Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, the Condé Nast Years, 1923-1937
(reprinted from The Berkshire Review for the Arts)
Organized by the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography, Minneapolis, and the Musée de Élysée, Lausanne, Switzerland
Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Massachusetts: May 30-September 13, 2009
Current and upcoming venues:
Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, The Condé Nast Years 1923-1937 is at the Photographers’ Gallery in London from 31 October to 18 January 2015
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto: September 26, 2009-January 3, 2010
Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale.Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, Florida: February 28, 2010-April 11, 2010
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri: May 15 – July 25, 2010
Edward Steichen: Episodes from a Life in Photography, curated by John Stomberg, Chief Curator, The Williams College Museum of Art (at WCMA only)
This important exhibition of Edward Steichen’s fashion and celebrity photography for Condé Nast, which will close soon in Toronto and continue on to Fort Lauderdale and Kansas City, emerged from an earlier, ambitious survey of his entire career, Edward Steichen: Lives in Photography, also organized by Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography and the Musée de Élysée. While researching that exhibition, the curators, William Ewing and Todd Brandow, discovered two thousand vintage prints from Steichen’s years at Vogue and Vanity Fair in the Condé Nast Archive, where they were catalogued and preserved to museum standards. These had never been exhibited before and presented an opportunity not to be missed. Hence Ewing and Brandow, together with Carol Squiers of the International Center of Photography, and Natalie Herschdorfer of the Musée de Élysée, set to work on this companion exhibition with some excitement. In the catalogue the sumptuous plates are interspersed with four essays from different points of view. William Ewing provides an acutely perceptive general account of the place of this work in Steichen’s career. Carol Squiers discusses Steichen’s position at Condé Nast and how he worked within the house system, not always with the brilliant results we see in the exhibition. She also makes the important point that he only moved entirely away from his Pictorialist roots after the arrival in 1928 of a new art director, Mehemed Fehmy Agha, and his make-over of Vogue in favor of a simple, clear modernist taste. Tobia Bezzola places Steichen within the artistic currents of the time and investigates his aesthetic as a merger between his high Pictorialist ideals and commercialism. Steichen surprised his colleagues by actually taking pride in his work, insisting on putting his name to it. Natalie Herschdorfer fills in the background on the fashions of the time and the social currents which influenced them. The whole brings to life a bygone world of elegance and ambition, rehabilitates an underestimated period of Steichen’s career, and shows Steichen’s contribution to photography during this phase of his activity to be no less significant than what came before or after.
At the Williams College Museum of Art the show was accompanied by an impressive support exhibition, Edward Steichen: Episodes from a Life in Photography, curated by John Stomberg, which provided a context for the photographer’s work at Condé Nast with especially distinguished examples, beginning with a vintage print of his famous portrait of Richard Strauss. Most astonishing is a pattern of matchsticks and matchboxes he photographed as a study for a fabric design. (His work as a designer appears in his Condé Nast work in the form of a piano of his own design he favored as a prop.) From later in life his illustrations for Thoreau’s Walden are deeply absorbing in their contemplative simplicity. In this fine show, I’d only question the several oversize posthumous prints, which seem cold and ostentatious as artefacts of the early days of photography collecting in the 1960’s and 70’s.
Few have denied Steichen’s importance in the history of photography, but there has been a tendency to skirt around his work in favor of figures like Stieglitz, Weston, and Strand. A few of his early photographs have always circulated as classics, but he has acquired the reputation of a Pictorialist, who took the art of photography very seriously, whose time came and went, and who finally decided in desperation to sell out to commercial interests. Then, as an overestimated, overpaid celebrity he spent the rest of his public photographic career turning out slick, predictable work for Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines. (Fine art photographers and critics criticized him for this at the time.) Eventually he had made enough money, regretted his venality, and tried to redeem himself with a small amount of artistic work and a new curatorial career which culminated in an unbearably pretentious and basically rather corny exhibition, The Family of Man, the catalogue of which, as Eliot Weinberger tartly observes in Robert Gardner’s Human Documents, ended up “on the coffee tables of seemingly every middle-class Stevenson Democrat.” What this intelligently conceived and executed exhibition shows is that he not only invented modern fashion photography as a genre (though clearly owing much to Adolphe de Meyer, his predecessor at Vogue), he invented the concept of the highly paid, glamorous magazine photographer, who photographed Broadway and Hollywood stars, renowned artists and writers, as well as world leaders, as almost an equal. Beginning in Pictorialism and slowly moving into the sharply focused language of modern photography, only giving up his old style with the advent of a new art director at Condé Nast, he developed a technique and style that became the basis for all that followed. His background as a classically trained painter, versed in the history of art, was as important to his aesthetic and his methods. His famous dictum, “make Vogue a Louvre,” while by no means modest, was not really hype, as we’d call it today, but the sophisticated and thoughtful strategy of an educated artistic sensibility.
In his brilliant catalogue essay Tobia Bezzola quotes some of the context of Steichen’s remark from a letter to the editor of Vogue, Edna Chase: “In connection with our idea about dignified and distinguished presentation of the “beauty” pictures—if they can be done in duotone they will be greatly enhanced. There are some works of art in the Louvre that if presented in a peep show would be condemned as pornographic. In the Louvre they are art. Make Vogue a Louvre.” In this Steichen refers to crucial issues at stake in the early development of the glossy magazine from both a technical and an aesthetic point of view, issues which are still at play many years later. Condé Nast’s concept in Vogue and Vanity Fair, his branding strategy, as we’d say today, depended on maintaining an aura of wealth and status in both its content and its physical presentation, while photomechanical printing, which allowed photography to speak to the masses in its own voice, followed liberated trends which relations among different social and economic classes as well as the position of women, among other things. In the years following the Great War, women could smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol in public, and the latest fashions exposed shoulders, busts, backs, ankles, and calves in unheard-of ways. Not only could the consumers of the high couture central to Vogue’s mission keep up to date with the latest Paris and New York fashions, a less affluent public, who could only aspire to or dream about such clothing, furnishings, and entertainments, could follow it for not more than the price of the magazine. Status and distinction were no longer enough. The glamor Vogue existed to promote required a certain perfume of libertinage in order to escape the dowdy spectacle of a Cleveland hostess receiving local worthies in her Euclid Avenue mansion. On the other hand, the publication could not risk the slightest hint of vulgarity, or it would lose its air of distinction.
If, say, a nude figure or an overtly erotic image enjoys the protection of a gallery in the Louvre, there is no question of its acceptability as art, although that same Cleveland lady might rush her husband by them in progress through the galleries. In the new medium of the glossy magazine, which by its nature, it seems, required sharp, realistic photographs of the sort Steichen eventually learned to make, a specific style had to be developed, which could offer a lifelike spectacle of beautiful women (of course younger and more beautiful than the readers) beautifully dressed, but still idealize them sufficiently to create the impression of glamor, avoiding any excess of the risqué. A hint sufficient to imply sophistication was enough; more would be vulgar. The means of achieving this lay somewhere between art and artiness. Steichen was capable of doing it through art, although his work occasionally came dangerously close to artiness, pace William Ewing in his masterful introductory essay. Bezzola persuasively observes how Steichen ennobled his fashion photographs by fusing the nascent genre with portraiture. He made them into portraits of the models, whether they were famous Broadway actors, film stars, or dancers, or anonymous professional mannequins. (Among Steichen’s many illustrious subjects there are several couples of ballroom dancers, e.g. Adele and Fred Astaire. This was another phenomenon of the period. Nightclub culture and fashion fed off each other, as Natalie Herschdorfer points out in her fine essay, and there was nothing more characteristic of it than the professional dancers, who provided examples to be admired from afar, rather like the musical virtuosi of the nineteenth century and their audiences of amateur musicians and fashionable society.)
Steichen not only developed a new sharp-focus technique, including an elaborate system of artificial lighting, which became an essential part of studio photography. Gradually, adding lights as his technique progressed and his staff grew, he participated in the invention of Vogue and Vanity Fair and the genre they pioneered, just as he had already, in his “art for the sake of art” phase, created Camera Work in collaboration with Alfred Stieglitz. As early as 1908, when Camera Work was still flourishing, he said, “The making of beautiful objects and things of ornament, and even of utility, have practically been banished from the realm of art to the more active and more lucrative scope of commerce.”
There is another striking quality to these photographss, their intimacy. Steichen favored quiet environments and moods, which suggested not so much the experience of the ball or nightclub as private moments before or after—a boudoir scene, or the empty time after the lady has finished her toilette and waits for the maid to bring her wrap, the gentleman to appear, or the chauffeur to drive the car around. The public moments, which have appealed to other photographers, would have been less engaging. If we see the model in a setting that suggests her presence at a party or at the theatre, she is in isolation in the vestibule or a corridor. If she is not alone, she is with a single, complementarily dressed acquaintance, often at some distance. A composition constructed around an elegant stairway, with two ladies conversing, one on the lower floor and the other a good ways up the stairs, was a favorite subject of his from his pre-Condé Nast days. He understood that this would help the readers to engage with the models, who became less anonymous and more distinctive as the genre developed, and to admire their toilettes in a worldly ambiance which was still suggestive of the Louvre.
Steichen’s admonishment concerning pornography may seem quaint, but its implications continued to affect the display of art not so long ago, in 1989, when eruptions over two exhibitions of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs made and shattered museum careers. While government funding played a large role in the controversy, in essence it revolved around the way subject matter conventional in art—flowers, nudes, etc.—were combined with pornographic situations and motifs. Mapplethorpe’s style was a slick, overtly commercial descendent of the style Steichen developed for Vogue. Flowers were presented as if they were expensive jewellery, and ambitious sexual positions as if they were advertisements for evening wear. In the Cincinnati exhibition Mapplethorpe posthumously short-circuited American aesthetic preconceptions while by crossing recognized genres in sharply focused, magazine-style black and white photographs. The sharp focus brought detail to the viewer’s attention and made the situations seem real—qualities Steichen exploited to enhance the reflective qualities and textures of the clothing, which was the true subject of the fashion photographs. If Mapplethorpe’s images had been painted or drawn, the politicians who decried the exhibitions would have nothing to get the public worked up about.
Bezzola perceptively points out how Steichen, guided by his knowledge of portrait-painting from the Renaissance to his own time, fetishized both the women and the couture, as well as the celebrities who appeared hand in hand with them on the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair. The fetish, on the other hand, is an idea that is as loosely defined as it is fashionable. At the same period, artists and photographers who either entered or glanced by the Surrealist movement, like André Kertész, Man Ray, and Max Ernst, through a kind of parody, extended the Steichenesque vision of the woman and her accoutrement into a fetishistic realm closer to the subconscious. Critics today might well find, in addition to fetishism, an element of pornography in Steichen’s photographs for Condé Nast—not the traditional erotic sort to which Steichen referred, but what is known as “wealth porn.” Illustrations of expensive clothes, furnishings, automobiles, and so forth appear to titillate both audiences who can afford them and those who cannot. We live in more prudish times than Mapplethorpe and (under the appearances) Steichen, but Steichen’s successors at Vogue and Vanity Fair regularly produce images which would have been considered pornographic in his time. Contemporary viewers have a different perception of this. The sense of a Cowardesque sexual license has been replaced by associations of luxury and self-indulgence. For us, these lightly concealed breasts and thighs suggest not so much sexuality as wealth: the glamor and exclusivity of haute couture has been transferred to skin, muscle and fatty tissue, as readers imagine the high-priced fitness programs, plastic surgery, and resort vacations necessary to maintain such corporeal perfection. Food is also a part of the picture, and an important one. (In the twenties and thirties magazine photographers concentrated on elaborated table settings, rather than on the food itself.) It matters not so much that the glamorous subjects are beautiful as that they impersonate transcendent expense.
But, if the messages of these contemporary advertisements and magazine illustrations are getting us down, we can pick up the splendid catalogue to Edward Steichen: In High Fashion and lose ourselves in the excellent plates after Steichen’s prints. The tonal gradations, detail, and grain are reproduced most sensitively, and, since much of this material has never been exhibited or published outside of Vogue and Vanity Fair before, they are a must for anyone interested in Steichen, the photography of the period, or its decorative arts, fashion, and social history. What’s more they are, in their way, uplifting. The values promoted by Condé Nast at the time were straightforward and salubrious: beautiful ladies in beautiful clothes in an idealized worldly environment. The men were distinguished, established gentlemen. Condé Nast, if not Steichen, picked winners, and Thomas Mann, W. B. Yeats, Winston Churchill, and Frank Lloyd Wright, it can be said, have stood the test of time, not to mention theatrical greats like Noël Coward, Paul Robeson and Greta Garbo. Achievement was celebrated along with mere success, and in these rich, stylish photographs we can only feel reassured and delighted, although it is worth noting that the values embodied in it are quite the opposite of those promoted by his exhibition, The Family of Man, in 1955.
Many of Steichen’s portraits are intriguingly different from other photographs of the subjects, for example Karsh’s, which have become the icons of these celebrities for posterity, and in this they seem fresh, spontaneous, and revealing. He liked to show his subjects at work, whether they were actors or ballet dancers or swimmers. Only writers were generally exempt from this. Steichen’s successors, for example Avedon and Penn, could not approach their exalted subjects without irony, but they were still striving for their own, more turbulent version of this equilibrium between their sitters’ public and the private faces. A lot has changed about the modern cult of celebrity since Steichen’s day, Karsh’s, Avedon’s, Penn’s, and the present day, and about how its idols are represented in mass media. On the other hand, a lot remains the same. Steichen made a handsome living serving the cult, and he succeeded in making himself one of its demigods.
I wish to thank the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography for providing the catalogues to their Steichen exhibitions.