Saturday, 15 December 2012

Tempest in a Tripod

Raymond Kirsch, the director general of BCEE, Luxembourg’s oldest and leading bank, is puzzled today. Edward Steichen’s widow has let out a caterwaul he could hear all the way from her home in Connecticut. Kirsch thought he had made all the right moves: he spent $133,000 of the bank’s money buying 64 of Edward Steichen’s prints, from one of his sister playing the piano in 1896 (his first) to one of his benignly obsessed arboreal studies at the end of his life in the 1960’s; he then went to the trouble of having an expert in Paris authenticate, and then had a handsome volume in an edition of 2000 copies printed to help celebrate Luxembourg’s preeminence this year as the Cultural Capital of Europe. What sent Steichen’s widow ballistic was the bank’s decision to print huge posters of several of the prints to decorate the festive sheets of the Grand Duchy this summer at the height of the tourist season.

“Sacrilegious,” she howled. And besides there was one misattribution in the “Homage” volume (what was described as a self portrait was actually shot by somebody else). Horrors! She’s threatening to sue—a bit after the fact since many of the photos have long since gone out of copyright.

The Steichen connection is one the Luxembourgeisie highly value: the book’s prefatory image is of the Grand Duchess Charlotte greeting the aging photographer in the White House on a State visit in 1966. Steichen spent the first eighteen months of his life in the Grand Duchy until his dirt-poor father emigrated to Hancock, Michigan to work the copper mines.

The latest episode in this mutual love affair of a successful emigrant is the establishment nine months ago of a permanent exhibition of his landmark 1955 Museum of Modern Art photo show “Family of Man” in Clervaux’s castle. (Incidentally, those New York hyperaesthetes who mocked it at the time as sentimental, too bourgeois, would bite their tongues had they made the 65 km rail journey up to Clervaux to check out how it has lasted. Marvelously. Eloquent. And a chrestomathy of America’s best photographers—along with many unsung anonyms.)

Strangely, this is not the first photo flap to give a sense of excitement to the notoriously bland Luxembourgeois. In November, two months before the Cultural Capital festival began, the city fathers became incensed over the cover photo of the main program publicity. It shows a black dancer in a crouching position.

The local daily, which is generally regarded as the mouthpiece of the local Catholic archbishop, shamefully derided the image as that of a cretin unable to stand up straight—like, presumably, local bankers!

When the photographer, Wolfgang Osterheld, unlike Edward Steichen, a 47-year-old immigrant from Wiesbaden and Paris, into Luxembourg, couldn’t get his complaint at this egregiously unfair criticism published in the Bishop’s paper, he had to turn to the Socialist tabloid to tell his side of the story.

His story is indeed unique and interesting. The son of a NATO diplomat, his growing up in Paris turned him against both the Bonn world view of his father and his Roman Catholic upbringing. A ’68-er, he ended up teaching German law at Nanterre. He also has a deep interest in New Age psychology, spending his only trip to Los Angeles tracking down a disciple of Carlos Casteñada.

His remove to the Grand Duchy was partly to seek European Union employment to support his photography habit. To that end, he has been publishing an EU sponsored quarterly, “Terminology and Translation,” to pay the bills for his wife and two small children.

His controversial photo is part of his just published book, “Portraits: Regard Sur La Creation Au Luxembourg” (Editions PHI, BP 66, L6401 Echternach, F. Lux 3500, Tirages par Pierre Iwanski, Paris, publié grâce au soutien du fonds culturel national.)

Osterheld is a bit touchy on the subject of financial support. Another memorial photo book has been printed by a local bank in an edition of 3000—for free distribution. His 1500 copies have no such Maecenas. He is a photographic autodidact, shooting only in Ilford black and white with his trusty old Hasselblad. He showed me a suite of his European artists shot at great personal time and expense. I expect he will be acclaimed eventually as the Atget of Euro Art.

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