Having had a lifelong interest in photographs and photography, I am fascinated by photographs that have come to be regarded as iconic for one reason or another.
One such photograph is that taken of American financier, banker and art collector John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) by Edward Steichen.
Before looking at that photograph, which appears later in this post, it is necessary to know something of the life of J P Morgan.
(Click on photographs to enlarge).
America’s leading financier at the height of his career in the early 1900’s, he was the founder of the US Steel Corporation, as well as having merged various corporations to form General Electric. His estate was worth only $80m on his death, about $1.4 billion today, prompting Rockefeller to comment “And to think he wasn’t even a rich man.” Morgan’s power, however, did not lie in the money he owned but in the billions that he controlled. At various times he helped the US Government out of financial crises but was criticised for the harsh termss he exacted. The practice of finance barons ruthlessly taking over whole industries for the purpose of increasing their fortunes, as J P Morgan did with railroads, steel and shipping, became known as “Morganizing”.
Morgan was booked to travel on the Titanic’s maiden voyage, the White Star Line being part of Morgan’s International Mercantile Marine Company. He was to have his own private suite and promenade deck on the ship but cancelled at the last moment.
In his personal life, Morgan was hard, imposing and a powerful presence. He had broad shoulders and piercing eyes. One person commented that a visit from Morgan left him feeling "as if a gale had blown through the house." Because of a chronic skin disease, Morgan had a purple nose marked by pits, fissures, nodules and a sebaceous growth. Rather than being shy because of his appearance, it made him more aggressive and bolder, looking people squarely in the eye when he met them almost as if he willed them to turn away first. Nonetheless he hated having his photo taken and all photographs of him were retouched.
JP Morgan yells in anger at photographers.
In 1906 Morgan was having his portrait painted but he was a bad sitter and the artist was becoming exasperated. In desperation, the artist sought permission to have a photographer take some photographs to assist with the portrait. Morgan agreed but said that the session would be limited to 2 minutes.
Edward Steichen (1879-1973), an American photographer, painter and art gallery and museum curator, at age 27 was selected by the artist to take the Morgan photographs. He arrived 30 minutes early and positioned the janitor in the chair to work out lighting and angles. When Morgan arrived he sat in the chair and glowered at the camera. Steichen took the photograph and asked Morgan to move his head around. Morgan did so but immediately returned to the position of glowering directly at the camera. Steichen took another photograph and the two minutes was up. As he left, he flipped five $100 bills at the painter and said to give them to the photographer.
When Steichen had the photos printed and met with Morgan, he showed him the first print and Morgan ordered a dozen copies. Then he showed him the second photograph that had been taken. Morgan took one look and ripped it into pieces.
The photo showed Morgan angry, cold eyes looking straight at the camera, a dark figure in a dark location with only some features highlighted. Morgan has his hand on the arm of the chair on which he is sitting but the light falling on the arm makes it appear that Morgan is holding a dagger, pointed at the viewer in a menacing manner. Whether by intent or accident, the photograph was considered to perfectly sum up the character and personality of the subject.
Morgan subsequently offered $5,000 for the photograph but this was refused by Alfred Stieglitz, who then owned the rights.
Did Steichen intend the effect? He had looked at lighting and angles beforehand but was it an accident or deliberate?
According to Penelope Niven, the author of a book about Steichen entitled appropriately Steichen:
"The light catches (Morgan's) gold chain and watch, the white sheen of his hair and his starched collar, and the warm gloss of the arm of the chair, looking for all the world like a knife poised in his hand for attack. That was pure accident, not intention, Steichen claimed afterward of the stunning illusion of the tycoon armed with the deadly knife."
Steichen commented on the photograph:
"Over the years people have referred to the insight into Morgan's real character that I showed by photographing him with a dagger in his hand. But this was their own fanciful interpretation of Morgan's hand firmly grasping the arm of the chair. It is not only photographers who read meaning into their photographs."