Object of the Month

Brancusi’s Bird in Space and 48 other photographsTitle: Brancusi’s Bird in Space and 48 other photographs
Artist: Edward Steichen (1879-1973)
Nationality: American
Date: 1926
Medium: Vintage gelatin silver print
Credit: Gift of the Hollander Family in Honor of Morton and Mimi Schapiro

The Block Museum has received an extraordinary gift of 49 vintage photographs by Edward Steichen (American, 1879–1973) from the collection of Richard and Jackie Hollander, a donation made in honor of Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro and his wife Mimi Schapiro.

Steichen is widely recognized as one of the most important photographers of the 20th century. He devoted his 70-year career as an artist and curator to the development, exploration, and promotion of photography as an art form with applications in a variety of artistic and practical fields.

The Hollanders’s gift mostly comprises portraits Steichen made for Condé Nast Publications, where he served as chief photographer from 1923 to 1937. His Vanity Fair portraits are a diverse selection of masterful photographs of influential people and cultural icons, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Paul Robeson, Eugene O’Neill and Sylvia Field. Also included are groundbreaking fashion photographs taken for Vogue, innovating advertising works and some personal photographs, such as a portrait of the poet Carl Sandburg, Steichen’s lifelong friend and brother-in-law. Other exceptional prints in the gift are a staggering depiction of the George Washington Bridge as a modern marvel of engineering and a photograph of Constantin Brânçusi’s sculpture Bird in Space, taken when it was the subject of a widely publicized and controversial court case concerning the definition of modern art.

Steichen first experimented with photography as a young man studying art in Milwaukee. In his twenties, he divided his time between Paris and New York City, becoming involved in the Photo-Secessionists movement, which promoted photography as a fine art and organized some of the first American exhibitions of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Constantin Brânçusi and Paul Cézanne. During both World Wars, Steichen devoted his skills to developing the first American photographic military surveillance missions and documenting life on naval battleships. From 1947 to 1962, he was the first director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he curated The Family of Man. Featuring the work of more than 500 photographers, this exhibition traveled worldwide and was viewed by more than nine million people.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art have also received Steichen photographs from the Hollanders.

The Block will display the Steichen photographs this winter (January 17 to April 6, 2014) in the exhibition Steichen/Warhol: Picturing Fame alongside portraits and candid photos by Pop artist Andy Warhol. The show will explore the ways in which glamour and celebrity are represented in photography, mass media and popular culture. The Warhol photographs, a gift from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, entered the Block collection in 2008.

 —Elliot Reichert, curatorial project manager


Edward Steichen, Brancusi’s Bird in Space, 1926, vintage silver print. Gift of the Hollander Family in Honor of Morton and Mimi Schapiro. © Permission of the Estate of Edward Steichen.