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Home Town New York City
Last Address Edward Steichen died, at his farm "Umpawaug", in West Redding, CT, two days short of his 94th birthday. His ashes were buried near a huge outcrop of boulders on his estate, exactly as he had requested.
Date of Passing Mar 25, 1973
Location of Interment Not Specified
Wall/Plot Coordinates Not Specified
Military Service Number Not Specified
Last Known Activity
Captain Edward J. Steichen, USN Ret.
Army & Navy Combat Photographer WWI & WWII Received the French Legion of Honor,
Distinguished Service Medal,
the Presidential Medal of Freedom,
and Commander of the Order of Merit (Germany)
Edward Steichen (born Eduard Jean Steichen, 27 March 1879 in Bivange, Luxembourg) was one of the premier photographers of his generation. Aside from being one of the first to go into color photography, he also helped usher in the era of fashion photography.
During WWI he joined the Army Photographic Corps at the age of 38. He joined the Navy in January 1942 at the age of 63.
Steichen had retired in 1938, and closed his studio to devote his time to plant breeding. Soon afterwards he would find himself trying to reenlist in the military at the age of 61 as America faced the prospect of World War II. After his third attempt to reenlist he was commissioned a Lieutenant Commander in 1942, and headed the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit, which documented aircraft carriers in action. His first assignment was to complete an exhibition he had started for The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1941, on national defense. He organized the extremely popular exhibition "Road to Victory" that had 150 images and opened in May 1942, at MoMA. The show then traveled to many American cities and to London, Australia, and South America.
He directed the creation of the war documentary "The Fighting Lady," chronicling the battles of the crew of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Yorktown, which won the 1944 Academy Award for Best Documentary.
In 1945, his second joint Navy and MoMA exhibition, "Power in the Pacific," went on display. He was officially discharged in 1945, at the age of 67, and received the Distinguished Service Medal. Steichen left the Navy with the rank of Captain, as Director of the WWII Naval Photographic Institute.
Steichen was the recipient of many awards, some of which include his status as Chevalier of France's Légion d'Honneur, awarded in 1919, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1963), and the Commander of Order of Merit, Germany (1966).
In 1963, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President John F. Kennedy, however Kennedy was assassinated before he could present it. President Lyndon B. Johnson presented it to him in December 1963.
Edward Steichen died in West Redding Connecticut on March 25, 1973, at the age of 94.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is an award bestowed by the President of the United States and is—along with the comparable Congressional Gold Medal bestowed by an act of U.S. Congress—the highest civilian award in the United States.
"Aircraft of Carrier Air Group 16 return to the USS Lexington
(CV-16) during the Gilberts operation, November 1943."
Photographed by Commander Edward Steichen, USNR.
Naval Aviation Photographic Unit
The Naval Aviation Photographic Unit was a group of military photographers in the United States Navy during the Second World War, under the command of Edward Steichen.
The Navy had established this special group in early 1942, shortly after the US entry into the war, to document and publicize its aviation activities and allowed Steichen to recruit the most talented photographers he could find. Steichen and his unit initially reported to Capt Arthur W. Radford, and were made part of the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics.
Because Steichen wanted an unusual amount of control over the unit, outside the purview of the Navy's pre-existing photographic community, and because Radford agreed with him, it was decided the unit would operate out of the Bureau of Aeronautics' Training Literature Division, which was under Radford's direct command. This is why the unit's official name was "Training Literature Field Unit No. 1." However, informally it was referred to as the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit, and is generally referred to that way in the literature about it.
The main purpose Radford had for the unit was to promote the recruitment of pilots specifically for the Navy. Radford believed there was competition for a limited talent pool between the Navy and the Army Air Corps, and that attractive, top-rate photography in the press, posters, and leaflets would help the Navy reach its quota of 30,000 new pilots each year.
Wayne Miller, one of the unit's photographers, remembers Steichen's instructions this way: " 'I don't care what you do, Wayne, but bring back something that will please the brass a little bit, an aircraft carrier or somebody with all the braid; spend the rest of your time photographing the man.' It was Steichen's prime concern—don't photograph the war; photograph the man, the little guy; the struggle, the heartaches, plus the dreams of this guy. Photograph the sailor."
Radford was given command of Carrier Division 11 in July, 1943. Rear Admiral John S. McCain, Sr. was made head of the Bureau of Aeronautics, and thus Steichen's commander. McCain was pleased by the results Steichen and his photographers were getting, and supported them fully, including seeing Steichen promoted to full Commander. McCain also had Steichen do portraits of senior Navy officers, in the Vanity Fair style for which Steichen was known, to smooth relations for the unit among differing commands.
Steichen's responsibility increased to the point where, in early 1945, he was made director of a newly formed Naval Photographic Institute, and given formal control over all Navy combat photography.
The unit was largely demobilized after the end of the war in August, 1945. As those servicemen with the most time overseas received priority in demobilization, almost all of the unit were home by Thanksgiving.
The group of photographers Steichen originally chose for the unit were:
Lieut. Wayne Miller
Lieut. Dwight Long (who specialized in movies, not photography as such)
Lieut. Charles E. Kerlee
Lieut. Charles Fenno Jacobs
LCdr. Horace Bristol
Ensign Victor Jorgensen
Ensign Alfonso ("Fons") Iannelli
Steichen wanted Ansel Adams to be part of the unit, to build and direct a state-of-the-art darkroom and laboratory in Washington, D.C. In approximately February, 1942, Steichen asked Adams to join. Adams agreed, with two conditions: He wanted to be commissioned as an officer, and he also told Steichen he would not be available until July 1. Steichen, who wanted the team assembled as quickly as possible, passed Adams by, and had his other photographers ready to go by early April. Among the photographers whom Steichen later added in early 1945 was Morley Baer who remained with the Unit until the end of the War.
Last Updated: Dec 7, 2011
Before Edward Steichen joined the U.S. Navy in January 1942, he had been chief photographer for Condé Nast magazines Vogue and Vanity Fair, a commercial photographer for the J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and a painter exhibited in Paris salons. He was in his mid-60s when he went to war for the second time. During World War I, he had helped establish the first U.S. aerial reconnaissance operation, originally for the Army Signal Corps, later under the auspices of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service. Traces of the fashion photographer, ad man, fine artist, and patriot show up in the photographs made by him and by the six photographers he recruited to document World War II naval operations.
In the first world war, Steichen had managed to get into the Army's photographic division, even though in 1917, at 38, he was eight years past the age limit for recruits. A U.S. citizen, he had been living in France when the war began, and, beyond his ambition to be a war photographer, he wanted to help resist German aggression. He was proud of his service; for years afterward, he listed himself in the New York telephone directory as "Steichen, Col. Edward J."
He first tried to reenlist in the military in the fall of 1940 but was turned down. In October 1941, the Museum of Modern Art invited him to design a photo exhibition on the theme of national defense. He selected the photographs; his brother-in-law, the poet Carl Sandburg, wrote the captions. Before they completed the work, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and when the exhibit was hung in May 1942, it was called "The Road to Victory," in order to promote the war effort.
In the meantime, Steichen continued his efforts to serve in combat, eventually coming to the attention of a Navy captain, Arthur Radford, who would later become chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Late in 1941, Radford was in charge of Navy pilot training. With the responsibility to recruit up to 30,000 pilots a year -- in the face of stiff competition from the Army Air Forces -- Radford saw the wisdom of exploiting the talents of Edward Steichen.
"I received a telephone call from the Navy Department in Washington asking me if I would be interested in photographing for the Navy," Steichen recalled in his autobiography A Life in Photography. "I almost crawled through the telephone wire with eagerness."
According to photography historian Christopher Phillips, author of Steichen at War, Naval photography prior to World War II depicted "machines, equipment, ships, airplanes." Wayne Miller, a wartime photographer who worked for Steichen, says photographers made images of "formal occasions on board ship, ceremonies such as crossing the equator, broken parts."
But Steichen had joined up to run an advertising campaign: Your Navy at War. Peter Galassi, curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, says that in choosing what to photograph, Steichen "was selecting for really good advertisements."
An outstanding example, taken in October 1942, shows the U.S. flag flying over the flight deck of the escort carrier Santee. U.S. Camera 1944, a major photo annual, stated that "no picture taken during the war has had as great popular usage as this one. It has been on magazine covers, in newspaper pages, on posters. Almost every editor who has seen the picture feels that it is the perfect flag photograph."
Horace Bristol, who took the photo, was one of the men whom Steichen recruited. Most came in as civilians; Bristol had been with Life from the first issue and had accompanied writer John Steinbeck during the travels in California that inspired The Grapes of Wrath. Charles Fenno Jacobs, another recruit, also had worked for Life. Charles Kerlee had made his name as an outstanding commercial illustrator. Victor Jorgensen had built a strong reputation at the Portland Oregonian. Wayne Miller, the only rookie, was already in the Navy and showed Steichen a portfolio, hoping to join his crew. Years later, Miller recalls Steichen telling him, "It wasn't your photos that impressed me; your photos were lousy. It was your youth and enthusiasm."
Seen today, some of their work has an old-fashioned, message-laden quality. Phillips notes that the photos "appear too technically perfect, too perfectly composed." On Iwo Jima, for instance, Steichen photographed the fingers of a Japanese soldier protruding from a shallow grave. Phillips says the photo makes him wonder if Steichen enhanced the scene by brushing away dirt.
Bypassing the Navy photo organization, Steichen drew on Radford's support to gain unprecedented independence. His photographers avoided Navy-issue cameras, choosing their own models. They did not develop their film in the field but sent it to a lab that Steichen operated in Washington. Steichen exercised tight control over the developing and printing, emphasizing repeatedly that he wanted dark prints with excellent contrast. When Steichen himself photographed a Grumman F6F Hellcat fighter taking off from the deck of the USS Lexington, he caught the aircraft within a pool of what might have been reflected moonlight. In fact, the photo had been made on a bright afternoon.
Radford interceded with Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander-in-chief in the Pacific, to win the right for Steichen and crew to virtually write their own orders. Barrett Gallagher, who joined the group in 1944, later wrote of requesting duty on the staff of a certain admiral: "He had not heard of me and he asked what my orders were. I told him my orders were to go anywhere I liked, do whatever I wanted, and go home when I felt like it. After he had read them he said, 'Damned if they don't' and took me on."
Still, it took more than professional freedom and tight technical control to make really memorable photos. At times, it took luck. Steichen won a combat assignment when he embarked on the Lexington, which supported the invasion of Tarawa, one of the most significant battles in the Pacific campaign. A Japanese torpedo crippled the ship's steering and a misfiring machine gun sent a stream of rounds in his general direction, but Steichen failed to capture a good shot of the action. The war's great action shots -- a kamikaze attack on the carrier Bunker Hill, for example, or the USS Yorktown at the moment its hull was blasted by a torpedo during the Battle of Midway -- were made not by the artists under Steichen's command but by ordinary combat photographers. The enlistees, notes MoMA's Galassi, "made one great picture after another. They made extraordinary pictures, not because they were art photos, but because they were trying to describe what was there in front of them."
What, then, did Steichen and his men contribute? His own directions to his photographers were, "Be sure to bring back some photographs that will satisfy the Navy brass, but spend most of your time making those photographs which you feel should be made. Above all, concentrate on the men. The ships and planes will become obsolete, but the men will always be there."
He provided the model for them to follow in mid-1943, when he visited submarine facilities at Groton and New London, Connecticut. Here his chief subjects were the workers. A portrait of a woman in saddle shoes and jeans, poring over a blueprint, is reminiscent of his pre-war fashion photography.
When the war ended, Steichen returned to the Museum of Modern Art as director of photography and produced the epic 1955 exhibition "The Family of Man." Here, very late in his career, he once again focused on people, the subject that fascinated him throughout the war and throughout his life.