(1899 – 1986)
Eventually I discovered for myself the utterly simple prescription for creativity; be intensly yourself. Don’t try to be outstanding; don’t try to be a success;don’t try to do pictures for others to look at- just please yourself.
– Ralph Steiner – A Point of View
Ralph Steiner, while studying chemical engineering at Dartmouth, discovered photography. Steiner has a scientific bent as well as a lyric visual one, and has used his knowledge of chemistry and physics with great enthusiasm to solve photographic problems.
After Dartmouth, Steiner studied at the Clarence H. White School of Photography in 1921 and 1922, although he was not in agreement with the painting-oriented design instruction that dominated the curriculum.
In the late 1920’s he met Paul Strand in New York. Strand’s prints were a revelation that left Steiner deeply dissatisfied with the commercial work he was then doing. He began teaching himself better craftsmanship, working with an 8 x l0″ camera format, photographing “objects with texture,” producing such well-known images as his Nehi sign pictures, his Ford car series, and his photograph of a rocking chair.
Steiner’s career has alternated between periods doing advertising, public relations (Gypsy Rose Lee was one of his subjects), and editorial photography to accumulate funds, and periods spent making still photographs and films for himself. His second effort as a cinematographer, H2O, is often cited as the second earliest American art film (after Manhatta by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler). Steiner also made Cafe Universal, animprovised, semi-dramatic anti-war film based on drawings by George Grosz, cast with leading members of the Group Theater. His film on a New York City dump starred Elia Kazan in a largely improvised role.
Steiner and Paul Strand were hired by Pare Lorentz as the cameramen on The Plow That Broke the Plains; they directed much of that landmark documentary as well. With Willard Van Dyke, and Paul Strand, Steiner shot and directed the documentary The City,which ran for a year at the New York World’s Fair of 1939. In the late 1930’s he worked as a picture editor on PM, and in advertising and public relations work. His opting of the film rights to the biography of H.S. Maxim, an eccentric 19th century inventor, led him to Hollywood where he spent four years as a writer/executive. On his glad return to New York, with an out-of-date portfolio, Walker Evans gave him photographic assignments for Fortune.
In the 1960’s Steiner finally began to be able to devote most of his time to his personal photography and cinematography. He moved to rural Vermont in 1963, spending summers on a Maine island, and his work since then includes many lyrical images from those landscapes, coastline hills, and washes on rural clotheslines.
Many of Steiner’s lyrical, sometimes gently satirical photographs can be seen as conveying, along with sophistication and concern, a sense of wonder about the 20th century which he entered at the age of one, and yet has been so much a part of.
Steiner’s autobiography, A Point of View, was published in 1978. Among exhibitions of his work were a one-man show in 1949 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and exhibitions in 1981 at the Milwaukee Art Center (with Walker Evans) and at the Northlight Gallery in Tempe, Arizona (with Wright Morris).