Oh, You Must’a Been a Visually Literate Baby

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Edward Steichen (1879–1973) was an American photographer, painter, and art gallery and museum curator. He was associated with fellow photographer Alfred Stieglitz in his magazine Camera Work during its run from 1903 to 1917. Steichen, a graphic designer too, designed the logo and a custom typeface for the magazine. He may be best known for conceiving The Family of Man in 1955, a grand photo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art consisting of over 500 photos that depicted life, love and death in 68 countries (with a catalog famously designed by Leo Lionni).

One of Steichen’s daughters was Dr. Mary Steichen Martin Calderone (1904-98), a physician and a public health advocate for sexual education, president and co-founder of the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States, and also the medical director for Planned Parenthood.

In 1930, they collaborated on a wordless book, The First Picture Book: Everyday Things for Babies. The following are some of the spare images shot by Steichen that prefigure pop art and suggest the interest in commonplace things that has become a genre with the likes of Ed Rucha and others.


Martin wrote in the Preface: “When my two children reached the state of interest in pictures, search found practically none which could be considered either satisfying to them or in line with modern educational theory. Therefore I set about providing a book of such pictures, not only for my own but for other children faced with a similar need. The pictures here presented have had the seal of approval of the children in a progressive country nursery school . . .

“Herein lies the essence of a baby’s satisfaction in pictures: he likes to recognize what he knows; it is a little triumph for him. It is also a comfort and pleasure . . .”

At the time, few if any books for children were photographic. Photos were too real, they did not offer the imaginative intervention of a drawing, which might be just as real life, but mediated by an artist. Mary Steichen did not agree: “Not only are most pictures inadequate,” she wrote, “but also too often they are colored by the artist’s viewpoint and personality, thus presenting a falsified image of the object. Therefore photographs have been used. The photographer [her father] . . . has eliminated as far as possible any misleading play of light and shadow. Each object has been presented as ‘objectively’ as possible, so that no ‘effect’ should confuse the child”

She rejected a “fantasy habit,” and wrote that “Reality is of prime importance in the first three years of life.” A baby who really knew life would be a better child and more secure adult. The concept behind this wordless book was to integrate picture and word, in the form of speech. “Talk to the child, of things which he knows, connected in a pattern of his own experience, in terms with which he is familiar.”

Steichen’s photographs serve the purpose well, but decades later their is a sublime prescience of the post-modern embrace of the quotidian as an art unto itself.

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →