Breakfast, anyone? This wry composition by Ralph Steiner is currently on view in From Riches to Rags: American Photography in the Depression. A leading photographer of the era, Steiner was one of five modern masters featured in a photography exhibition organized by the museum in 1934. Renowned for his images of the urban environment, Steiner was also a key figure in bringing modernism’s radical visual strategies, which were barely accepted by museums, into American homes. How? Through the pages of popular magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal, Fortune, and Life.
Born in Cleveland into a working-class, Czech immigrant family, Steiner studied at the Clarence H. White School of Photography in New York, a nexus for the introduction of modernism into American photography and advertising. In contrast to the previous era’s use of soft focus and romanticized Pictorialist scenes, modernism advocated sharply focused images that emphasized geometric compositions.
Steiner produced this photograph as an illustration for The Delineator, a popular women’s magazine. It “represented my revolt when a food editor of a woman’s magazine set before my camera a plate of raggedly trimmed ham and two runny eggs,” Steiner reminisced. “I ran out to buy six dozen eggs, induced the editor to trim both ham and eggs into perfect Euclidian circles, and made my version of that classic dish.” In a more biting recital of the incident, he described the mandala of eggs as “what I did to avoid certification to a mental hospital when told to photograph a plate of ham and eggs. . . . My escape was to amuse myself.”
Despite his deprecating remarks, the exquisitely composed and expertly lit Ham and Eggs has become one of Steiner’s most beloved images. Whether working on personal projects or commissions, Steiner, always an artist, applied the modernist aesthetic to promoting American products with the goal of merging fine art and commercial photography.
Cleveland Art, November/December 2017