Dean Koontz and Edward Steichen: What the Night Really Knows

I recently started reading the latest Dean Koontz novel, What the Night Knows. As is typical of a Koontz book, I was captivated by the story from the very first page. Also as is typical of his work, I had not gone too far before I found a reference to something that I decided to check out on the Internet. Or, more precisely, someone that I decided to check out on the Internet.

When Detective John Calvino, the hero of the story, meets young Billy Lucas, who may or may not be a villain in the story, Koontz refers to the young man's appearance as being reminiscent of the glamor photos of Edward Steichen from the early 20th century. This brought a certain image to mind, but I could not be certain of the imagery because I was not familiar with the photographer. This, I thought, requires further investigation.

What I found was that Edward Steichen was considered to be, among other things, the first modern fashion photographer, beginning with a series of photos he did in 1911 for the magazine Art et Décoration of robes designed by Paul Poiret. The certain image I had in my mind's eye had been correct. In a sense, Steichen was the father of modern glamor photography, but I was soon to learn that Edward Steichen was much more than that.

An example of Edward Steichen's glamor photography
An example of Edward Steichen's glamor photography

Steichen was born Éduard Jean Steichen on March 27, 1879 in Bivange, Luxembourg, but immigrated with his family to the United States in 1881 where they settled in Chicago, IL until moving to Milwaukee, WI in 1989. There Éduard would sketch and draw and even taught himself to paint.

He gained an apprenticeship at the American Fine Art Company in 1894 at the age of 15. Young Éduard bought his first camera in 1895, a secondhand Kodak box camera. About this same time, he formed the Milwaukee Art Students League with friends who also enjoyed art and photography.

A self portrait of Steichen early in his career
A self portrait of Steichen early in his career
An older photograph of the celebrated photographer and artist
An older photograph of the celebrated photographer and artist

Éduard became a naturalized citizen in 1900, he signed the papers as "Edward" and, though he continued to use "Éduard" for a time, this became the spelling by which he was known. In 1903 he married Clara Smith, the first of his three wives with whom he would have two children, Katharine and Mary. After divorcing Clara in 1922, he married Dana Desboro Glover a year later. She died of leukemia in 1957. In 1960 he married his third wife, Joanna Taub, who was more tha 50 years younger than he was. They stayed married until his death.

From 1903 through 1917, no other photographer appeared in the groundbreaking magazine Camera Work than Steichen. This led to a partnership with Alfred Stieglitz, the magazine's publisher. Together they opened the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession which became known as 291 after its street address. The gallery was the first American gallery to feature the works of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Auguste Rodin, among others.

The noted photographer served in both World Wars, first with the US Army then with the US Navy for the second war. He commanded units that were responsible for significant military photography during these conflicts.

He also worked for both Vogue and Vanity Fair from 1923 - 1938 while also working for major advertising firms. During these years he was the best known photographer in United States and also the highest paid. But his interests did not end with photography.

Steichen was also a respected painter and a museum curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art. As previously mentioned he also ran an art gallery. He won the 1945 Academy Award for best Documentary for his film The Fighting Lady.

Steichen's 1928 portrait of Greta Garbo is considered on of the definitive portraits of her
Steichen's 1928 portrait of Greta Garbo is considered on of the definitive portraits of her
Dolores Del Rio never looked more lovely than when captured by Steichen's lens
Dolores Del Rio never looked more lovely than when captured by Steichen's lens
Steichen had a knack for bringing out the mystique in his subjects such as Gary Cooper
Steichen had a knack for bringing out the mystique in his subjects such as Gary Cooper

Some of the accomplishments for which Edward Steichen is recognized include:

  • The Family of Man, an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art featuring over 500 photographs that illustrated life, love and death in over 60 countries.
  • Presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson in 1963.
  • In February 2006, Steichen's early photo, The Pond - Midnight (1904), sold for $2.9 million, the highest price ever paid for a photograph at that time.
  • Began experimenting with color photography in 1904 and was one of the first photographers to us the Autochrome Lumière process.
  • Served as both the commander of the photographic division of the US Army's American Expeditionary Forces and the Director of the U.S. Naval Photographic Institute.

Steichen's influence can be seen not only in the photographs of his time but also in many of the photos taken by professional photographers today. His photos have both a timelessness and a nostalgia that immediately identifies them as being from the time they are. In short, when Dean Koontz refers to Steichen's glamor photography, the image it brings to mind is vibrant and clear, and just like that, for better or worse, we know Billy Lucas a little more intimately.

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Comments 2 comments

Tim Rigney 5 years ago

The picture of the old man with the beard is not Edward Steichen; it is Constantin Brancusi, a sculpter from Austria who worked in France. See the article in Wikipedia on Steichen himself, where it is given as an example of his work. (It's towards the bottom of the article.) The photo was taken at Steichen's house.


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DarkSinistar 4 years ago from North Carolina Author

I am almost certain the picture is Steichen. The New York Times identifies it as Steichen and I have to say I trust them a bit more than Wikipedia. Thanks for the input, but I am 99% sure Wikipedia is wrong.

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