“The photographer, unlike the painter and regardless of his subjective feelings, is forced by the very nature of his medium to concentrate on the object, on what Goethe referred to as “Das Ding an sich” in a portrait: on the person […] being photographed.”
– Edward Steichen, “On Portrait and Portraiture”, A Life in Photography, ch. 10.
POWERFUL STEICHEN PORTRAIT OF THOMAS MANN FROM CHANCE MEETING IN NEW YORK.
Edward Steichen was one of the early pioneers of photographic art, leading the movement of photography from its established position as a utilitarian medium to a mode of creative expression. As a major contributor to Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work magazine in the first decades of the twentieth century, Steichen had cemented his reputation as a new kind of photographer, enjoying both artistic and commercial success—working as chief photographer for Condé Nast and later heading the Met’s photography department.
In 1959, having completed the first decade in his tenure as director of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography division, Steichen was approached by Tas Toth about curating a new display to serve as a counterpart to Steichen’s astronomically successful The Family of Man—a MoMA exhibition that would become, and remains to-date, the most-viewed photographic exhibition. Toth’s exhibition, to be called Das menschliche Antlitz Europas [The Human Face of Europe], would mirror The Family of Man’s thematic emphasis on shared humanity, principally by showcasing images by distinguished figures, including Cartier-Bresson, Boubat, Brassai and Doisneau, alongside works by lesser-known artists. Initially, the renowned artists were hesitant to contribute towards this unique concept, and it was only after Steichen endorsed Toth by allowing him to exhibit his portrait of Thomas Mann that a large number of eminent photographers agreed to contribute to the group exhibition. Steichen’s impactful photograph is the work present here.
Steichen had taken the image in the United States, where Mann would emigrate in 1939 to avoid mounting persecution in his native Germany, and where Mann would remain until 1952. It was in 1934 that Mann, to promote his Jospeh series, made his first journey to America— embarking on RMS Volendam and arriving in New York to great fanfare—“scarcely dreaming,” writes biographer Nigel Hamilton, “he would one day become an American citizen” (p. 283).
The image of Mann follows in a line of portraits by Steichen of leading world figures, from Churchill and FDR to Chaplin and Gershwin. Furthermore, the present photograph preserves, in addition to Mann’s likeness, the providential meeting of two of the most impactful twentieth century creatives who would both make their homes in the New World.
-Donated by Steichen to the original owner when he worked on the organization of the exhibition 'Das Menschliche Antlitz Europas'.
-Christie's, lot 218, Sale 7415, 21 Nov. 1996
Exhibited: 'Das Menschliche Antlitz Europas', Municipal Museum of Munich, 1959.
STEICHEN, EDWARD. Thomas Mann, New York (1934). Gelatin silver print, before 1959. 23.8 x 18.8 cm (9 ⅜ x 7 ⅜ in). Mounted on paperboard, signed on the reverse (in what does not appear to be Steichen's hand): “Edward Steichen”, and numbered in pencil. With a tiny amount of touch-up at extreme top corner (almost entirely beneath the matte). Handsomely framed.
Hamilton, Nigel, The Brothers Mann (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979)
Steichen, Edward, A Life in Photography (New York: Bonanza, 1984).
Price: $2,700 .