Edward Steichen (1879-1973)
Edward Steichen (1879-1973)

The May Pole (The Empire State Building), 1932

Edward Steichen (1879-1973)
The May Pole (The Empire State Building), 1932
gelatin silver print
photographer's and Condé Nast copyright credit stamps and number '1345-21' in pencil (verso)
image/sheet: 9 1/2 x 7 1/2 in. (24.2 x 19.1 cm.)
Christie's, New York, October 5, 1999, lot 171;
with Keith de Lellis Gallery, New York;
Vintage Works, Ltd., Calfont, Pennsylvania, 2010.
Edward Steichen, A Life in Photography, Doubleday & Company, Inc./ The Museum of Modern Art, Garden City, New York, 1963, pl. 213.
John Szarkowski, Photography Until Now, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1989, p. 192.
Joanna Steichen, Steichen's Legacy: Photographs, 1895-1973, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2000, pl. 198.

Lot Essay

From the ruins, lonely and inexplicable as the sphinx, rose the Empire State Building.

And just as it had been tradition of mine to climb to the Plaza roof to take leave of the beautiful city extending as far as the eyes could see, so now I went to the roof of that last and most magnificent of towers.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

For the first forty years after it opened in 1931, the Empire State building stood as the tallest building in the world. Designed by William F. Lamb, it quickly became an icon of Art Deco beauty, an architectural marvel canonized into glorious posterity following its naming as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Designed in a record two weeks and built in a gravity-defying thirteen-months, the building stretched 1,454 feet across 103 floors. By all standards, it epitomized America’s resurgence from the Great Depression and signaled the country’s direction as a leading industrial force, with New York City at its helm.

A year after its construction, Vanity Fair commissioned Edward Steichen to photograph the imposing edifice. Steichen had been defining the magazine’s vision since 1923 (a tenure that would last until 1937) with his crisp elegance, earning him the title of being among the world’s greatest living portrait photographers' by Vanity Fair’s editor Frank Crowninshield. The challenge with photographing the Empire State, the artist knew, was translating the awe-inspiring monumentality of the building onto the flat surface of a photograph. Ingeniously, Steichen chose to layer two separate negatives into a single frame, thereby imbuing the resulting image with a powerful sense of three-dimensionality and vitality. 'I conceived of the building as a Maypole and made the double exposure to suggest the swirl of a Maypole dance,' he later explained. Eighty years later, Steichen’s image of Empire State building still captures the breathless beauty, energy and dynamism of the building. It is not surprising, therefore, that when the magazine published the image in July of 1933 it proudly announced that the image had been selected to be presented as a mural for Chicago’s World’s Fair, whose motto, accordingly, was 'Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Adapts.'

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