Edward Steichen - Photographs New York Wednesday, October 11, 2023 | Phillips

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  • The remarkable photographic mural offered here is a previously unknown multiple exposure by Edward Steichen, and a rare survivor from the brief period in the 1930s during which he was involved in creating prints of his images on a grand scale. The present example bears not only Steichen’s printed studio label and Condé Nast stamp, but also his title written in his characteristically exuberant hand. With its large size and dynamic experimentalism, this mural presents an immersive experience and shows an aspect of Steichen’s work that is rarely considered. Steichen’s production of photographic murals is an under-studied aspect of oeuvre, but considered within the context of his multi-decade career, spanning two centuries, it plays an important role in his progression as an artist and as a curator, and is exemplary of his continual exploration of how photography’s ability to communicate is guided by its physical form.


    Steichen’s studio label on the verso of Radio City and Rockefeller Center

    This multiple-exposure photograph of two of New York City’s most iconic buildings is an extension of Steichen’s visual exploration of the urban space that began with his studies of the Flatiron Building made early in the 20th century, and continued in the 1920s upon his return to New York City from his sojourn in France. In the 1930s, now firmly immersed in New York and working as its foremost advertising and editorial photographer, Steichen experimented with multiple exposures – the layering of two or more negatives to make a single composite image. Employed in Radio City and Rockefeller Center, this technique creates an energized composition which captures the city’s unique dynamism, and invites comparisons with, among others, László Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray.      


    Throughout his career, Steichen experimented with producing works in large formats. A painter as well as a photographer, his 1913 multi-panel tempera and gold-leaf mural, In Exaltation of Flowers, was 10 feet high and nearly 40 feet wide. His masterful multi-process photographic prints from this time also pushed past the boundaries of conventional formats. His first foray into making mural-sized gelatin silver prints was occasioned by The Museum of Modern Art exhibition Murals by American Painters and Photographers of 1932. As Julien Levy notes in the introduction to that exhibition’s catalogue, printing photographs on a truly grand scale ‘was made possible only recently by the perfecting of a sensitized paper in large sheets, which would reproduce, when exposed to a projected image from a negative, the original tones with the original scale of values in enlarged size.’ Steichen’s single entry for the exhibition was a massive print of his image of the George Washington Bridge which dominated one wall.


    Steichen’s photo mural on view in Murals by American Painters and Photographers, The Museum of Modern Art, 1932

    Newly convinced of the practicality of producing photographs in a grand scale, and realizing the impact certain images could gain in this format and the use to which they could be put, Steichen undertook a commission to make murals for the men’s smoking lounge at Radio City Music Hall. These photographs, primarily of airplanes and aviation, encircled the luxurious art-deco interior.


    Steichen’s photo murals in the Men’s Smoking Room, Radio City Music Hall, circa 1932

    In 1933, Steichen was charged with creating a series of murals for the New York State exhibit in the Hall of States at Chicago’s Century of Progress exposition. While full documentation of the images included in this exhibit has not been located, one contemporary account described it as a display that documented the state’s rural and urban attractions: ‘the lure of a forest ravine, the sweeping lines of a skyscraper.’


    It is unknown whether Radio City and Rockefeller Center was created for the Chicago World’s Fair exhibition or some other project. While the image is not reproduced in the Steichen literature, a mural-sized print of it makes an appearance in Steichen’s portrait of writer H. G. Wells published in the May 1935 issue of Vanity Fair magazine. Wells is shown seated before Radio City and Rockefeller Center, with another mural print – Steichen’s The Maypole – visible in the background. It is more than probable that the print offered here is the very one visible in the Wells portrait, which was likely taken at the East 69th studio shown on Steichen’s label on the verso. 


    Edward Steichen, Portrait of H.G. Wells, 1935 showing the photo-mural Radio City and Rockefeller Center

    This mural marks a decisive step in Steichen’s evolving conception of photography, his persistent effort to push photography in new directions, and his exploration of new ways in which the photographic image could be physically manifested. This drive would continue through the remainder of his career. In 1944, before his tenure as curator had begun there, he curated an exhibition at MoMA devoted to war effort, Road to Victory, in which he employed mural-sized photographic enlargements of key images. He elaborated upon this strategy for MoMA’s 1946 exhibition, Power in the Pacific. Thereafter, Steichen regularly integrated mural-sized images in his exhibitions, and he became a master at designing dynamic displays of photographs in a wide array of sizes. This reached its apotheosis with Steichen’s 1955 exhibition, Family of Man, in which he deployed photographs in a wide variety of sizes to further the narrative and impact of his humanist message.   


Radio City and Rockefeller Center

Mural-sized gelatin silver print.
50 3/4 x 40 1/2 in. (128.9 x 102.9 cm)
Overall 52 x 42 in. (132.1 x 106.7 cm)

Titled in pencil, the photographer's '139 East 69th Street, New York City' studio label, and a Condé Nast copyright stamp on the reverse of the flush-mount.

Full Cataloguing

$80,000 - 120,000 

Sold for $101,600

Contact Specialist

Sarah Krueger
Head of Department, Photographs


Vanessa Hallett
Worldwide Head of Photographs and Chairwoman, Americas


New York Auction 11 October 2023