Ralph Steiner was an American photographer, pioneer documentarian and a key figure among avant-garde filmmakers in the 1930s. Born in Cleveland, Steiner studied chemistry at Dartmouth, but in 1921 entered the Clarence H. White School of Modern Photography. White helped Steiner in finding a job at the Manhattan Photogravure Company, and Steiner worked on making photogravure plates of scenes from Robert Flaherty
's 1922 Nanook of the North.
Not long after, Steiner's work as a freelance photographer in New York began, working mostly in advertising and for publications like Ladies' Home Journal. With fellow graduate Anton Bruehl
(1900–1982), in 1925, they opened a studio on 47th Street, producing a narrative series of amusing table-top shots of three cut‑out figures dressed in suits for The New Yorker
magazine; advertisements for Weber and Heilbroner menswear in a running weekly series. Their client was wiped out in the Wall Street Crash.
Through the encouragement of fellow photographer Paul Strand
, Steiner joined the left-of-center Film and Photo League
around 1927. He was also to influence the photography of Walker Evans
, giving him guidance, technical assistance, and one of his view cameras.
Steiner's still photographs are notable for their odd angles, abstraction and sometimes bizarre subject matter; the 1944 image Gypsy Rose Lee and Her Girls
is sometimes mistaken for Weegee
. His experimental films, however, are considered central to the literature of early American avant-garde cinema, and the influence of Ralph Steiner's visual style continues to assert itself; for example, contemporary avant-garde filmmaker Timoleon Wilkins
cites Steiner as an inspiration. In his appreciation of Steiner, author Scott McDonald
expands that list to include Dorsky
, Andrew Noren
, Larry Gottheim
and Peter Hutton
. The links between the first generation of American avant-garde filmmakers such as Steiner with the second – exemplified by Maya Deren
, Stan Brakhage
and others – are few, but Steiner is among those who managed to bridge the gap.
At the end of the 1960s Steiner relocated to Vermont. After making three more films he devoted himself to photographing clouds for nearly twenty years, primarily on the coast of Maine and in Oaxaca, Mexico. Clouds have been of longstanding interest to painters throughout the history of art. In photography, the subject is often associated with Alfred Stieglitz
, who made photographs of clouds entitled Equivalents, believing them to appeal directly to the subconscious mind. Steiner similarly saw the evocative potential in cloud formations, although he felt the meaning of any given image was far more mercurial than his predecessor.
Leaving his works deliberately untitled, he invites viewers to use their imaginations and provide their own titles, which, in his estimation, becomes a process of testing out different descriptions and metaphors. In 1985, shortly before his death, Steiner published a book of these studies, In Pursuit of Clouds.