PEOPLE: Edna Lerner


A tweet from the Monroe gallery in Santa Fe alerted me to the sad fact that Mary Morris  Lawrence  died earlier this month. Here's a link to a story in The San Fransisco Chronicle:

"In 1937 she became the first female photojournalist hired by New York's Associated Press. She was photographer and Hollywood columnist for New York's progressive tabloid PM, shot photo stories for Look Magazine, and produced a variety of award-winning projects in a world-roving career. "I was good in the newspaper business," she said, "because I had this way of wanting to get the dope. I had an aggressive nature, a creative spirit." Her trail-blazing career is chronicled in books and periodicals, one describing "a 23-year-old wisp of a girl, with a thick mass of tousled brown hair and dancing blue eyes, Miss Mary Louise Morris ... daily faring forth with camera slung over her shoulder to cover every variety of news and feature story." SF Chronicle, Aug 23, 2009

Ralph Steiner, Mary Morris, Mary Mary morris steiner, mary morris lawrence, Polly Cowan, Lou cowan, Max Lerner, Edna Lerner, elegant dinner party, man bites woman on shoulder,

L to R: Max Lerner, Lou Cowan, Mary Morris Steiner, Polly Cowan, Ralph Steiner (biting my mom's shoulder,) photo set up by Mary or Ralph, shot by Edna Lerner.

The SF Chronicle article omits the fact that Mary was married to Ralph Steiner,  iconic American photographer. Mary told me in a phone conversation last year that when she and Ralph were partners in their New York City photography studio, they split the shooting equally, but he got all the credit. They didn't really pay attention to who was shooting, who was setting up the shots, who was climbing the ladder. It was all in a day's work.  She didn't care. The paycheck came in and that was pretty much what mattered at the time. I don't think either one of them realized at the time how famous he would become and how relatively, but not completely, obscure she would become. So those Ralph Steiner photographs that are now highly collectible, the ones done in the NY studio might be by Mary.

Mary Morris Steiner photo, Liza Cowan, Polly Cowan, mother and child in mirror, reflections mother and child, smocking dress,  

Photo by Mary Morris Steiner (Mary Morris Lawrence, for google's sake) Polly Cowan and baby Liza Cowan circa 1950

Another obit, somewhat more substantial,  from The Oakland Tribune: "In his 1938 book, "Get That Picture!" cameraman A.J. Ezickson described her as a hard worker and a cunning "scout," gaining access with her small RolleiFlex camera to scenes her less enterprising colleagues (the same ones who made "sly jibes" about Morris Lawrence) were barred from by using her wits but never "feminine wiles."

Last year Mary and I discussed the possibility of her having a retrospective exhibit here at PSAW, but there were more technical difficulties than I could  overcome from 3,000 miles away. The 95 year old Morrie lived in San Francisco and had only original prints of her work, which she did not want to ship to Vermont. I'd have been happy with scans but we never worked out the logistics of having them made and printed. Alas.

Morrie only published one book in her lifetime, Bringing Up Puppies, A Child's Book of Dog Breeding And Care, written by Jane Whitbread Levin (another Sarah Lawrence chum)

Bringing up puppies front

Bringing up puppies back

Bringing Up Puppies, by Jane Whitbread Levin and Mary Morris Steiner (Lawrence)

So here 's to you Morrie, talented, brave and wise. You will be missed.

Mary Morris and Polly Cowan

I got these photos in the mail today. They were photocopies, not original prints, but who cares. I'd never seen them before and they are of my mother, father and their best friends at my mom's 40th Birthday in 1953.
Max Lerner, Lou Cowan, Polly Cowan, Mary Morris Steiner, Ralph Steiner
From left to right, Max Lerner, my dad (Lou Cowan,) my mom, (Polly Cowan.)  Above Polly is Mary Morris Steiner and biting Mom's shoulder is Ralph Steiner. On a personal note, isn't my mother gorgeous?? Too thin, perhaps, but wowza. Photograph probably by Edna Lerner, set up by Mary Morris Steiner.

Photo by Mary Morris Steiner copyright 1953
L to R. Max Lerner, Holly Cowan (my sister) Lou Cowan, Polly Cowan and Ralph Steiner. At first I thought this was some kind of fashion shoot with a roll of seamless paper, but in fact this was a wall in our New York City apartment. My dad planned this celebration with great ingenuity. He bought forty presents for my mother, not sure what they were but I remember a lot of fake gold wedding rings, had them all wrapped and tied in grocery twine and suspended all around the apartment. Four years old at the time, I wasn't at the party.  But my three siblings were and the affair was family legend.

I got the photos in the mail and the descriptions of the party over the phone from Mary Morris Steiner (now Lawrence.) Mary and Polly had been best friends at Sarah Lawrence college. The third best friend was Edna, who later married their professor Max Lerner. Mary married the photographer Ralph Steiner. And mom, of course married dad, who was radio and later television producer and executive Louis G Cowan. But this unusual group of former college co-ed weren't just housewives.  They married famous men, but they had their own careers as well.

My mother was a radio producer and later a civil rights activist. Edna Lerner was a psychologist.  Mary Morris joined The Associated Press in 1937 as the only woman phototo journalist. Later she worked for PM (Picture Magazine) a leftist daily newspaper in New York City. When I knew Mary and Ralph they were working as advertising photographers .


Photo by Mary Morris Steiner copyright 1953. Clockwise from the far left: Ralph Steiner, Geoff Cowan (my brother) Polly Cowan, Max Lerner, Edna Lerner, Paul Cowan (my bro) Holly Cowan and on the floor, my dad, Louis G. Cowan. The trunk which serves as a coffee table was filled with family photos, all of which were destroyed in the fire.

These photographs are particularly poignant for me because most of my family's earliest photos were burned in the fire that killed my parents in 1976. Each addition to our scant collection is precious. I'm also happy to have images of the party that was the stuff of legend around our dinner table. And then there's Mary.

I looked for Mary Morris Steiner for years, but only knew her as Morrie (her nickname) Steiner. Google searches were in vain. Finally Sherrie, at the Charlotte (VT) Community Library, found a file of clippings on Ralph Steiner, who had moved to Vermont later in his life. Sherrie found me Mary's second married name and some phone numbers.

So now, not only have I found  an important link to my family history, but a new friend as well. And, in my role as gallerist, I have found an amazing photographer. I'm hoping that someday I will be able to exhibit her work at PSAW. So far it's just a hope, because it would be a large task, but keep your fingers crossed.