Edward Steichen was the first modern fashion photographer, best known for shadowy portraits of silver-screen stars like Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich, and Louise Brooks. That the dark room master spent two years during World War I developing photographic surveillance techniques is less common knowledge. This short but important military stint is chronicled in more than 80 aerial photographs taken by the photographer and currently on display in the Art Institute of Chicago’s fascinating exhibition Sharp, Clear Pictures: Edward Steichen’s World War I and Condé Nast Years.
Steichen was 38 years old in July 1917 when he entered active duty — eight years older than the age limit for recruits. He wanted to be the next Mathew Brady, the Civil War photographer whose images of camps and corpses made the battlefield real to Americans. With that wish in mind, he couldn’t have asked for a better title than the one the US military gave him: Chief of the Photographic Section of the American Expeditionary. But in lieu of the action Steichen hoped to see on the ground, the auteur was assigned to spend his war years taking pictures of Earth from a tiny plane for the first US aerial reconnaissance operation.
“The wartime problem of making sharp, clear pictures from a vibrating, speeding airplane ten to twenty thousand feet in the air had brought me a new kind of technical interest in photography,” he later wrote. Hovering high over the landscape, Steichen was transfixed. He was figuring out exactly what his camera could do — basically what Google Earth’s cameras do now in a much more sophisticated way. “I wanted to know all that could be expected from photography.”
At first glance, the resulting images look like any others you might find in an old surveyor’s office or city hall building. But the weight of history emerges in their carefully inscribed captions, one of which reads, “Bomb dropped from airplane.” Looking down on the unmarred landscape beneath the falling missile, you can’t help but shudder.
Steichen’s role in World War I wouldn’t be his last military exploit, as a 2006 article in Air & Space Magazine pointed out. Though he tried to reenlist in 1940 and was turned down, the US Navy hired him in 1941 to direct its Photographic Institute, where he oversaw combat photography and organized two Museum of Modern Art exhibits — The Road to Victory and Power in the Pacific. He later wrote in his autobiography that when he got the telephone call about the job, he “almost crawled through the telephone wire with eagerness.” For years afterward, his name was listed in the telephone book as “Steichen, Col. Edward J.”