The first time Edward Steichen tried to enlist in the U.S. armed forces, he was turned down flat: at 38, the army told him, he was already six years over the age limit. That was 1917, during the First World War. On the eve of America’s entry into the Second World War, he tried again—at age 62.
Steichen had renown going for him, but even that was fading. In the 1920s and ’30s he had been the highest-paid advertising and portrait photographer in the United States. A protégé of the great photography pioneer Alfred Steiglitz, Steichen had photographed statesmen and celebrities like Greta Garbo, the playwright Eugene O’Neill, and J. P. Morgan.
But in 1938 Steichen had given it all up, closed his New York studio, and retreated to his country home in Connecticut to grow delphiniums. Announcing his retirement, Time magazine observed that Steichen’s style of “stagy” studio shots had become a relic of a bygone age, overtaken by the stark realism of documentary photographers.
Back in 1917, dreaming of becoming the Mathew Brady of the Great War, Steichen had finally managed to talk himself into the Army Signal Corps—assigned to aerial photoreconnaissance. But he had never forgotten his dream of chronicling a war as it unfolded.
A few months before Pearl Harbor, he showed up unannounced at army headquarters in Washington to offer his services again. When the army said no, he tried the navy, pulling strings and working every connection he knew, from museum trustees to newspaper editors, and eventually was ushered in to see the chief of naval aviation, Captain Arthur Radford. As Mark D. Faran recounts in his book Faces of War, Radford thought a famous photographer was just what he needed to promote and glamorize naval aviation—and to help recruit tens of thousands of new pilots, in competition with the army—but he was taken aback when this white-haired, professorial-looking man entered his office. Clearly Radford was expecting someone much younger.
Steichen saw the officer’s look of dismay but mercifully Radford’s phone rang, which gave him a moment to pull his thoughts together for the biggest sales pitch of his life. “The moment Captain Radford hung up,” Steichen recalled, “I started talking fast.” He swiftly convinced Radford that, with his press contacts, he could get him all the publicity he wanted.
Persuading the navy bureaucracy was another story. Steichen flunked his physical (“defective vision, insufficient teeth, moderate sclerosis, tachycardia”) and it took the intervention of the secretary of the navy to get him commissioned.
Over the next three years Steichen and the half dozen photographers he recruited for Training Literature Field Unit No. 1 produced 14,000 extraordinary images that remain one of the most indelible archives of war photography. (“We discovered it was easier to get funding for what we needed under the name of ‘training,’” one of Steichen’s photographers said.) Landing on beaches in the Pacific, scrambling across the flaming deck of a carrier hit by kamikazes, tiptoeing through an amputee ward, sitting in on a poker game belowdecks with the ship’s black messmen, crashing across the waves in a PT boat, standing for hours behind the pilot of a dive bomber as it attacked Wake Island, Steichen’s photographers were everywhere. Steichen himself barely missed being killed when a plane crashed on the Lexington and he leapt into a safety net over the side. (“But I got the shot,” he boasted.)
Steichen proved not just an inspiring mentor to his team but an adept bureaucratic player, buttering up admirals with offers to shoot their portraits and getting them to issue travel orders that astonished everyone who read them—allowing his men to go anywhere, even bumping senior officers out of scarce seats on flights.
After the war, Steichen launched a third career as the curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His photographic legacy of the war resides to this day in the National Archives, the property of the nation he went to such extraordinary lengths to serve.