Edward Steichen’s great American Dream

by Mio Yamada

Staff Writer

“I don’t think that many people in Japan know who Edward Steichen is,” says curator Miki Tsukada in a surprisingly honest comment about visitors to the Setagaya Art Museum’s current exhibition. “But I do think a large audience in Japan is drawn to the ‘high fashion’ of the exhibition title.”

If couture is the attraction, “Edward Steichen in High Fashion” will not disappoint. Famous in the West as a pioneer of fashion photography, Steichen is credited with taking the genre, which was then relatively new, to a level of sophistication that still inspires photographers today. In an age of black-and-white printing, his unprecedented use of studio lighting to chiaroscuro effect made him the favorite with Condé Nast, for whom he was a chief photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair during the 1920s and ’30s.

“When Shawn Waldron, the archive director at Condé Nast, found the box of Steichen photos that prompted this exhibition, there were around 2,000 original prints in it,” says Tsukada. “That is an unusually large number of prints by a single photographer to be kept and stored.”

The exhibition features around 180 of those prints and includes many shots of haute couture’s most respected names — shimmering gowns by Cheruit, satin dresses by Chanel and Lanvin, and sparkling gem-encrusted jewelry by Black, Starr and Frost — all of which cannot fail to impress.

But as a man who lived through two world wars, experiencing the Roaring ’20s and the Great Depression, Steichen’s depictions of glamorous Paris fashions and Hollywood celebrities take on more significance in the context of history and the artist’s eclectic career.

Before Condé Nast, Steichen worked as a lithographer, painter, art photographer, war photographer and even a horticulturalist. Born in Luxembourg and naturalized as an American in 1900, he developed a passion for painting that led him to study in the artistic hub of Paris. En route from his home in Milwaukee, he stopped off in New York, where he met Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer and modern-art advocate who, to Steichen’s surprise, bought three of his experimental art photos. The meeting spawned a 10-year relationship, with Steichen contributing numerous images to Stieglitz’ trailblazing photography magazine, Camera Work.

Stieglitz recognized in Steichen a disregard for convention, a trait that the artist would soon become notorious for. Though he also took other kinds of photos, Steichen preferred to manipulate photography in a pictorial manner, elevating it to “pure art” status by heavily blurring his images to an Impressionistic painterly style — an effect achieved by smearing petroleum jelly on the camera lens. Unafraid of controversy, he caused a furor by submitting one such print to the painting section of the Paris Salon.

How an artist who strived to make the camera a medium of high art ended up in commercial photography baffled many of Steichen’s contemporaries — in particular Stieglitz, who accused him of “selling out.” But for Steichen, an opportunist and innovator, it was a logical progression: he artistically moved on in the era of radical cultural and societal change that began with World War I.

A narrow escape from the German invasion of France left Steichen questioning the lofty ideals of art purism. He enlisted in the U.S. Army and used his camera skills as the commander of an aerial photography division of the American Expeditionary Forces. When the war was over, he retreated to France and his horticultural interests, photographing specimens and focusing on studies in geometry and light.

Steichen’s appointment by Condé Nast was more coincidental than calculated. He had planned to pursue a career in Chicago when he came across an article in Vanity Fair that described him as “the greatest living portrait photographer” who had abandoned his craft for painting. He wrote to Vanity Fair, and in 1922 he visited their offices in New York where editor Frank Crowninshield immediately offered him a job. The timing was perfect; Adolph de Meyer, Condé Nast’s top photographer, had just been poached by the publisher’s rival, Harpers Bazaar.

Armed with knowledge of the avant garde, the geometrical sensibilities of his war experience and unrivalled lighting techniques, it didn’t take long before Steichen began breaking the “rules” of fashion photography. Instead of drawing attention to the clothing, he frequently focused on the composition as a whole and his techniques brought modernity to a genre that had been stuck in fusty pictorialism under de Meyer’s eye.

To be fair, America was changing, too — and to Steichen’s advantage. Women, whose role in society had evolved during the war, were more liberated and opinionated. They had won the vote, their corsets were gone, and for those who could afford it, there was emphasis on glamorous fun. Steichen’s dramatic portrayal of fashion was in tune with this postwar ardor. He abandoned the soft focus of his former Impressionistic works and adopted a sharper, crisper approach. He took advantage of shadows, experimented with studio lighting and used modern props. His women appeared independent, charismatic, intelligent and dignified.

All this is epitomized in “Tamaris With a Large Art Deco Scarf,” a theatrical image of the dancer Tamaris, her arm outstretched and pointing dramatically, as she holds open a huge geometric-print scarf. High in contrast, her figure is set against abstract painting on the walls and the dark shadows of cushions strewn across the floor.

At times, the less intuitive his technique, the better the result. A pair of Vida Moore high heels are partially obscured by and yet also exaggerated by their own overlapping shadows, and the power of silent-movie actress Gloria Swanson’s famously expressive eyes is further enhanced by having her gaze through a dark lace veil.

The celebrity portraits for Vanity Fair, many of which were taken during the Great Depression, reveal another talent of Steichen’s — his ability to express the personalities of actors, dancers, playwrights and other great American contemporaries in dignified images that helped perpetuate hope for the American Dream.

When World War II disrupted society, he switched roles again to film “The Fighting Lady,” a documentary of the U.S. Navy, before becoming the first director of the Department of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

It is for Steichen’s work at the MoMA that Tsukada says she thinks some people in Japan will remember him. In 1955, he curated what has often been called his greatest achievement — “The Family of Man,” a large-scale show that documented the human experience from birth to death through 503 photos by 273 photographers from 68 countries. The exhibition traveled across the globe, attracting millions of visitors, and came to Japan in 1956.

Even though only one of Steichen’s photos featured in that show, Tsukada said it was here that he did leave his mark. “I think many older Japanese visiting this show will at least remember his name for that.”

Now they’ll remember him for even more.

“Edward Steichen in High Fashion: The Condé Nast Years 1923-1937″ at the Setagaya Art Museum runs till April 7; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.setagayaartmuseum.or.jp.