LIFE BEHIND THE LENS
Byline: Phyllis Thompson Reid
NEW YORK — Scandal hardly jumps to mind upon meeting Joanna Steichen, a 67-year-old with an unflappable mien, measured cadences and immense brown eyes. But as a 26-year-old advertising copywriter, she shocked the art world and her family by marrying one of photography’s greatest legends, the then 81-year-old Edward Steichen. She lived with Steichen until his death, 14 years later, and worked with him on some of his most important photographic projects.
Joanna Steichen has just written “Steichen’s Legacy,” a lavish doorstop of a book featuring more than 300 illustrations from Steichen’s boundless career. This month, two New York exhibitions are devoted to his work — one recently opened at the Whitney and the other opening Oct. 20 at the Howard Greenberg Gallery. The photographs at Greenberg are drawn almost entirely from Joanna’s personal collection of vintage prints — long boxed-up in her basement and nearly forgotten. As the sole proprietor of Steichen’s negatives, she is the de facto guardian of his legacy. But there hasn’t been an in-depth retrospective of Steichen’s work since the one she helped him organize at the Museum of Modern Art in 1961.
Why now? As she puts it, “When you were married to somebody and loved him very much but also were furious with him, you need some perspective. It took years.”
Steichen, Joanna explains, was an impresario who needed to control all aspects of his life. Even his most spontaneous-looking images were composed on a cumbersome large-format view camera, every detail painstakingly orchestrated. Furthermore, for Steichen, “everything had to be large” — from his early ambition that photography be accepted as an art and later that it take on the formidable task of “explaining man to man and each man to himself,” to the sunflowers he grew on his Connecticut farm and even to his dogs, Irish Wolfhounds.
Joanna, who had owned (and cracked up) “an adorable little two-seater airplane” before she ever had a car, found herself married to a man who expected her to be available at all times for the “thankless” task of assisting him on his projects. Steichen once said, to her horror, that he expected dog-like devotion from those around him. But Steichen to her was a giant of a man, with enormous zest for life, great powers of seduction and “the wisdom that comes with years.”
Owning the plane and marrying the much-older photographer were the same kind of leap for her. “It’s the odd kind of courage that I had,” she explains, “always to do something isolated and solitary.”
During her marriage to Steichen — whom she never called by his first name, but rather “Steichen” or “Captain” — Joanna spent time with a cast from Picasso to President John F. Kennedy, and was even featured alongside Babe Paley and Audrey Hepburn in WWD as an embodiment of the “ladylike look” of the early Sixties. She was, after all, the wife of a man who’d been photographer in chief for Conde Nast Publications, shooting for Vogue under the legendary editor Carmel Snow. At the time, Steichen was the highest-paid American photographer, famous for insightful portraits of celebrities: Marlene Dietrich, Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford, Gary Cooper, Colette, Eugene O’Neil, Greta Garbo.
After Steichen’s death, Joanna moved into an apartment on Beekman Place designed for her by Paul Rudolph, enrolled at Columbia’s School of Social Work and wrote a book, “Marrying Up: An American Dream — and Reality.” She proceeded to a 25-year career in private practice as a psychotherapist (with a specialty in narcissistic personality disorder, common in creative people).
“But, I’m phasing that out, gradually,” she says. “I agree with Steichen, who felt you should give yourself a good swift kick in the pants every five or 10 years and move on to something new.”
Joanna has tentative plans for two more Steichen projects. “But first I need a breather. I’m exploring my own soul.
“Steichen,” she explains, “had a great soul. It was large, almost too large for individual human experience. There are people like that and you can simply call them very selfish, but they have a mission that is terribly important and they may produce wonderful artworks.”
She laughs, lightly. “But perhaps they shouldn’t marry, they should just have assistants.”