The biggest art event in Paris this autumn was the gala October opening for "Edward Steichen: Lives in Photography." Record crowds filed past more than 400 vintage prints by the pioneering American photographer that filled both floors of the Jeu de Paume, the enormous exhibition hall whose majestic neo-classical columns overlook the mayhem of the Place de la Concorde.

I happened to be visiting Paris and lucked into an invitation, which listed the show's main organizer as "the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography, Minneapolis."

The what from where? Who in Minnesota has ever heard of it? I knifed my way to the press booth and asked if anyone from the foundation might be present.

"Oui. Monsieur Todd Brandow."

A search through the chic crowd led to an unassuming fellow in his 50s with longish blond hair.

"We don't have an office or full-time staff," the Minnesota native said when we met later near his Paris apartment, at a cafe where he conducts much of his business.

Nonetheless, Brandow and fellow maverick John Roth, a Minneapolis arts lawyer who coordinates FEP affairs from his home, are making a mark in the exhibition and art-book worlds through their little-known foundation.

"Rather than sell art to a select clientele -- which I've done but was never very interested in or good at anyway -- I'd rather sell exhibits and books to a more general public, creating an impact," Brandow said.

That impact is palpable. The Steichen show had 10,000 visitors its first week, he said.

Seeds for the FEP were planted in the late 1990s when Roth introduced Brandow to a prominent photography writer/collector, Chris Cardozo.

"I got Chris' permission to exhibit some of his Edward Curtis photographs of American Indians," said Brandow. They did a book along with a Paris show in 2000. The FEP grew out of that experience and flexed its muscle with a 2005 Boston exhibit and book on Finnish photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen.

The exhibit/book combo has proven fruitful. The nonprofit FEP organizes traveling exhibitions that are rented out to museums and other venues. Its for-profit branch, FEP Editions, sells sizable, scholarly, exhibit-related books to publishers.

Both the Curtis and the Minkkinen shows are still traveling. Meanwhile, various publishers are bringing out a magisterial Steichen book in five languages so it can accompany the exhibit as it travels next year to Switzerland, Italy and Spain after closing Dec. 30 in Paris. A North American edition of the book is scheduled for spring.

A two-decade friendship

Friends for 20 years, Brandow grew up in Edina and Roth in Deephaven; both graduated in 1975 from the University of Minnesota. Brandow represented artists in the Twin Cities and logged eight years as a visual arts consultant in New York City. For five years he ran a gallery on the Spanish island of Ibiza, where he still has a residence.

Roth stayed home and has provided legal advice for Minnesota artists, galleries and arts organizations. He was a founding board member of Highpoint Center for Printmaking in Minneapolis, and spent 10 years as president of the advocacy group Minnesota Citizens for the Arts.

The two Minnesotans make a formidable team. Brandow sells FEP projects, curates exhibits and creates books with the help of publishers' advances.

"I'm light on my feet and adaptable to what's needed," he said.

Roth guides the worldwide operation through organizational and legal mine fields from a computer on the kitchen table of his south Minneapolis home, which feels more like a North Woods cabin.

"My kids take back the table when I'm not working," said Roth.

The foundation has a genius for ad hoc collaborations. Museums prefer to lend art to other museums, so for the Steichen show the FEP partnered with the Musée de l'Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland. Its director, William Ewing, co-curated the exhibit with Brandow and contributed the book's lead article.

To borrow art you often need intellectual-property attorneys, who can be prohibitively expensive even for museums. But lawyer Roth has made a sub-specialty of photography-rights law, and his input, like Brandow's, costs nothing. "It's all sweat equity," said Roth.

"Some people get freaked out because the way we work is so unstructured," he added. "We move organically and develop projects as we go. I don't know how we could do it any differently."

What's next?

Brandow and Roth are bursting with projects. Next spring, identical exhibits of seven mainland Chinese photographers will open in Spain and Oklahoma. Shows on Minnesota nature photographer Jim Brandenburg and Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy are in the works, as is a retrospective on legendary French photojournalist Gilles Caron, who disappeared in Cambodia in 1970.

The FEP is discussing potential exhibition collaborations with Twin Cities museums. It also hopes to create a facility that will provide educational resources on photography, built around the large personal library of FEP collaborator A.D. Coleman, a well-known photography writer.

"There is a possibility to bring a version of the Steichen retrospective to one of the local museums if there is the interest and if some of the curatorial pieces fall into place," Brandow said.

The first floor of the show at the Jeu de Paume features Steichen's early efforts to emulate painting by creating brooding nature scenes with slightly blurred effects. His early portraits were equally moody and romantic, and not just those of artists such as the French sculptor August Rodin. A 1908 photo made the blustery Theodore Roosevelt look like a poet ready to starve in a garret for his art.

Steichen's fame brought him to Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines and to Hollywood in his career's second half, seen on the second floor. Sleek, rich American women sport the latest fashions in stylish art deco interiors. We discover that iconic celebrity shots -- of Fred Astaire in top hat and tails, of Greta Garbo pulling her hair back as if preparing to go crazy -- originated with Steichen. Condé Nast Publications lent 200 of his fashion and celebrity images to the show, which later will constitute a separate touring FEP exhibit -- and another book.

Hailed by critics on both sides of the Atlantic -- the New York Times called it "arguably the most comprehensive overview" of "one of the great photographers of the 20th century" -- the Steichen exhibition has brought the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography out of the shadows and will certainly create new opportunities for Brandow and Roth.

Doug Hanson writes frequently on the visual arts.