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Edward Steichen's influence on a generation of eyes

Edward Steichen was a major force in American photography during more than half of the 20th century. This book beautifully presents over 300 of his photographs. Here are the atmospheric views of New York's Flatiron Building and Brooklyn Bridge, the inventive advertising shots produced for the J. Walter Thompson Agency in the 1920s, the definitive portraits of J.P. Morgan, Noel Coward, Greta Garbo, and Carl Sandburg.

If he had just been a brilliant photographer, Steichen still would have left a legacy for today. But he was always more than that. At the beginning of the century, he and Edward Stieglitz were introducing Americans to the radical new paintings of Matisse and Picasso and the sculpture of Rodin at the same time they were championing photography as an equally legitimate art form.

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In the 1920s and 30s, he was photographer in chief for the fashion and celebrity magazines Vogue and Vanity Fair. During World War II, he was in charge of combat photography in the Pacific for the United States Navy. And for15 years after the war, he was director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

In 1955, he organized a massive exhibition, titled "The Family of Man," bringing together more than 600 photographs illustrating the common humanity of men of all nations. They were very different from the usual museum photography and from Steichen's own photographs. It was a huge popular success and the book version of this exhibit is still in print.

The efforts of Steichen's widow Joanna make this book particularly approachable. She has arranged the photographs into 19 groups of similar subjects - artists, writers, New York City, forces of nature - rather than chronologically. She also writes very personal introductions to each of these sections. It's hardly an academic dissertation from a neutral observer. The compensation is that she brings loving enthusiasm and honest personal anecdotes - starting with the story of how a young woman beginning a New York advertising career met and married a worldly photographer more than three times her age.

Her late husband, the photographic artist who could also produce "The Family of Man," the most popular photo exhibit in history, would likely be pleased.

Tom Toth is the Monitor's photo editor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society