Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Edward Steichen: Fashion and Function


A couple of weeks ago, Edward Steichen's photograph The Pond-Moonlight was featured as one of the most expensive photographs ever sold. While the image itself is worth the attention, much of the photographer's work actually involved more than just picturesque landscapes. Indeed, Steichen was one of the 20th century's leading fashion photographers, helping to revolutionize the function of photography and elevating it to the highest levels of artistic expression.


Edward Steichen was a Luxembourgian-born American photographer highly regarded as one of the pioneers of fashion photography. From around 1910, he experimented with photography and fashion at first on a dare, but soon refined it to an art form.

For 15 years starting in 1928, he worked as the official photographer of the fashion and high society Conde Nast publications Vogue and Vanity Fair.


Steichen actually studied to become an artist and painter, and much of his earlier work reflects this training. His self-portrait (at the end of this article), shows the kind of pictorialism that was popular during the very early years of the 20th century. As photography developed, he abandoned this type of style, although many of his works dating back to this period already show the kind of artistic genius he was.

One of these pictorialistic photographs previously mentioned, The Pond-Moonlight, fetched a record-setting $2.9 million in a 2006 auction, the highest amount paid for a photograph at that time.


In between his years with Conde Nast, he served in the US Army in both the 1st and 2nd World Wars as a war photographer, and also tried his hand in the advertising industry. He was a staunch supporter of photography as an art form, and worked in many publications and exhibitions to promote this ideal.


His advocacy for photography developed when he met another influential photographer, Alfred Stieglitz. Steichen was involved in the publication of Stieglitz's Camera Work, an early journal featuring the best in photography at that time. He also helped Stieglitz in the establishment of the 291 Art Gallery which also featured the works of pioneering photographers of the early 20th century.

Steichen's most famous photographs were done in black and white, but he also experimented with other forms of photo reproduction processes such as the early color photography process called Autochrome.


His skill as a portrait and fashion photographer is undisputed; he continuously evolved his style, but always succeeded in capturing images with distinctive character, even with high profile celebrities, such as the actors and models that you see here. His glamour work was also highly esteemed, as the models in his pictures carried a high sense of credibility and functionality.


One of his finest works had very little to do with fashion, but helped to cement photography as the seminal technological achievement of the period. In 1955, he organized the Family of Man, an exhibit of over 500 photographs from 273 photographers all around the world. The exhibit showcased the commonality of being human, celebrating images of different cultures in their highest and lowest points as only photography could capture.

The catalogue of pictures was later published in the book The Family Of Man which is still in print, and is now on permanent display.


Although Steichen worked mainly with models for his advertising and editorial work, he photographed many celebrities and Hollywood personalities in his time. His time with Conde Nast produced over 2,000 prints, many of them now iconic and presented in this post.

For those who are unfamiliar with the stars of yesteryear, the portraits include (from the top) actresses Gloria Swanson, Norma Shearer, Mary Heberden, Joan Clement, actor Gary Cooper, and actresses Joan Bennett and Helen Menken.  The group photo above of unnamed models was done for Vogue Magazine shoot. Below, the photographer himself poses as a painter in an early self-portrait.


Anyone looking to learn more about this iconic photographer and his fashion and function sense should get Edward Steichen: In High Fashion - The Conde Nast Years, 1923-1937. Another great text on the photographer is Edward Steichen: Lives in Photography. Although not entirely about Edward Steichen, The Family Of Man is a great photography book for any occasion.




30 comments:

Generally Disgruntled said...

pure class

-E- said...

so much better than the photo-shopped rubbish today.

Astronomy Pirate said...

Those are some really classy photos, being that he was a pioneer in this sort of style, it's something that I think a lot of photographers aim for today. I think that painter background probably made all the difference.

Daniel said...

amazing

HiFi said...

Neat. Edward Steichen must have been a part of a high class crowd. He dresses well and his subjects are glamorous.

VersionDouble said...

thats fantastic, never seen this artist before!

Jaccstev said...

It's kind of scary how much those eyes in the first photo look.

The Angry Lurker said...

Amazing pictures of a bygone time.

movie68 said...

Very elegant photos. I like.

Intraman said...

I loved the self portrait picture!

Finn Phoenix said...

Love this look. Man the old starlets still get me. Rita Hayworth, Donna Reed.

Kicking Rocks said...

those are really great photos!!

Banacek said...

Those are some classy dames.

Shutterbug said...

Very nice! I like the style!

Bonjour Tristesse said...

Whenever I see images like those, I sometimes wish I was born in that era.

D4 said...

The first steps are important ones.

A Heel in Mint said...

Beautiful pictures!!

Sunshine said...

amazing!!

RedHeadRob said...

Interesting stuff right there :D

ironchefman said...

That photo of Gary Cooper is an amazing portrait. Very talented guy!
Also, thanks so much for your advice on DSLR lenses. I've been considering a prime lens, but really I'm quite happy with the versatility of the kit lens. I tried going out a few days and forcing myself to keep it at 28, 35, or 50mm, but just couldn't resist turning that zoom ring. I do want a faster lens though, a Canon 35mm prime was at the top of my list...

natalie said...

that is one classy photographer. rally makes things beautiful.

natalie
http://lucyandtherunaways.blogspot.com

Jblogger said...

very nice pics

Major.Mack said...

very nice

Necroticism said...

Wow, this work is beautiful!

Sean said...

oh 1930's, how I miss you

VersionDouble said...

Sarah Moon was always one of my favorite fashion photographers, their styles are kinda similar to be fair. if you dont know Moon, id recommend her!

MRanthrope said...

these photos make my history nerd side come to life.

Simon black said...

Really beautiful pictures, just in my taste.

Laughing Vault said...

beautiful portraits

BenF199105 said...

awesome!

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