Born in 1899 in Cleveland to a lower-class Czech family, Ralph Steiner studied chemical engineering at Dartmouth before starting his career in photography. In 1921 he began studying at the Clarence H. White School of Photography. One of his first jobs was to make illustrative plates for Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North and Steiner experimented in making his own avant-garde films, including H20 and Mechanical Principles. He continued his exploration with film and photography by attending the artists' colony in Yaddo, yet relied on advertising work for most of his income, submitting his work to periodicals such as The Ladies' Home Journal. In 1926 or 1927 he met Paul Strand in New York and became a founding member of the Film and Photo League. Steiner taught at the Harry Alan Potamkin Film School and was described by Samuel Brody as "the healthiest and most sincere artist in the 'avant-garde' of the bourgeois cinema and photo." 1
Agreeing with Leo Hurwitz's outlook on the aesthetics of documentary film, Steiner broke from the FPL to start Nykino. Believing it difficult to capture immediate events, especially with police intervention and time constraints, Steiner saw the limits of the documentary and wished to expand its potential. Following Strand and Hurwitz, he left Nykino to form Frontier Films. He was a cameraman for Pare Lorentz in addition to shooting films for Frontier, such as People of the Cumberland and The City.
Ralph Steiner at the camera for The City.
After The City, Steiner broke from Van Dyke and Frontier Films and went to Hollywood where he was a writer/executive for four years. He then returned to commercial photography and film making. His other jobs included picture editor for PM magazine and photographic assignments for Fortune. Steiner moved to Vermont in 1963, spending the rest of his twenty three years photographing images of the coast.
1Campbell, Russell. Cinema Strikes Back: Radical Filmmaking in The United States 1930-1942. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1978. (57).