disproved. However, he himself never claimed to have taken any of the photographs in question. And a certain amount of informed curatorial and art historical opinion asserts that Steichen was not the author. Even if he were, my argument would still hold. The situation from which these photographs emerged remains the same, despite the possibility that they might be artifacts of Steichen’s slumming in the productive operations under his command.

The art-marketing system provides these aerial photographs with a new order of instrumentality, with a straightforward economic value that can be mobilized to secure more value. For the dealer, the prints represent movable stock; for the buyer, they stand for invested capital. To call attention to these meanings, which may or may not be significant in any given situation, is to risk being considered vulgar. After all, these are rather low-priced items by art-world standards. Nevertheless, the logic of the commodity constitutes a framing condition for all material transactions conducted within the market arena. So much for the obvious.

The historical development of photographs into high-class art commodities has been contingent on interpenetrating economic and esthetic conditions. In a generally depressed art-market situation, photographs by recognized artists are among the only commodities that are escalating significantly in value. One reason, of course, is that the overall economic depression has reduced buying power, creating a demand for lower-priced artworks. To the extent that photographs are newly legitimized objects of collection, value can be manipulated upward from a near-zero level. At this stage in the game, a journalistic myth of primitive, undiscovered value can circulate—the fable of gold in the attic. Photographic prints potentially occupy an economic space equivalent to that of limited-edition graphics, with the significant difference that “original” photographic prints represent the “best” that the medium has to offer, while graphics are considered to be subordinate to painting. In esthetic terms, photography offers a heightened visibility to representational issues, a refuge from the rumored bankruptcy (both economic and metaphysical) of abstraction, and the appeal of a seemingly autonomous discipline that is both legitimate and exotic. In the galleries, a growing critical discourse will provide the reassuring background murmur of a continuous “photography-as-high-art” conversation.

My interest at this point is not so much in the overall legitimizing discourse, but in a contingent and subordinate form, in what might be called a “promotional discourse.” The murmur is momentarily overlaid by a note of urgency. At times, promotion may consist of an opportunistic manipulation of methods provided by the larger, more generalized discourse. Of the two “conversations,” the first is materially interested, while the second supposedly manifests a benign neutrality. Their general economic interdependence should be obvious. The promoter’s role is not distinct, although the most likely performers are dealers and critics. Promotion is the mediating term between authorship and connoisseurship. Promotion facilitates and directs consumption in its most privileged and durable expression, that of economic ownership.

Suppose that, quite hypothetically, I attempt to promote a number of aerial photographs as esthetic objects. But, by constructing a range of valorizing readings of these prints, I will be engaging in a kind of metapromotion, supplying an abundance of possibilities. Although only a single photograph may be at issue, I might want to mobilize the entire ensemble of available images, thereby subduing the arbitrary appearance of the solitary picture with a sense of an oeuvre, with a cryptic narrative of a purposeful esthetic journey through the skies with a camera. The tendency of a given image toward a certain arena of meaning can be balanced, redirected, or reinforced through reference to other images. The promoter engages in improvisational montage. Therefore, the immediate range of visual or formal possibilities offered by these particular aerial photographs should be acknowledged. Separated in terms of camera position, or point of view, the available pictures tend toward two extremes: high verticals and low obliques. High verticals were taken with the camera perpendicular to the surface of the earth at altitudes of several thousand feet or more; low obliques were taken with an off-axis camera at altitudes as low as several hundred feet. Each of the two types gravitates toward a different kind of estheticized reading; one tends to deny the other to acknowledge the referential properties of the image.

High verticals are marked most strongly for planarity; the depicted landscape lacks specific meaning for an untrained viewer, for whom this is an alien view of the earth. The print will only yield its information, feature by feature and bit by bit, to a specialized reading, as I’ve suggested earlier. But cultured people are provided with a vocabulary of design and at least a minimal sense of art history. The promoter, seeing little value in imparting the techniques of photo interpretation, moves in the direction of the design problem, which begins with the rectangularity of the print itself. A landscape possessed of humanly made features can be translated into the realm of a nonreferential abstract geometry. The deployment of roads, trenches, city grids and cultivated fields over the rectangular space of the image is lifted into a universe of spiritualized affect or simple enjoyment. But these readings lack a certain conviction unless an abstract motivation can be detected or invented in the photographer. Otherwise we’ve nothing but expensive found objects, artifacts that have been granted a retroactive significance.

The promoter could boldly assert that Steichen must have had a premonition, or coevolving dream, of Mondrian, Malevich and so on. But the promoter should know that Steichen had this, and as far as I can tell, only this, to say about the esthetic properties of aerial photographs in the period immediately following the war:

The average vertical aerial photographic print is upon first acquaintance as uninteresting and unimpressive a picture as can be imagined. . . . The oblique aerial picture, especially when taken from a low altitude, is more readily comprehended, and sometimes striking pictorial effects are produced. The vertical photographs made by the day bombing squadrons occasionally present a spectacular and dramatic interest in addition to their value as a record of the bomb raid.5

This is hardly the language of abstraction. Steichen’s enthusiasm for the aerial view is less extreme than that expressed later by Malevich and Moholy-Nagy. The hybrid scientism-mysticism of the Bauhaus seems to have been the most fertile ground for the esthetic celebration of the abstracted visual field of the air traveler. Moholy-Nagy (as well as Rodchenko and Kertész) “aerialized” street photography in the late 1920s by climbing on roofs, fire escapes, and towers to achieve an elevation from which to angle the camera downward. Malevich illustrated The Non-Objective World with a number of aerial photographs of urban complexes, which he captioned as “the environment (‘reality’) which stimulates the Suprematist,” going on to argue that “the environment corresponding to this new culture [of ”non-objective Suprematism"] has been produced by the latest achievements of technology, and especially of aviation, so that one could also refer to Suprematism as ‘aeronautical.’”6 But to invoke Malevich in relation to these vertical reconnaissance photographs is to imply a perverse double meaning, when one reads the following passage from The Non-Objective World:

. . . the appropriate means of representation is always the one which gives fullest possible expression to feeling as such and which ignores the familiar appearance of objects. Objectivity, in itself, is meaningless . . . the concepts of the conscious mind are worthless. Feeling is the determining factor . . . It reaches a “desert” in which nothing can be perceived but feeling.7

The “desert” is both cognitive and physical. The evidence of a blasted landscape disappears in a haze of art experience. Of course, Malevich may have kept

air war from his mind when he praised the new technology for its esthetic potential. But although abstraction may try to excuse itself from any ideological stance in relation to its sources, it remains implicated by the very act of denial. One abstracts these photographs at the expense of all other meanings, including the use to which they were originally put.

Low-oblique aerial photographs offer an image that is less vulnerable to abstraction. The promoter would have a hard time denying the detailed presence of shattered towns, cratered and excavated no-man’s-lands, and occasional human figures. But Steichen’s remark about “striking pictorial effects” is indicative of the ease with which some of these photographs fall into an already established genre of beautification, that of landscape photography. In fact, a particular low-oblique print might most profitably be promoted as an example of genre overlap, as an intersection of two traditions: landscape photography and war photography. A narrative montage might be constructed to mediate between the romantic-natural and the destructive-cultural. “As the airplane circles the front lines, the photographer’s resolve stiffens at the sight of devastation; he aims his camera and produces a concerned document of man’s inhumanity to man. Seconds later, the airplane banks against the afternoon sun and the mud-filled craters glisten with reflected light; a new exposure is made: in the innocent eye of the photographer nature has momentarily triumphed over war.” More sophisticated variations could be concocted than the one I’ve just invented.

When it occurs, the human presence is peculiarly marked in these photographs. This markedness derives from a conflict between scale and desire; the human figure has to be searched out, dragged out, of the image. The anonymity of combatants and civilians teeters on the edge of invisibility. A cratered landscape is littered with tiny, upright figures, some grouped in trenches, some exposed on open ground. Only the most equivocal narrative can be constructed. Are they enemies? Is this a battle? The human content of the event is valued for both humane and voyeuristic reasons, and yet this content is virtually unknowable. Herein lies the pathos of one sort of estheticized reading. The image consumer experiences a kind of cognitive dissonance in having been caught between the false power and the impotence of the pornographic spectator. On the one hand, the aerial viewpoint contributes to an illusion of power and knowledge; on the other, little can be known and whatever happened has happened.

On another level of meaning, estheticized documentary readings of war photographs tend to localize the human experience of war in the person of the photographer, who is usually male. The photographer becomes the sole subject, the exemplary sufferer, the risk-taker, the heroic embodiment of courage and moral outrage. Within this myth, the photographer, in his work, transcends complicity and politics; his sympathies are universal. What is valued is a kind of transcendental mannerism under fire. By promoting the war photographer as a “concerned” and “innocent” witness, liberal ideology promotes an image of its own bogus humanism, while denying the fact that information, too, has been mobilized. Sometimes the attempt to invent documentary heroics becomes patently absurd, as in this review of the “Steichen” prints:

In one of these pictures, a view of the Chateau de Blois, we can see the shadow of Steichen’s tiny aircraft cast against the immense facade of the building, a vivid reminder of the perils involved in this documentary enterprise.8

To what end were these perils endured, and who really endured them? That which is here called a “documentary enterprise,” suggesting a certain artistic neutrality, is in fact a reconnaissance mission. Since Steichen was a commander rather than a combat photographer, we have no reason to believe that this airplane was his; and even if it was, should more be thought of his occasional risks than of the everyday terror suffered by anonymous soldiers and civilians?

A final possibility remains. With these aerial photographs, it might be possible to have one’s war and enjoy it too. There is one reading that acknowledges and celebrates the documentary status of the image while translating the representation into an abstraction. It takes a fascist, rather than a liberal, sensibility to effect this unqualified beautification of warfare. Marinetti’s manifesto on the Ethiopian colonial war is a concise statement of the metaphysics of this celebration: “War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony.”9 War, in Marinetti’s mind, achieved the abstract condition of music; the exercise of reactionary political violence became an occasion for synesthetic rapture. But Marinetti was speaking merely as an ideologue, as a conceptual thug. These sentiments are more than ominous in the mouth of a poeticizing bombardier. Mussolini’s son Vittorio recalled an almost photographic impression of the Ethiopian war:

“I still remember the effect I produced on a small group of Galla tribesmen massed around a man in black clothes. I dropped an aerial torpedo right in the center, and the group opened up just like a flowering rose. It was most entertaining.”10

This deliberately terrorist manipulation of language pivots on a drastic shift from report to metaphor, and from a bombardier’s complicity to a poet’s delectation. These are not populist sentiments; only a masculine elite is likely to enjoy war in such an effete way. Above all else, Futurism is a defense of the connoisseur in the teeth of a “rationalized” world order. Futurism attempts to resuscitate the masculinity of warfare within the logic of mechanization. Masses of conscripts submit to this logic. But the fascist warrior-dandy is the only subject capable both of surviving and relishing war’s “dreamt of metalization of the human body.”11

Nowadays, American military contractors and bureaucrats have managed almost completely to rationalize the same procedures that Italian fascism sought to decorate. On a strategic bomb run over Indochina the most important questions of taste had to do with the flavor of the box-lunch sandwiches. This technical development has been accompanied by two separate and mutually exclusive American establishment attitudes toward war. On the one hand we have had the pragmatic “realism” of Herman Kahn, Curtis Lemay, McGeorge Bundy, etc. On the other hand are the sentimentalism and patriarchal-familial ideology of performances like the P.O.W. homecoming and the Vietnamese and Cambodian “orphans” airlift. American militarism replaces the Futurist dandy with the schizophrenic figure of the father-professional.

So, in a certain sense, the claim of Steichen’s authorship of these aerial photographs cannot help but be an implicit argument for a return to a romantic, sentimentalized image of warfare, an attempt to find a benign genius in a mechanized wasteland. But none of this is really new. Consider for a moment Carl Sandburg’s lyrical dedication to Smoke and Steel, published in 1920:

To Colonel Edward J. Steichen, painter of nocturnes and faces, camera engraver of glints and moments, listener to blue evening winds and new yellow roses, dreamer and finder, rider of great mornings in gardens, valleys, battles.12

With that I’ll turn to the problem of biography.


THE ESTHETIC AND market value of these photographs depends on their being taken as significant moments in a celebrated creative life, rather than as refuse of a war between imperialist powers over markets, or as products of mechanized conscript labor, or as examples of a developing military intelligence technology, and so on. Of all the legitimizing narratives that might transform the artifacts into unique esthetic objects, the most important are biographical. No credible argument can be made for Steichen’s authorship unless the photographs can be made to fit a logical account of his career. Since this is not an instance of Pop promotion, the connection must be made in terms of creativity, rather than, say, leadership ability. The quasi-corporate character of the productive enterprise must yield to a myth of inspiration. Once the connection has been made, Steichen’s already-established place in the photographic pantheon insures the value of the prints.

Suppose someone tried to promote Steichen’s wartime experiences as “the drama of emergent modernism” or as “the triumph of straight photography over outdated pictorialism.” World War I provides a convenient historical juncture for segmenting the history of American art photography. With the right public relations job, Steichen could be said to embody that history. Camera Work stopped publishing in 1917 with a final issue on Paul Strand. Strand represented a polemical, fully developed modernist position. His 1917 statement on photography is an archetypal formulation of Clement Greenberg’s demand that a truly modernist art determine “through the operations peculiar to itself, the effects peculiar and exclusive to itself.”13 Strand’s insistence on a “complete uniqueness of means,” on the “absolute unqualified objectivity” of hard focus,14 was a repudiation of pictorial photography, which had achieved its high place in the world through an earlier, systematic repudiation of realism.

Pictorialism had a complex and erratic relationship to painting, too complex to go into here in any detail. Pictorial photographers found their imagery, their mannerisms, and their explanatory rhetoric in a wholesale raid on the history of painting, culling features from the old masters, Impressionism, academicism, symbolism, and Art Nouveau. A pictorial photograph was less a representation of the world than a representation of painting as the repository of high-art values. That is, the overall endeavor was to produce markedly crafted, “painterly” works, works that looked like legitimate art rather than everyday photography.

Steichen’s 1901 Self-Portrait with Brush and Palette, which he referred to as “photography’s answer to [Titian’s] Man with a Glove,” is almost absurdly mannerist;15 a huge brushstroke trails across the emulsion from the photographically depicted image of a paintbrush. Aside from its hubris and its suggestion of the artist’s dual career, this picture displays a curious confusion of icon and special effects. But by 1917 pictorialism had lost its credibility as a vanguard strategy. Even Steichen, the painter-photographer, was producing sharp-focus prints of frogs in lily ponds.

Reductivist, idealizing narratives of Steichen’s life during and immediately after the war usually present the following chain of events. During the war, Steichen was masterfully involved in the production of sharp-focus aerial photographs. Following the armistice he retired in a state of depression to his French country home. After a period of reflection, he made a bonfire out of his paintings, vowing never to paint again. Steichen then spent three months making over one thousand photographs of a cup and saucer placed against a graduated scale of tones.

This narrative suggests that the aerial photographs provided the inspiration for modernist redefinition of the medium. The cup-and-saucer experiment was a compulsive and thorough search for technical means within the boundaries of sharp-focus, nonpainterly representation. As such, it could be seen as an almost therapeutic rerun of the problems encountered in aerial reconnaissance work. But this time the operation occurred on a domestic, auteurist scale. An arena of personal esthetic control was recovered from under the shadow of military-industrial realism.

But Steichen’s autobiography represents this transition in ethical, as well as esthetic, terms. The fundamental dilemma was not modernist at all:

. . . the photographs we made provided information that, conveyed to our artillery, enabled them to destroy their targets and kill. A state of depression remained with me for days, but gradually there came a feeling that, perhaps, in the field of art, there might be some way of making an affirmative contribution to life. . . . I was through with painting. Painting meant putting everything I felt or knew into a picture that would be sold in a gold frame and end up as wallpaper. . . . I would learn how to make photographs that could go on a printed page, for now I was determined to reach a large audience instead of the few people I had reached as a painter.16

In this idealized reinvention of his own life, Steichen does not see the problem as one of painting versus photography. Rather, the narrative suggests a three-way opposition between noninstrumental communications, negatively instrumental communications, and positively instrumental communications. Painting, by virtue of its elitism, was dismissed as having no moral effect. But now we encounter a momentous and overtly ideological decision. Steichen “decided” that a humanist, life-affirming art was possible within the context of corporate mass communications. The cup-and-saucer exercise was performed in anticipation of the demands of mechanical reproduction, in anticipation of his portraits and fashion photos for Condé Nast and advertising work for J. Walter Thompson during the ’20s and ’30s. Steichen, the liberal technician, was able to condemn war while recovering its beneficial technical fallout.

But as an advertising photographer, Colonel Steichen had merely enlisted in a new war, a war for new domestic markets. (Despite his “pacifist” sentiments, Steichen retained his military titles throughout his civilian career.) In the 1920s capitalism began its massive ideological campaign to reinvent the family as a bottomless receptacle for goods. Steichen was one of the most visible promoters of a glamorized universe of commodities. The cup and saucer was only the beginning:

If my technic, imagination and vision is any good, I ought to be able to put the best values of my noncommercial and experimental photography into a pair of shoes, a tube of toothpaste, a jar of face cream, a mattress or any object that I want to light up and make humanly interesting in an advertising photograph.17

Steichen proposed to beautify the banal. To promote these sentiments as a brand of proto-Pop would be both stupid and erroneous. Pop emerged from outside the spectacle of mass consumption. Early Pop was polemically directed at the heroics of high culture; the Pop artist sought to banalize the very question of beauty. At its most intelligent, Pop was engaged in a language analysis of fragments of spectacle, and was produced by quasi-bohemian spectators, rather than by corporate agents. Steichen, on the other hand, faced the assembly line with an uncritical and confident romanticism.

But advertising photography presents an image, not only of commodities, but of human relationships mediated by commodities. As Steichen put it, the object is made “humanly interesting.” It was in the construction of a sentimentalized, utopian familial universe that Steichen performed his greatest service, a service for which he was well paid. In the Steichen family, motherhood and paternity are clearly delineated, and are always subordinated to an implicit corporate authority. At some point, Family of Man will have to be understood as a profoundly corporate image of the world, as a Cold War utopia, but that problem is beyond the scope of my present argument. Suffice it to say that this authoritarian artwork, a virtual celebration of editorial power over the images of individual photographers, paraded as an example of American cultural freedom.

The myth of Steichen’s career can be regarded as a laudatory monologue in which contemporary American bourgeois culture congratulates itself for both its elitism and its “populism.” Almost as much as Stieglitz, Steichen manipulated and directed the promotion of photography as a high art. Years later, at the Museum of Modern Art, he was able to exert patriarchal authority over direction of the medium to “popular” ends, while at the same time serving as an institutional patron of “vanguard” photography. Steichen personifies an illusory totality. As a legendary figure, he stands for the medium in all of its social operations, for the unification of the antagonistic poles of photographic praxis. As myth, his career resolves antagonisms between instrumentality and estheticism, ubiquity and preciousness, commercialism and bohemianism, and “low culture” and “high culture.” Consider the following fragment from an appreciation written in 1961:

Steichen has known the great of this world . . . the artists, the writers, the champions, the actors, the stars. He has observed the limits of luxury and fashion.

He has observed the simple people, the workers. He has observed the world, and men, from airplanes and fighting ships. He has observed the separate ingredients of nature . . . Few artists have had this unique opportunity of a global vision of life. Steichen was born at a right time; his time, with its new means of transportation and communication, has permitted him to have this unique civilizing exposure. [my italics]18

What is striking about this statement, aside from its worldly middle-class smugness, is the extent to which it lifts Steichen above the limitations of modernism. A “global vision of life” is not the same thing as a definitive vision of the medium. Steichen’s career did not conform to the artist’s role dictated by orthodox modernism; he was artist, patron and promoter rolled into one. He had an expansionist and overtly instrumental image of photography’s possibilities. The only way that modernist criticism can find a legitimate oeuvre in Steichen’s work is by performing closure around absurdly small portions of his career. In modernist terms, most of his work could be dismissed as confused, inconsistent, commercial, naive, insufficiently true to the medium, eclectic, cliché-ridden, hybridized, stupid, lacking quality, and so on; but none of this would lead to an understanding of his importance.

The only consistent vectors in Steichen’s career were sentimentalism, opportunism, and a fierce dedication to craft; the first two lead directly into his becoming a benign ideological agent of corporate political power. Throughout the larger part of his career, in his advertising and fashion work and his monumental “photo essays,” Steichen contributed to a falsified image of the family, of women, of consumption, of war and international politics, and of cultural freedom. A “global vision of life,” even in its “humanist” and liberal manifestations, may serve only to mask another vision, a vision of global domination.

There is a certain irony, then, in the fact that the photography galleries at the Museum of Modern Art are named in Steichen’s honor. What other institution could so eloquently promote the myth of the autonomous and unimplicated photographer-artist, the myth of everything Steichen was not?

Allan Sekula is a photographer who contributes frequently to Artforum.



1. See an earlier article, “On the Invention of Photographic Meaning,” Artforum, January, 1975, for a discussion of discourse relations in photography.

2. Roland Barthes, “Rhétorique de l’image,” Communications 4, p. 47.

3. Beaumont Newhall, Airborne Camera, New York, 1969, p. 27.

4. Edward Steichen, A Life in Photography, Garden City, 1963, n.p.

5. Edward Steichen, “American Aerial Photography at the Front,” U. S. Air Service, 1919, p. 34.

6. Kasimir Malevich, The Non-Objective World, Chicago, 1959, pp. 24–25, p. 61.

7. Malevich, p. 67.

8. Hilton Kramer, “The Young Steichen: Painter with a Camera,” New York Times, June 16, 1974.

9. F. T. Marinetti, quoted in Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, New York, 1969, p. 241.

10. Vittorio Mussolini, Volli sulle Amba, quoted in A. J. Barker, The Civilizing Mission, New York, 1968, p. 234.

11. Marinetti, in Benjamin, p. 241.

12. Carl Sandburg, Smoke and Steel, New York, 1920.

13. Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” Art and Literature 4, 1965, p. 194.

14. Paul Strand, “Photography,” Seven Arts, August, 1917, p. 524.

15. Steichen, A Life in Photography, n.p.

16. Ibid., n.p.

17.Steichen, letter to Carl Sandburg, quoted in Time-Life, Photography Year 1974, New York, p. 214.

18. Alexander Liberman, “Steichen’s Eye,” Steichen the Photographer, New York, 1961, p. 13.