A Letter to Edward Steichen

Dear Commander Steichen,

This letter is 56 years late but I think it’s never too late to say what you have to say.

When I received a gift of Bill Ewing & Todd Brandow’s book “ Edward Steichen – The Lives” I didn’t realize how it would affect me to really know your life and see the range of your work. It has been a humbling experience. There is so much I didn’t know. I thank Natasha Christia of Kowasa Gallery for her generosity.

I knew you for such a small part of your story. The last time we spoke was in 1953, I was in an Army hospital at Fort Dix N.J. running a 104 fever and delirious. I had phoned you at MOMA. I remember half shouting “Get me out of here . I want to go take pictures!” Your connections were with the Navy and I was in the Army so you couldn’t get me on a boat to Korea. I just walked out of the hospital. My unit was soon shipped in the other direction, to Germany.

When I arrived, they told me I couldn’t be in the infantry because I had flat feet. “OK, I would like to be a photographer.” I said. “Everybody wants to be a photographer.” they said. Then I pulled out some correspondence from The New York Times and Life Magazine. OK. They believed me. The wheels turned and I was sent to Ettlingen Germany as a photographer for a small combat engineer unit. It was responsible for bridges across the Rhine. The setup was unusual because I had my own lab, connected to intelligence and no one else could use it. My predecessor used to lock the door and sleep off his hangover, so anything I did was welcome.

Rhine river near Karlsruhe 1952

We soon decided on a major project photographing low level aerials of the Rhine River crossings in our area. I decided to produce a photographically printed book and located 12/24” Gaevert document weight paper which I used to print 5 copies. I think there were 300 prints. At night I dried them on the tile hallway floor and after several months we had the work ready for the bindery.

At that time I didn’t know that you had pioneered low leveI aerial reconnaissance, possibly in some of the areas where I was shooting on the French-German border. I know you would have enjoyed hearing about my misadventures, especially our landings in potato fields .( Pilot’s Question: “Do you think we can land there? My answer “No”, and then we would land). I know I should have written you but my outburst from that hospital made me ashamed. Where I grew up, New England in the 1940’s , you could always find something to be ashamed of and I did.

Do you remember it was Brodovitch who sent me to see you. In one of his workshop sessions he said “You are responsible for everything that has come before you.” I think he meant that every photographer is responsible for knowing the visual history of photography. That scared me, because I hadn’t anchored my own philosophy and didn’t want to become a clone of some “famous” photographer. But you knew it was important and had your assistant, Grace Mayer show me portfolios. It gave me a taste of excellence but didn’t change my outlook. You knew it wouldn’t . In fact I don’t think my outlook has changed since I started making photographs over sixty years ago. I now know who I am photographically and it’s about time.

After the army there was my Family of Man adventure. I had just come out of the army and Wayne Miller called to say you would like me to submit work for consideration for that project. I quickly set up a temporary darkroom in my sister’s bathroom and made several prints which in my haste I signed “Zim” I also selected some of my color photographs. You chose three color works and a print of “Zizi L’Escale, Paris 1952”. Of course the color didn’t make it because you decided to include only one: “ The Atomic Bomb.” Wayne told me that my signature “Zim” made you angry because you thought I was trying to parrot “Chim.” It is too late to let you know I didn’t know Chim’s work at that time and Zim was my code name at PIX Inc. Anyway, Zizi didn’t make the final cut, but I was happy you liked the image. I have exhibited that photograph in Canada, the U.S., Japan and Spain,so it has been seen. Later when MOMA acquired some of my work, the purchases were made through The Family of Man Fund. So that was another circle completed.

That’s history. More history is my relationsip with Milwaukee, the city where you grew up. A friend told me about a wonderful woman from Milwaukee he had met while studying in Paris. He planned to marry her . He didn’t , I did. That is Elaine Sernovitz who I married in 1955. Direct, smart, and creative..is that a Milwaukee thing? I wish you had met her. The times we went to visit my in-laws with our four children I did a lot of photography in your city . That would have been 56 years after the portraits which you made there in 1899!

Jump ahead to your photographs of sunflowers. I am in awe of those works. I didn’t know them when in 1976 I planted ten acres of sunflowers on our Bona Fide Farm in Prince Edward Island, Canada. I took several 8/10 color poloroids of those beautiful plants, but felt I could never catch the essence, so I stopped trying. When it was time to harvest, I cut off the tops with a machete, stripped the seeds off the heads, mixed them with buckwheat that I had grown and created a wonderful chickenfeed. It lasted through most of the winter.

I have some thoughts on your photography that I want to share, but first want you to know that your right hand tech man from WWII, Marty Forscher lives just south of here in Pittsfield, Mass. with his wife, Marion. We talk and he always has stories about you which is why we never get off the phone. One of the many special cameras he built now rests forever on the moon. It was left when they had to lighten the load of one of the space vehicles. How is that for aerial photography!

Back to the book. The emphasis in this book on your “lives” rather than your “life” is clearly a reference to your changes in approach, both as to subject matter and technique, but never in spirit. There is an expression now: “All Good” and it clearly refers to everything you touched photographically. The range is amazing. What you touched, touches the viewer and that’s what great photography is about. So, bravo for your life. We will be able to enjoy what you produced for a very long time.
george s. zimbel
montreal quebec canada 2008

There is a finite inventory of museum quality silver gelatine images available for sale in various sizes, printed and signed by the photographer through these fine art galleries.

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