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Sunburn, New York

Edward Steichen
Sunburn, New York, 1925
Gelatin silver print, toned
24 × 19.4 cm
Purchased 1999
© Joanna T. Steichen

Sunburn, New York stands out from the more conventional portraits of socialites and celebrities that Edward Steichen was making in the 1920s. This closely cropped study of the face of a young woman staring unflinchingly into the lens of the camera has a rare emotional intensity. Many years later, in the early 1960s, Steichen observed that "a portrait must get beyond the almost universal self-consciousness people have before the camera. . . . The essential thing [is] to awaken a genuine response."

Here the head appears in the centre of the picture space as a disembodied element, elegantly balanced, like a Brancusi sculpture. The sombre background and dark hair frame the woman's oval-shaped head, accentuating its finely formed features. The sitter who posed for Sunburn, New York is unidentified, but she is believed to have been either an assistant to Steichen or a visitor to his studio.

Steichen's widow, Joanna Steichen, claimed that her husband's motive in making this portrait was simply his fascination with the woman's dark tan. But the fact that Steichen would have made a portrait of such intense and apparently intimate overtones at this point in his life remains intriguing. A dramatically composed and close portrait such as this one stands in direct contrast to the more impersonal portraits he was making commercially for readers of Vogue and Vanity Fair in the 1920s. The portrait also relates significantly to the extraordinary series of photographic portraits that Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand were making in the early 1920s, of Georgia O'Keeffe and Rebecca Salsbury respectively. Steichen was especially unstinting in his praise of the many portraits that Stieglitz made of his wife Georgia O'Keeffe over a twenty-seven-year period, beginning in 1917.