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University of Texas at Austin

Edward Steichen

An Inventory of His Naval Aviation Photographic Unit Photographs at the Harry Ransom Center

Creator: Steichen, Edward, 1879-1973
Title: Edward Steichen Photography Collection: Naval Aviation Photographic Unit Photographs
Dates: 1942-1945
Extent: 8 boxes (172 photographs)
Abstract: The collection consists of 172 gelatin silver photographs taken by the U.S. Naval Aviation Photographic Unit during World War II under the leadership of American photographer Edward Steichen.
Call Number: Photography Collection PH-00108
Language: English
Access: Open for research.

Administrative Information

Acquisition: Gift of Tom Maloney on behalf of Joanna Steichen, from Edward Steichen’s personal collection, 1974.
Processed by: Kate Kaluzny, 2016

Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin

Biographical Sketch

Edward Steichen is best known for his commercial and celebrity portraits and for his tireless efforts to promote photography as fine art. Born Éduard Jean Steichen in Luxembourg on March 27, 1879, he and his family immigrated to the United States in 1880, ultimately settling in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Steichen apprenticed with the American Fine Art Company of Milwaukee for four years during which time he taught himself photography as well as drawing and painting.
In the beginning of his career, Steichen was a prominent member of the Photo-Secession movement that strove to promote photographs as fine art to the public. This was primarily accomplished by creating photographs that strongly imitated the techniques, mood, and subject matter of paintings and drawings, an aesthetic movement known as Pictorialism. Steichen adopted these techniques, producing several of his best known works using the gum-bichromate process that had the effect of creating imagery that appeared similar to mezzotint reproductions and engravings of paintings. Steichen gained notoriety in the photographic world when his work was shown in the Second Philadelphia Photographic Salon in 1899.
In 1900, Steichen left to study painting in Paris and stopped in New York along the way. There he made his way to the Camera Club of New York to show his photographs to Alfred Stieglitz. Taken with Steichen’s work, Stieglitz bought three of his photographs outright, which was hugely encouraging for Steichen. With this transaction began a relationship between the two men, culminating in a partnership in the gallery 291 and frequent inclusion of Steichen’s photography in Stieglitz’s magazine Camera Work. In fact, Stieglitz published 68 photographs by Steichen in Camera Work, more than by any other photographer featured in the magazine.
In the years before World War I broke out in Europe, Steichen lived in France, working as a painter and photographer. When the United States entered the war, Steichen volunteered and was made the head of aerial photography for the U.S. Army. The need for sharp detail in his aerial work brought about a change in Steichen’s post-war photographic work, moving from Pictorialism towards aesthetics more in line with the Modernist movement. During the 1920s and 1930s Steichen enjoyed a highly successful career doing portrait work for magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair as well as advertising photography for the J. Walter Thompson Agency. Some of his best-known celebrity portraits from this period include Gary Cooper, Greta Garbo, and Gloria Swanson. Despite the success of his studio, in the late 1930s Steichen closed his New York studio and devoted himself full-time to breeding delphiniums, one of his lifelong passions.
Steichen emerged from his retirement when the United States entered World War II and the U.S. Navy placed him in charge of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit, responsible for documenting the naval war in the Pacific against the Japanese. In 1942, Steichen was asked by the Museum of Modern Art to create an exhibition of photographs that documented the American war effort, called "The Road to Victory". At the war’s end, Steichen also put on the exhibition, entitled Power in the Pacific, that showcased photographs taken by his unit throughout the war. After the war, Steichen served as the Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from 1947 to 1962, during which time he curated numerous shows, including the popular and influential exhibition The Family of Man. His autobiography, A Life in Photography, was published in 1963. He passed away in 1973 at the age of 93.


In addition to biographical information found within the collection, the following sources were used:
Daniel, Malcolm. “Edward J. Steichen (1879–1973): The Photo-Secession Years.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.
Faram, Mark. Faces of War. New York: Berkley Caliber, 2009.
Phillips, Christopher. Steichen at War. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1981.
Steichen, Edward. A Life in Photography. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963.
Steichen, Edward. The Blue Ghost: A Photographic Log and Personal Narrative of the Aircraft Carrier U.S.S. Lexington. New York: Harcourt, Brace, [1947].
Szarkowski, John. "Edward Steichen." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., June 11, 2015.

Scope and Contents

The collection consists of 172 gelatin silver photographs taken by the U.S. Naval Aviation Photographic Unit during World War II under the leadership of Edward Steichen. The prints date from 1942 to 1945 and depict scenes from some of the most intense fighting in the Pacific during World War II. Subjects represented in the collection include portraits of officers and sailors, combat photographs, scenes from the daily life of sailors on aircraft carriers, and images of Naval airplanes and aircraft carriers.
These prints came from Edward Steichen’s personal collection of 8,000 naval photographs, which were distributed after his death in 1973, at the request of Joanna Steichen, the photographer’s widow, by Tom Maloney. Maloney, the publisher of U.S. Camera magazine, was a close friend of Steichen's. The Ransom Center is one of twelve institutions that received Steichen’s naval photographs, along with the Museum of Modern Art, the George Eastman Museum, and the U.S. Naval Academy, among others.

Related Material

This body of work is part of a larger collection of works by Steichen that includes examples of his fashion and portrait photography. Additional materials by Steichen can also be found in the Ransom Center's Camera Work Photography Collection (PH-00092).

Index Terms


Bristol, Horace.
Jacobs, Fenno, 1904-1975.
Jorgensen, Victor, 1913-1994.
Kerlee, Charles E., 1907-1981.
Miller, Wayne F., 1918-2013.
Steichen, Edward, 1879-1973.


Naval Aviation Photographic Unit (U.S.).


Dauntless (Dive bomber).
Fighter pilots--United States.
Grumman Avenger (Torpedo bomber).
Hellcat (Fighter planes).
Lexington Class (Aircraft carriers).
United States, Navy--Officers.
War Photography--20th century.
World War, 1939-1945--Campaigns--Pacific Ocean.
World War, 1939-1945--Campaigns--Philippines.
World War, 1939-1945--Naval operations, American.

Document Types

Black-and-white photographs.
Documentary photographs.
Gelatin silver prints.
Portrait photography.

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