How do you select just 20 photographs from a collection of almost 200? This is the challenge that the museum faces every three months when we curate a selection of prints to show in our Steichen Cabinet. For conservation reasons, we need to swap out the light-sensitive prints on a regular basis, some of which date back to the 1910s and 1920s. Each show is designed to illustrate a different facet of Steichen’s work, which ranges from portrayals of the stars of his time to more intimate family portraits, from lyrical landscapes to rare experiments with colour.
This time round, we invited Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf and Belgian
visual artist Hans Op de Beeck to guest curate a selection of prints in
the Steichen cabinet for us, offering a new way into this fascinating
collection of historical prints. Staged as part of their joint
exhibition Inspired by Steichen, on show until 11 June, the two artists
brought their unique perspective to bear on our extensive collection.
The resulting show opened on 7 March in presence of one of the guest
curators, Hans Op de Beeck, and our resident fine arts curator Ruud
Interestingly, the two artists were often drawn to the same pieces
when choosing the works for the show. As Ruud Priem notes, “They each
have a unique way of seeing the world, but they often pick up on the
same things.” This is also evident in the Inspired by Steichen show,
which draws attention to the parallels in Hans Op de Beeck’s and Erwin
Olaf’s practices. As Hans points out: “We were producing very similar
images – the idea of floating, being adrift and the unknown seemed to
preoccupy us both”.
He adds that: “We very easily found common ground to make the selection for the Steichen Cabinet”. The resulting show features a number of portraits, but also natural subjects and a striking picture of New York’s Sixth Avenue at night dating back to 1925. When asked how he went about curating the show, Hans notes that: “When it comes to images, I always choose very intuitively. I think a good artwork, regardless of the technique or medium, instantly speaks to you.” The works on display caught the two artists’ attention and immersed them in the atmosphere of the print.
Often the subjects of the photographs look straight into the camera like Steichen’s daughter Mary (1910-20), others look off to the side like Mrs Condé Nast (1907) or are photographed from afar, but they all tell a story – and Erwin and Hans are storytellers at heart, bound by a fascination for the narrative potential of images. Their selection reflects the central questions they address in their practice; how to sculpt and paint with light, how to create open-ended narratives and immersive images and how to involve the viewer in the meaning-making process. The Artist’s View offers a fascinating glimpse into the minds of these two artists and illustrates the continued relevance and universal qualities of Steichen’s complex body of work.
Text: Katja Taylor / Images: Éric Chenal
Edward Steichen (1879-1973). The Artist’s View is on show in the Steichen Cabinet until 4 June 2023. Free entry.