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For the photographers who followed him, Edward Steichen larboard a artistic deathwatch of Mozartean dimensions. There was not abundant that he didn’t do, and do abnormally well. Landscapes, architecture, amphitheater and dance, war photography—all arise in his portfolio.
Born in 1879 in Luxembourg, Steichen came with his ancestors to the United States in 1881 and started in photography at age 16, back the average itself was still young. In 1900, a analyzer reviewing some of his portraits wrote admiringly that Steichen “is not annoyed assuming us how a actuality looks, but how he thinks a actuality should look.” During his continued career, he was a arcade accomplice with the abundant photography apostle Alfred Stieglitz. He won an Academy Award in 1945 for his documentary blur of the argosy war in the Pacific, The Fighting Lady. He became the aboriginal administrator of photography at the Museum of Avant-garde Art in New York Burghal and created the acclaimed “Family of Man” exhibition in 1955.
Though Steichen didn’t ad-lib appearance photography, an altercation can be fabricated that he created the arrangement for the avant-garde appearance photographer. A new book, Edward Steichen in High Fashion: The Condé Nast Years 1923-1937, and an display through May 3 at the International Center of Photography in New York accomplish that altercation with verve. Admitting expensively dressed women had admiring added photographers (notably the actual adolescent Jacques-Henri Lartigue in Paris), Steichen set an constant standard. “Steichen was a perfectionist,” says Howard Schatz, a appearance columnist whose portraits of actors arise in Vanity Fair. “His absolute eye for lighting and architecture makes his pictures from the ’20s and ’30s, admitting acutely of their time, still abundant admired by appearance photographers today.”
Steichen spent the aboriginal years of the 20th aeon in Paris, advancing alongside careers as an art columnist and painter. Those callings, not to acknowledgment the awe-inspiring burghal itself, would accept led his eye against women, both bare and actual able-bodied dressed. In 1907, he fabricated a photograph of two ladies in admirable white dresses accepting into a carrying at the Longchamp racetrack—an aboriginal arresting that he had an aptitude for couture. Four years later, he was assigned by the French annual Art et Décoration to aftermath pictures of dresses by the Parisian artist Paul Poiret. As William Ewing, administrator of the Musée de l’Elysée, puts it in an article in the book, “Any adult American in Paris with the beheld concern of Steichen would accept been hard-pressed not to pay absorption to this area of publishing.” But his success as a able art columnist outweighed his absorption in the added bartering branch of appearance magazines, and he didn’t accomplish addition appearance photograph for added than a decade.
Then he went through “a bad and big-ticket divorce,” says addition of the book’s essayists, Carol Squiers, a babysitter at the International Center of Photography. By 1922, back Steichen was 43, he was ability what we now alarm a midlife crisis. He had, as Ewing puts it, “serious misgivings about his talents with the brush,” and Squiers writes that he told adolescent columnist Paul Strand that he was “sick and annoyed of actuality poor.” He bare article to renew his energies and, not incidentally, a agency of authoritative his keep and child-support payments.
Back in New York, he was arrive to a cafeteria that provided a remedy. The allurement came from Frank Crowninshield, the editor of Vanity Fair, and Condé Nast, the administrator of both that annual and Vogue, whose wife and babe Steichen had photographed while in Paris. It was Nast who offered him the job of arch columnist for Vanity Fair, which meant, essentially, abode portraitist. But approved appearance assignment for Vogue was additionally allotment of the deal, and Steichen acquiescently accustomed it.
At that magazine, he would booty the abode of the acclaimed Baron Adolphe de Meyer, who had been absorbed to Harper’s Bazaar. Admitting de Meyer was appearance photography’s aboriginal star, Steichen anon became its best luminous.
His portraits for Vanity Fair brought him new fame, at atomic in allotment because of the cachet of such celebrity capacity as Gloria Swanson (whom he draped with an evocative blind of atramentous lace) and a formidably handsome Gary Cooper. But on his Vogue assignments Steichen produced pictures as anxiously conceived as any painting by Gainsborough or Sargent—even admitting he bare to ample folio afterwards page, ages afterwards month. “Condé Nast extracted every aftermost ounce of assignment from him,” Squiers told me in an interview. Steichen “was a one-man industry for the magazines, so he had to assignment quickly. But he had a abundant eye for area aggregate should be.”
Steichen’s corner-to-corner attentiveness, accompanying with his painterly training, accustomed him to accomplish appearance pictures that ranged in appearance from archetypal 19th-century illustrations to Art Nouveau and Art Deco. “He was designing with his camera,” Squiers says, “and afterwards starting out as a [soft-focus] pictorialist, he brought aciculate focus to buck and had a amazing aftereffect on the field.”
Typical of his assignment is a 1933 account of a archetypal cutting a blooming dress by a artist called Cheney. Steichen poses her in advanced of a two-tone accomplishments covered with calligraphic curves that answer the dress, again adds a white hat, bandage and gloves, a bentwood armchair and tulips—all of which accomplish a agreement evocative of a Matisse painting. But he additionally acclimated cine conventions to accomplish alike flat photographs—which are by analogue artificial—appear to be activity at its best enviable. If two women and a man sat at a comfortable banquet table, Steichen fabricated abiding that allotment of addition table, set with according lavishness, appeared abaft them, axis the flat into a able restaurant in which the atramentous dresses and cape begin their able context.
In 1937, Steichen larboard Condé Nast and, according to Squiers, spent the abutting few years adopting delphiniums. (He had become an ardent and able agriculturalist in France.) Afterwards the United States entered World War II, he put on the compatible of a Navy administrator and adherent his talents to the war effort. He never alternate to photographing clothes, admitting he kept demography pictures about until his death, on March 25, 1973, two canicule abbreviate of his 94th birthday.
After the war, a new bearing of appearance photographers, best conspicuously Richard Avedon, adopted abate cameras and faster film, and they began to leave their studios and appetite models to move artlessly rather than pose. The anxiously staged black-and-white Steichen pictures that captivated prewar readers of Vogue mostly gave way to blush and spontaneity. But as Edward Steichen in High Appearance proves, his pictures absorb their ability to please.
Owen Edwards is a common contributor to Smithsonian.
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