Born in Luxembourg, Steichen and his family immigrated to the United States when he was 2 years old.
During the 1890’s, he independently studied both painting and photography applying himself to their commercial and fine art possibilities.
He understood early on that the only way to persuade the public that photography was fine art was to produce images that emulated mood, manner or attitude of the paintings and prints that the public confidently held to be works of art. He persuaded a strategy known as Pictorialism.
Steichen’s photographs were first exhibited in the Second Philadelphia Photographic Salon in 1899. He then became a regular exhibitor and soon a star in the shows and soon after the star of photography’s fine art movement.
Soon after, Steichen met Alfred Stieglitz who bought 3 of his photographs for 5 dollars each. Two years later, Stieglitz invited Steichen to join him and other photographers including Clarence H, Minor White and others in founding Photo Secession.
Steichen became closely involved with Stieglitz’s many endeavours for the next 15 years. After Stieglitz opened his gallery in 1905, Steichen served as the gallery’s French connection. Using his contacts in Europe, many of whom he had photographed and became responsible for organising the exhibitions of French Modernist Art that were held at 291. The artists exhibited included the drawings of Auguste Rodin, Henri Matisse and Paul Cézanne. The shows were the first presentation of such artists in the United States.
After 15 years of collaborations, Steichen and Stieglitz went their separate ways at the start of World War i due to their different views on the events happening at the time.
When the US entered the war in 1917, Steichen volunteered for services and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the signal corps. Soon after, he was the head of aerial photography for the American Army in France.
His experience with the rigorous technical demands of his work changed his view on the medium. His work after focused on optical clarity and greater objectivity of description.
Steichen also concentrated on commercial photography establishing a successful commercial studio when he moved to New York city in 1923. He then devoted the following 15 years to fashion photography and celebrity portraiture for Condé Nast publications such as Vogue and Vanity Fair and to advertising photography for the J. Walter Thompson. He created portraiture for the likes of Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin to name a few.
After World War II, Steichen served as the Director of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art until 1962. Steichen is appreciated for creating The Family of Man exhibition. An exhibition that consisted of over 500 photos that depicted life, love and death in 68 countries.
The exhibition was donated to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and is now permanently housed in the City of Clervaux in Northern Luxembourg.
He passed away in 1973 on a farm just outside West Redding, Connecticut.