Steichen’s Navy

With museum-quality photographs, Edward Steichen showed the world what it was like to be a sailor at war.

His staff shot men and machines—here, a ship's crew watching a TBF hoisted aboard. (National Archives)
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Before Edward Steichen joined the U.S. Navy in January 1942, he had been chief photographer for Condé Nast magazines Vogue and Vanity Fair, a commercial photographer for the J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and a painter exhibited in Paris salons. He was in his mid-60s when he went to war for the second time. During World War I, he had helped establish the first U.S. aerial reconnaissance operation, originally for the Army Signal Corps, later under the auspices of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service. Traces of the fashion photographer, ad man, fine artist, and patriot show up in the photographs made by him and by the six photographers he recruited to document World War II naval operations.

In the first world war, Steichen had managed to get into the Army’s photographic division, even though in 1917, at 38, he was eight years past the age limit for recruits. A U.S. citizen, he had been living in France when the war began, and, beyond his ambition to be a war photographer, he wanted to help resist German aggression. He was proud of his service; for years afterward, he listed himself in the New York telephone directory as “Steichen, Col. Edward J.”

He first tried to reenlist in the military in the fall of 1940 but was turned down. In October 1941, the Museum of Modern Art invited him to design a photo exhibition on the theme of national defense. He selected the photographs; his brother-in-law, the poet Carl Sandburg, wrote the captions. Before they completed the work, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and when the exhibit was hung in May 1942, it was called “The Road to Victory,” in order to promote the war effort.

In the meantime, Steichen continued his efforts to serve in combat, eventually coming to the attention of a Navy captain, Arthur Radford, who would later become chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Late in 1941, Radford was in charge of Navy pilot training. With the responsibility to recruit up to 30,000 pilots a year—in the face of stiff competition from the Army Air Forces—Radford saw the wisdom of exploiting the talents of Edward Steichen.

“I received a telephone call from the Navy Department in Washington asking me if I would be interested in photographing for the Navy,” Steichen recalled in his autobiography A Life in Photography. “I almost crawled through the telephone wire with eagerness.”

According to photography historian Christopher Phillips, author of Steichen at War, Naval photography prior to World War II depicted “machines, equipment, ships, airplanes.” Wayne Miller, a wartime photographer who worked for Steichen, says photographers made images of “formal occasions on board ship, ceremonies such as crossing the equator, broken parts.”

But Steichen had joined up to run an advertising campaign: Your Navy at War. Peter Galassi, curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, says that in choosing what to photograph, Steichen “was selecting for really good advertisements.”

An outstanding example, taken in October 1942, shows the U.S. flag flying over the flight deck of the escort carrier Santee. U.S. Camera 1944, a major photo annual, stated that “no picture taken during the war has had as great popular usage as this one. It has been on magazine covers, in newspaper pages, on posters. Almost every editor who has seen the picture feels that it is the perfect flag photograph.”

Horace Bristol, who took the photo, was one of the men whom Steichen recruited. Most came in as civilians; Bristol had been with Life from the first issue and had accompanied writer John Steinbeck during the travels in California that inspired The Grapes of Wrath. Charles Fenno Jacobs, another recruit, also had worked for Life. Charles Kerlee had made his name as an outstanding commercial illustrator. Victor Jorgensen had built a strong reputation at the Portland Oregonian. Wayne Miller, the only rookie, was already in the Navy and showed Steichen a portfolio, hoping to join his crew. Years later, Miller recalls Steichen telling him, “It wasn’t your photos that impressed me; your photos were lousy. It was your youth and enthusiasm.”

Seen today, some of their work has an old-fashioned, message-laden quality. Phillips notes that the photos “appear too technically perfect, too perfectly composed.” On Iwo Jima, for instance, Steichen photographed the fingers of a Japanese soldier protruding from a shallow grave. Phillips says the photo makes him wonder if Steichen enhanced the scene by brushing away dirt.

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