Homage to Edward Steichen who died on this day fifty years ago.

Born in Bivange, Luxembourg on 27 March 1897, the young Edward emigrated to the US with his parents when he was 18.  His was a long, varied & rich artistic career: though mainly known as a photographer, he was also a painter, director, curator, gardner & passionate experimenter.

As director of the department of photography of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Steichen created two monumental exhibitions in the 50s & 60s : The Family of Man and The Bitter Years. As an homage to his native country, he bequeathed the first of these to Luxembourg where one can visit it at the Chateau of Clervaux (https://www.visit-clervaux.lu/en/art/the-family-of-man).

A few years back I wrote the poem below (also included in my 2015 book barzakh) as an homage to Steichen & his work.

Letter to Steichen’s Ed

In fact, every photograph is a fake from start to finish, a purely impersonal, unmanipulated photograph being practically impossible. — Edward Steichen

Leiwen Ed,

Ech wees net ops du ons Sproch nach gekannt hues,

that’s why I’ll address you in American English.

You were born zu Béiwen, bei Roeser, in Luxembourg,

I was not

You were an American citizen,

I am still not,

I am just a plain citizen of Luxembourg.

You believed in the family of man

I am weary of families of any order and species.

But you are family

in that photo by Dana those clear blue

Luxembourg eyes exactly like cousin Lol’s, the cut

of the face too, there’s a resemblance, close to

the bone, close to the farm

a way in which the head

is held. High & loose. You’re my home-

boy of old, Ed, a

cousin, maybe even

“cousin germain”

as the French wld say?

Now, you burned your paintings

when your gardener imitated one of yours —

a strange act, a criticism of

the representation of representation, maybe?

Or just a cheap trick to prove Duchamp wrong

for saying “stupide comme un peintre”

& move on to the new technologies?

Now, I never burned a single poem

have kept them all,

but then you had Carl Sandburg

in the family, devoted companion

for long walks & writing for you

I have always hated taking

photos but bought a camera at sixty

to shoot landscapes

& the family of one Joris

& half a dozen friends

but I always leave it home

or forget that it is in my pocket.

You were a famous delphinium breeder

I only brood over words

make poems & make anthologies,

weird cut flower bouquets

I am in Albany NY & sometimes

visit Buffalo where

you did avant-garde color autochromes

the year Ford introduced the model T-Ford

and one year after Picasso painted

his Demoiselles.

Ah the autochrome!

Hot off the 1903 minds

of the Frères Lumière,

them I’ve seen the Light Brothers,

first marketed in our year 1907,

it is an additive method

a process involving millions

of microscopic

grains of potato starch

(did you ever think of

the Luxembourg staple

food, d’gromper, when you

loaded the camera?)

dyed

bright blue-violet,

bright orange-red

& Kelly green

dusted on a slightly concave piece of glass

already coated with liquid pitch mixed

with a dram of beeswax

to keep it “tacky”

the random spaces filled with lamp-black

& a panchromatic silver halide emulsion

the resultant screen

was stochastic in nature

a random array

an abstraction way beyond the Demoiselles’

demure cubism

though the light you let

pass through the photo-sensitive plate

coming off

your “subjects”, say Charlotte

Spaulding in Buffalo,

with the starch grains remaining as aligned

as the starch of her lacy dress

organized this randomness into

plain Edwardian beauty.

Ed, you were not Edwardian,

you were just a Luxembourg lad

in America who made good

& moved with ease between

Condé Nast & this here place,

fifty years before Warhol.

If I am trying so hard to

understand this autochrome process

(of which you said “ no medium

can give me color of such

wonderful luminosity”)

it is because you also said:

“If you don’t take doors off their hinges,

how are you going to know

to put doors back on their hinges?”

Though that, cousin Ed,

may be where we disagree:

why put the doors back on

the hinges,

beauty will bolt anyway,

and all we are ever left with

is the beauty of doing the work,

the handwork, the hands on work,

your plates, my words.

Merci, cousin,

‘daz gut ze wessen

daz du hei wars virun mir.

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1 Response

  1. Some Steichen cultural history, now enjoying a plus ça change moment a century later, is

    https://www.vintag.es/2019/03/lee-miller-1928-kotex-ad.html

    Thanks for your poem.

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