The first “modern” fashion photographer: Edward Steichen

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Edward Steichen: Model Marion Morehouse and unidentified model wearing dresses by Vionnet, 1930
Courtesy Condé Nast Archive, New York © Condé Nast Publications

A great new exhibition at ICP, Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, The Condé Nast Years, 1923-1937, showcases stunning early fashion photography by the prolific and innovative photographer-artist.
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Edward Steichen: Self-Portrait with Photographic Paraphernalia, New York, 1929

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Edward Steichen: Evening shoes by Vida Moore, 1927

Edward Steichen (1879-1973) was already a famed Pictorialist photographer and painter in the United States and abroad when he was offered the position of chief photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair by Condé Nast. Upon assuming the job, the forty-four year old artist began one of the most lucrative and controversial careers in photography.

To Alfred Stieglitz and his followers, Steichen was seen as damaging the cause of photography as a fine art by agreeing to do commercial editorial work. Nevertheless, Steichen’s years at Condé Nast magazines were extraordinarily prolific and inspired.

He began by applying the soft focus style he had helped create to the photography of fashion. But soon he revolutionized the field, banishing the gauzy light of the Pictorialist era and replacing it with the clean, crisp lines of Modernism. In the process he changed the presentation of the fashionable woman from that of a distant, romantic creature to that of a much more direct, appealing, independent figure. At the same time he created lasting portraits of hundreds of leading personalities in movies, theatre, literature, politics, music, and sports, including Gloria Swanson, Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Colette, Winston Churchill, Amelia Earhart, Jack Dempsey, Noel Coward, Greta Garbo, Dorothy Parker, and Cecil B. De Mille.

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Edward Steichen: Actor Gary Cooper, 1930

Steichen’s approach to fashion photography was formative, and over the course of his career he changed public perceptions of the American woman. An architect of American Modernism and a Pictorialist, Steichen exhibited his fashion images alongside his art photographs (generating quite a bit of controversy among contemporary artists at the time). Steichen’s crisp, detailed, high-key style revolutionized fashion photography, and his influence is felt in the field to this day—Richard Avedon, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Bruce Weber are among his stylistic successors.
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Edward Steichen: Model Marion Morehouse in a bouffant dress and actress Helen Lyons in a long sleeve dress by Kargère; masks by the illustrator W.T. Benda, 1926

The New York Times has produced a perfect, short audio slideshow about Edward Steichen’s fashion and celebrity photography. The slideshow is narrated by the exhibition curators, William A. Ewing and Todd Brandow.
In a short note to me about the slideshow, Brandow said, “For an unscripted interview, we seem to make a reasonable amount of sense. I find just the images themselves to be hypnotic.”
I agree. Be sure to check out the exhibition if you can, and the book. The slideshow is a great start.

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