A LIFE IN PHOTOGRAPHY – 1984
by Edward Steichen
The first time I saw Lillian Gish, other than on the movie screen, was as she walked into my studio to be photographed for Vanity Fair. As the saying goes, I was knocked for a loop. It was as if an angel had come into the place. Every movement she made and everything she said seemed full of magic. I made pictures fast and wildly and believed they were all wonderful. But that night, when I looked at the negatives, even before seeing the proofs, I realized I didn’t have anything at all. I had allowed my emotional reaction to take charge of that sitting and had lost all charge of myself. This was a valuable lesson, but a very embarrassing one, for I had to go to Miss Gish with the proofs and beg her to come and sit again for me. She was very gracious about my chagrin. When she came again, I decided to do a fanciful version of Romola, a romantic role she was planning to undertake. I put flowers in her hair and then let her own sweetness and youngness take over (plate 116).
Quite a few years later, on the edge of my pond in the country, I did some studies of Lillian Gish as Ophelia. We had talked about the moment, described in Hamlet, when Ophelia “fell in the weeping brook” and drowned.
I had thought a lot about producing the quality of Ophelia’s madness, and one of the things I had prepared was some infrared film and an infrared filter. I knew this would turn Miss Gish’s eyes into dark spots and help give a wild look. But the success of the picture lay in Miss Gish’s performance. From the moment she stepped to the edge of the pond and grasped the trailing branch of the willow tree, she was no longer Lillian Gish. She had become Ophelia, “a document in madness” (plate 117).