Bypassing the Navy photo organization, Steichen drew on Radford’s support to gain unprecedented independence. His photographers avoided Navy-issue cameras, choosing their own models. They did not develop their film in the field but sent it to a lab that Steichen operated in Washington. Steichen exercised tight control over the developing and printing, emphasizing repeatedly that he wanted dark prints with excellent contrast. When Steichen himself photographed a Grumman F6F Hellcat fighter taking off from the deck of the USS Lexington, he caught the aircraft within a pool of what might have been reflected moonlight. In fact, the photo had been made on a bright afternoon.
Radford interceded with Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander-in-chief in the Pacific, to win the right for Steichen and crew to virtually write their own orders. Barrett Gallagher, who joined the group in 1944, later wrote of requesting duty on the staff of a certain admiral: “He had not heard of me and he asked what my orders were. I told him my orders were to go anywhere I liked, do whatever I wanted, and go home when I felt like it. After he had read them he said, ‘Damned if they don’t’ and took me on.”
Still, it took more than professional freedom and tight technical control to make really memorable photos. At times, it took luck. Steichen won a combat assignment when he embarked on the Lexington, which supported the invasion of Tarawa, one of the most significant battles in the Pacific campaign. A Japanese torpedo crippled the ship’s steering and a misfiring machine gun sent a stream of rounds in his general direction, but Steichen failed to capture a good shot of the action. The war’s great action shots—a kamikaze attack on the carrier Bunker Hill, for example, or the USS Yorktown at the moment its hull was blasted by a torpedo during the Battle of Midway—were made not by the artists under Steichen’s command but by ordinary combat photographers. The enlistees, notes MoMA’s Galassi, “made one great picture after another. They made extraordinary pictures, not because they were art photos, but because they were trying to describe what was there in front of them.”
What, then, did Steichen and his men contribute? His own directions to his photographers were, “Be sure to bring back some photographs that will satisfy the Navy brass, but spend most of your time making those photographs which you feel should be made. Above all, concentrate on the men. The ships and planes will become obsolete, but the men will always be there.”
He provided the model for them to follow in mid-1943, when he visited submarine facilities at Groton and New London, Connecticut. Here his chief subjects were the workers. A portrait of a woman in saddle shoes and jeans, poring over a blueprint, is reminiscent of his pre-war fashion photography.
When the war ended, Steichen returned to the Museum of Modern Art as director of photography and produced the epic 1955 exhibition “The Family of Man.” Here, very late in his career, he once again focused on people, the subject that fascinated him throughout the war and throughout his life.