30 Timeless Edward Steichen Quotes to Advance your Photography

Looking for the best Edward Steichen quotes? Then you’ve come to the right place. Below we’ve listed our favorite quotes from one of the most important photographers of the twentieth-century to inspire and help take your photography to the next level.

Edward Steichen Quotes

A photograph is worth a thousand words, provided it is accompanied by only ten words.

Once you really commence to see things, then you really commence to feel things.

When that shutter clicks, anything else that can be done afterward is not worth consideration.

Long before the birth of a word language the caveman communicated by visual images. The invention of photography gave visual communication its most simple, direct, universal language.

Usefulness has always been attractive in the art of photography.

Photography records the gamut of feelings written on the human face – the beauty of the earth and skies that man has inherited; and the wealth and confusion that man has created. It is a major force in explaining man to man.

You know… that a blank wall is an appalling thing to look at. The wall of a museum – a canvas – a piece of film – or a guy sitting in front of a typewriter. Then, you start out to do something – that vague thing called creation. The beginning strikes awe within you.

Every other artist begins (with) a blank canvas, a piece of paper… the photographer begins with the finished product.

When I first became interested in photography… my idea was to have it recognized as one of the fine arts. Today I don’t give a hoot in hell about that. The mission of photography is to explain man to man and each to himself. And that is the most complicated things on earth and almost as naïve as a tender plant.

Photography is a medium of formidable contradictions. It is both ridiculously easy and almost impossibly difficult. It is easy because its technical rudiments can readily be mastered by anyonwith a few simple instructions. It is difficult because, while while the artist working in any other medium begins with a blank surface and gradually brings his conception into being, the photographer is the only imagemaker who begins with the picture completed. His emotions, his knowledge, and his native talent are brought into focus and fixed beyond recall the moment the shutter of his camera has closed.

Edward Steichen Quotes 1

Steichen on Portraits and Nude Photography

Most photographers seem to operate with a pane of glass between themselves and their subjects. They just can’t get inside and know the subject.

A portrait must get beyond the almost universal self-consciousness that people have before the camera. If at some moment of reality… did not happen, you had to provoke it in order to… awaken a genuine response.

A portrait is not made in the camera but on either side of it.

The people in the audience looked at the pictures, and the people in the pictures looked back at them. They recognized each other.

In none of these figures is the face visible. For many years everyone had prejudices against posing in the nude, and even professional models usually insisted, when they posed for nude pictures, that their faces be not shown.

Rodin, Thinking
Rodin, The Thinker, 1902 © Edward Steichen Estate

Equipment and Light Quotes

No photographer is as good as the simplest camera.


I was coming to realize that the real magician was light itself – mysterious and ever-changing light with its accompanying shadows rich and full of mystery.

Some day there may be… machinery that needs but to be wound up and sent roaming o’er hill and dale, through fields and meadows, by babbling brooks and shady woods – in short, a machine that will discriminately select its subject and, by means of a skillful arrangement of springs and screws, compose its motif, expose the plate, develop, print, and even mount and frame the result of its excursion, so that there will be nothing for us to do but to send it to the Royal Photographic Society’s exhibition and gratefully to receive the ‘Royal Medal’

Steichen on Printing

It is rather amusing, this tendency of the wise to regard a print which has been locally manipulated as irrational photography – this tendency which finds an esthetic tone of expression in the word faked. A manipulated print may be not a photograph. The personal intervention between the action of the light and the print itself may be a blemish on the purity of photography. But, whether this intervention consists merely of marking, shading and tinting in a direct print, or of stippling, painting and scratching on the negative, or of using glycerine, brush and mop on a print, faking has set in, and the results must always depend upon the photographer, upon his personality, his technical ability and his feeling. BUT long before this stage of conscious manipulation has been begun, faking has already set in.

In the very beginning, when the operator controls and regulates his time of exposure, when in dark-room the developer is mixed for detail, breadth, flatness or contrast, faking has been resorted to. In fact, every photograph is a fake from start to finish, a purely impersonal, unmanipulated photograph being practically impossible. When all is said, it still remains entirely a matter of degree and ability.


Edward Steichen Quotes on Art

Art for art’s sake is dead, if it ever lived.

The use of the term “art medium” is, to say the least, misleading, for it is the artist that creates a work of art not the medium. It is the artist in photography that gives form to content by a distillation of ideas, thought, experience, insight and understanding.

Today I am no longer concerned with photography as an art form. I believe it is potentially the best medium for explaining man to himself and to his fellow man.

I don’t care about making photography an art. I want to make good photographs. I’d like to know who first got it into his head that dreaminess and mist is an art. Take things as they are; take good photographs and the art will take care of itself.

Edward Steichen Quotes 2

Experimentation and Finding your Style


The precision of his (Harry Callahan) skill places his work beyond the tentative and the experimental stage. He is continually searching and exploring both himself and his surroundings. and in this exploration of the realm of places, people and things, contrasts and relationships, Callahan is no respecter of conventional technical formula or code. His delicate sense of pattern is an integral part of his photography and not a thing by itself.

There is only one optimist. He has been here since man has been on this earth, and that is man himself. If we hadn’t had such a magnificent optimism to carry us through all these things, we wouldn’t be here. We have survived it on our optimism.

If it were possible for any one person or group of persons to go through a photographic finishing plant’s work at the end of a day, you could probably pull out the most extraordinary photographic exhibition we’ve ever seen. On almost any subject. The trouble is to find the things.

To make good photographs, to express something, to contribute something to the world he lives in, and to contribute something to the art of photography besides imitations of the best photographers on the market today, that is basic training, the understanding of self.

It is an error common to many artists, [who] strive merely to avoid mistakes, when all our efforts should be to create positive and important work. Better positive and important with mistakes and failures than perfect mediocrity.

Steichen, Maypole
The Maypole (Empire State Building). New York, 1932 © Edward Steichen Estate

What’s your Favorite Edward Steichen Quote?

Have a favorite Edward Steichen quote from the list? Let us know in the comment section below.

Don’t forget to bookmark this page, or print it out, and refer to it next time you need some inspiration. Also, don’t forget to share it with others through the usual channels (social media, forums, websites, etc).

To see more of Steichen’s timeless photography, check out his biography and image archive on the MoMA website.

Looking for more words of wisdom from master photographers? Visit the quotes section of Photogpedia for more great photography quotes.

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David

Founder of Photogpedia.com. Photography enthusiast, occasional filmmaker, part-time writer and full-time dreamer. Rediscovered photography in 2012 and have been trying to level up my photography skills since (I'm getting there) #chasingthecreative

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