As I noted in a review of Vivianne Sassen’s current exhibition, one of the reasons I sometimes struggle to get excited about fashion photography is that in the end the vast mass of it never manages to escape the gravity of the original reason for its existence, which is to sell stuff. A few photographers do manage to transcend this, and I think Edward Steichen was one of them. This was an achievement perhaps made more remarkable (or depending on your viewpoint, perhaps more understandable) by the fact that he was working at a time when fashion photography as we know it today simply didn’t exist.
Alongside the Sassen show, The Photographers Gallery also has an exhibition highlighting Steichen’s productive years working as chief photographer for Condé Nast publications between 1923 and 1937. Starting started out as a painter, Steichen’s his career was marked by a constant dabbling with photography. Enroute to study in Paris in 1901 he found time to sell several of his photographs to Alfred Stieglitz, then a major figure in a relatively small photographic world. Steichen quickly established a reputation as a skilled portrait photographer in Paris and on his return to the United States, notched up photographs of the notoriously impatient J.P Morgan amongst others sitters. In 1923, reputedly after taking a favourable photograph of Miss Nast of the Condé Nast publishing dynasty, Steichen was offered a position as taking portraits for the pages of Vanity Fair.
Stiechen’s background as a painter is evident in many of his photographs. Beyond the painterly pictorialist aesthetic evident in his earlier portraits, it’s clear in his sophisticated awareness of tone, light and dark for example, as in a 1925 portrait of Helen Menken, the white of her face looming out of a black background which mingles beautifully with her hair. It’s also evident in the way he positions and poses his subjects. While many are at first glance traditional and formal in posing, Steichen introduces dynamism in subtle ways, drawing diagonals across the frame with the line of an arm for example. This dynamism is there in many of his photographs, and in a self-portrait one even gets a sense of it in Steichen himself. He is shown crouching before an array of photographic equipment which almost look set to tip over him, he himself is primed and tense as if ready to leap at a moment’s notice. Despite his background Steichen was no traditionalist, and took advantage of emerging new technologies including faster films and portable lights to increasingly take his subjects out of the studio and into real world locations.
Having demonstrated his skills as a portraitist it didn’t take Steichen long to branch out into producing fashion photographs for the pages of another Condé Nast title; Vogue. What’s remarkable isn’t just this rapid ascendency to the position of highest paid photographer in the world, but that in the process Steichen was drastically changing how fashion was seen and marketed. Until his appearance on the scene drawings had been the primary method of fashion advertising in magazines, remarkable when you consider that technically speaking photographs had been easily reproducible in print for more than forty years. Steichen upended this.
Steichen’s photographs sometimes charmingly dated now, very much the cliché of 1920’s fashion and photography, but recognising the familiarity of these tropes in his photography is a reminder of the part he played in defining the fashion photography of the era, and since. Its interesting considering one of Vivianne Sassen’s claims to fame is drawing fashion photography back away from the cult of the celebrity, that Steichen’s photographs similarly tend to place far more emphasis on the setting and the clothing than on the model, even when that model is something of a celebirty. Given the role of fashion photography today and the great debates over it’s positive and negative influences, his role as effective founder of the genre puts Steichen in quite a position, for better or for worse, as someone to which all fashion photographers today probably pay homage, whether they realise it or not.
Edward Steichen: In High Fashion is at The Photographers’ Gallery, 31 October 2014 – 18 January 2015