Edward Steichen

March 24, 2014

In 1923 famed portrait photographer Edward Steichen became chief photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair, a position he would keep until 1937. In doing so he entered one of the most prestigious and lucrative photography jobs in the world, bringing a distinctive artistic vision to Condé Nast’s magazines.

Trained as a painter, Steichen had turned to photography in the 1890s, initially producing artistically composed, softly focused images that resembled paintings. He became a favorite of publisher, photographer, and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, who featured Steichen’s sensitive portraits of artists and Whistlerian landscapes like The Pond—Moonrise, 1904, in his influential publication Camera Work. In 1911 Steichen accepted a challenge to promote fashion as fine art through photography. He photographed gowns by the French designer Paul Poiret for the magazine Art et Décoration in what is often considered the first modern fashion shoot. Steichen’s photographs were not just informational; they were glamorous. He captured the modern spirit of Poiret’s clothing and the aspirations of the women purchasing it.


After World War I, when he served in the army commanding photography units, Steichen returned to photographing fashion and famous faces. To Vogue he brought an avant-garde artistic sensibility, shooting shoes with Cubist-inspired lighting and posing his models against graphic backgrounds. The stark black and white wall, perfectly bisected by Mrs. Clark, recalls a composition by Mondrian. Similarly, Avis Newcomb stands before a wall with a single black stripe, echoing the deep fur cuffs that provide the only dark element against her pale satin gown.

The photograph of Mrs. Clark appeared in a section on chic outerwear. Her lambswool jacket from Bonwit Teller must have sounded too old for a young woman. The editor reassured younger readers: “No one can say Persian lamb isn’t young—once they’ve seen the coat below. An eighteen-year-old could wear it.”

These two fashion photographs are on view upstairs in Gallery 16 this spring in conjunction with the exhibition Fashion, Circus, Spectacle: Photographs by Scott Heiser. Though his edgy, dramatically cropped glimpses of the fashion runways display a different sensibility, Heiser admired vintage fashion photographs by Steichen, Cecil Beaton, and George Platt Lynes.

Left to right:

Avis Newcomb, c.1931
Edward Steichen, 1879–1973
Gelatin silver print, 10 × 8 inches
Gift of Margo Allman, 2013
© 2014 The Estate of Edward Steichen/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Mrs. Clark, 80 West 40th Street, 1931
Edward Steichen, 1879–1973
Gelatin silver print, 10 x 8 inches
F. V. du Pont Acquisition Fund, 2002
© 2014 The Estate of Edward Steichen/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

This Curator Corner was posted on March 24, 2014.

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