The best-known photograph of John Pierpont Morgan—indeed, one of the most famous portrait photographs ever taken—was shot, almost casually, by Edward Steichen in 1903.
A painter named Fedor Encke had been commissioned to paint Morgan’s portrait, but Morgan, as always, was a reluctant and restless sitter, and Encke was having trouble finishing the picture. So the painter asked Steichen to take a photograph of Morgan for him to use, saying that Steichen could take a photograph for his own use while he was at it.
When Morgan arrived at the studio, Steichen quickly took the photograph Encke wanted and moved on to his own portrait. “1 suggested a different position of the hands and a movement of the head,” Steichen recalled many years later. “He took the head position, but said, in an irritated tone, that it was uncomfortable, so I suggested he move his head to a position that felt natural. He moved his head several times and ended exactly where it had been ‘uncomfortable’ before, except that this time he took the pose of his own volition. But his expression had sharpened and his body posture became tense, possibly a reflex of his irritation at the suggestion I had made. I saw a dynamic self-assertion had taken place, whatever its cause, and I quickly made the second exposure.”
Steichen thanked Morgan, and the banker, astonished, replied, “Is that all?”
“Yes, sir,” Steichen answered.
“I like you, young man,” said Morgan, delighted that the entire sitting had taken only three minutes. “I think we’ll get along first-rate together.” Out in the hall Morgan pulled a wad of money from his pocket and peeled off five $100 bills. “Give this to that young man,” he told Encke as he strode into the elevator. Encke duly handed over to Steichen what then amounted to six months’ wages for a skilled workman.
When the photographer developed the negatives, he became suddenly aware of Morgan’s “huge, more or less deformed, sick, bulbous nose.” At the sitting it had been Morgan’s flashing eyes that had commanded the photographer’s notice, but in the photograph the nose “riveted attention.” Not wanting to retouch it too much—for he surmised that Morgan was the warts-and-all type—Steichen only made Morgan’s nose “a little more vague and remove[d] spots that were repulsive.”
When he showed the photograph to Morgan, however, the banker took one look, pronounced it “terrible,” and tore it into shreds. Steichen, much miffed by the subject’s reaction, for he liked the picture a great deal, enlarged the negative and carefully produced a print that he gave to his friend and fellow photographer Alfred Stieglitz.
Sometime later Morgan’s librarian, Belle da Costa Greene, saw it and borrowed it to show Morgan. Greene, who had worked intimately with Morgan for many years and knew him better than anyone outside his immediate family, thought it the best portrait of him that existed in any medium. Morgan, entirely forgetting his initial reaction, now agreed with her and told her to buy it, authorizing her to pay up to five thousand dollars, an astronomical sum for a photograph in those days. But Stieglitz refused to part with it, and Morgan had to settle for copies, which were only delivered two years later by the stillirked Steichen. Today the original print is in the Metropolitan Museum, the gift of Alfred Stieglitz, not J. P. Morgan. One of the copies is on display on a table in the Morgan Library.
Over the eighty-six years since the portrait was taken, many people have wondered how Steichen got Morgan to pose for him with a dagger in his hand, given all the weighty overtones of cut-throat capitalism that conveyed. In fact, the “dagger” is only the reflection of light off the arm of the chair Morgan was sitting in.
As Steichen explained, “It is not only photographers who read meanings into their photographs.”