Hard on the heels of a Norman Rockwell show that was packing them in at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale comes an exhibition of an entirely different stripe, Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, The Condé Nast Years, 1923-1937.
At the opening’s press conference museum director Irvin Lippman expressed delight over his back-to-back exhibitions honoring two of the biggest celebrities in 20th century magazine publishing. Rockwell was America’s most famous illustrator working at the Saturday Evening Post for the ready-to-wear crowd, as Lippman put it. And now Edward Steichen, one of photography’s pioneering icons, follows in a distinguished show covering his 15 years at Conde Nast where he photographed everyone from Joan Crawford and Gary Cooper to Amelia Earhart and Winston Churchill. Steichen used the fashion and society pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair as a sort of laboratory to continually update and refine his art.
As I made my way through the museum’s stylish exhibition space it was evident that 1923 was an important dividing line for Steichen’s career, the last year he would work in the romantic, moody Pictorialist style of his predecessor at Vogue, Adolphe de Meyer. One perfect example from that year is a charming though old-fashioned image of actress Jetta Goudal posing girlishly on a settee wearing a dress by Lanvin.
In a phone interview, curator Todd Brandow offered more information about those years. Long before World War I Steichen could be found setting up countless experiments at home with light and shadow, using household objects like cups and saucers in his quest to learn new ways to control light. His shift to modernism in 1924 with its high-key style, “Bauhaus crispness” and masterly control of light and form was the year he raised the bar and moved fashion photography into a new age.
So I looked again at Steichen’s startling image of Gloria Swanson in 1924. There she is, epitomizing both modern woman and Hollywood star as she stares directly into the camera challenging the viewer behind a fashionable veil. I can flip through magazines and books today and see clear evidence of the Steichen influence on more recent photography stars like Avedon, Mapplethorpe and even Bruce Weber. It was Steichen, then, who basically revolutionized fashion and celebrity portraiture and set the standard for 20th Century style. (And not so incidentally, became the world’s highest paid photographer.)
The artist had (and at times suffered through) quite a life. Born into humble circumstances in Luxembourg in 1879, Steichen’s parents moved to Milwaukee when he was a boy. He was from the very beginning a self-starter, launching himself as a painter and setting off to live in both New York and Paris in his early years. In New York he met and studied with the great photographer Alfred Steiglitz, who became his mentor and champion (at least for awhile). Together they created the important photography journal, Camera Work. In Paris, Picasso, Matisse, and Brancusi and all the other great artists of the period became his friends. It’s not a universally-known fact that Steichen was the person responsible for introducing this august group of Europeans to a U.S. audience.
By his early twenties, the dapper Steichen was cutting quite a swath –gossiped about on both sides of the Atlantic as an enfant terrible to be reckoned with. Throughout his life his interests were far ranging. They included horticulture, design, film, photography –from Pictorialism to high fashion. In later years, when he was in his 60s, he became head curator of photography at MoMA in New York and in 1955 put together the world’s most famous photography exhibition, The Family of Man. But throughout the artist’s life, hostility dogged him. When he jumped ship and abandoned Pictorialism for commercial photography and a lucrative salary, both Steiglitz and Ansel Adams referred to him as the anti-christ. Steichen remained characteristically defiant and declared he was proud of his work. “And I will sign the pictures!” he announced. Even The Family of Man, his sort of “we are the world” photo exhibition that many critics derided as a mawkish, sentimental crowd pleaser, prevailed. It is housed today in Luxembourg on permanent display and under guard.
The unstoppable Steichen finally died at 93 in Connecticut, having spent 70 years of his life in photography.
It’s well worth a drive to Ft. Lauderdale to see this show. It remains at the Museum of Art until April 11, when it continues on its American tour to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City.
Edward Steichen: In High Fashion was organized by Todd Brandow of the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography (FEP) based in Paris and Minneapolis, and William Ewing, Director of Lausanne’s Musee de Elysee, along with head curator Nathalie Herschdorfer and Carol Squires of New York’s International Center of Photography (ICP). In 2003 Brandow and Ewing discovered a cache of 2000 archival prints in the offices of Conde Nast. The images hadn’t been seen in 70 years. They both marveled at such a stroke of luck -- being there at the right place at the right time with a new archivist who opened the vaults for them.
Images: Gloria Swanson (1924). Gelatin silver print. Courtesy Condé Nast Archive, New York. © 1924 Condé Nast Publications; Actor Gary Cooper (1930). Gelatin silver print. Courtesy Condé Nast Archive, New York. © 1930 Condé Nast Publications; Actress Jetta Goudal Wearing a Satin Gown by Lanvin (1923). Gelatin silver print. Courtesy Condé Nast Archive, New York. © 1923 Condé Nast Publications; Actress Joan Crawford in a Dress by Schiaparelli (1932). Gelatin silver print. Courtesy Condé Nast Archive, New York © 1932 Condé Nast Publications.