Edward J. Steichen

individual, ENTITY.3396
Life Dates:
1879 – 1973
Luxembourger American
Artist Biography:
Claimed to be the creator of modern fashion photography, Edward Steichen was born in 1879 in Luxembourg. He came to the United States with his family in 1881. Steichen learned photography at the age of 16 at the American Fine Art Company in Milwaukee, while the technology was still relatively new. Steichen created unique and avant-guarde photographs that were widely accepted with fashion magazines including Vogue and Vanity Fair, as well as praised by his contemporaries. Steichen works seem to be inspired by surrealist ideas, such as the uncanny, and freudian themes of fetishizing women. His work is included in the Smithsonian, The Metropolitan Museum of Arts, MoMA, The Whitney and many other influential museums and galleries.

Steichen is noted for changing the portraiture of celebrities. His portraits of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich are some his most famous. He depicts celebrities as well as his models, in very modern and theatrical poses. Dramatic lighting, unique compositions and exquisite fashion are three of the most common themes found in Steichen’s work. His work was always changing throughout different art movements and ages. He takes his influence from Surrealist, Tonalist, Romantic and Symbolist works, and ultimately set a standard for fashion photography that is still kept up in contemporary fashion photography.

Before Steichen influence in the photography world, fashion models were often stiff and mannequin like, usually white, blond and “immaculately preened.” Steichen created ornate compositions with his dancer-like models. The women and celebrities alike were not doll like, they were evocative and erotic. He also used these tactics on inanimate objects, like shoes, or lighters, arranging them and photographing them in artistic ways that were completely new at the time, and are still used today. He used repetition, lighting, commodity, unique and elaborate setting, and sex, to sell high fashion

Steichen is most known for his photography, however he was also a painter, and many of his artistic works, photography and painting resemble the Tonalist movement which though not particularly are associated with that artistic movement. The Tonalist movement occurred before Steichen was creating art, and consisted of usually landscape or figurative paintings or photographs, that depicted a hazy focus and a moody color palette. Some of Steichen’s photographs that seem to be inspired from the Tonalist movement, are, Lilac buds created in 1906, and Brooklyn Bridge, 1903

For the early part of his career, Steichen worked in Paris, taking photos for Vogue, Art et Decoration and other commercial fashion magazines. He strove to be a fine art photographer However messy divorce left him needing to live as a commercial artist to afford child support. During the 1920s after his messy divorce with Clara Smith Steichen he struggled to find out his purpose in art, learning painting, trying his hand at more artistic photography, and other artistic pursuits. It wasn’t until his the editor of Vanity Fair, Frank Crowninshield, and The publisher of Vogue, Conde Nast, offered him a job as chief photographer of Vanity Fair, which gave him stability and artistic freedom to create fine art photography.

Though Steichen is most known for his fashion and celebrity portraits during the 1920s-1940s, he strove to make a living as an artistic photographer, rather than a fashion photographer. He created many still life photographs that resembled Surrealist photographer Brassaï’s, Sculptures Involontaires. Which were highly close up photographs of objects, to decontextualize the object from how viewers commonly perceive it. Steichen’s involuntary sculptural photographs, The Spiral Shell, 1921 and Foxgloves, 1925, usually depicted natural elements including fresh and wilted flowers, shells and fruit. Often these photographs created seemingly erotic compositions that could be taken to represent breasts or female genitalia. He is also known for fetishizing and the woman’s body and accessories, like shoes and gloves, similar to Surrealist artists, an example of this can be found in his Portrait of Princess Nathalie Paley, 1934 and Model Wearing Sandals, 1934.

Steichen’s powerful compositions reign through his painting, and fashion and artistic photography. His powerful artistic pieces often feature singular figures are contrasted by large expanses of dark hazy negative space with dramatic cast shadows, which creates a sense of unease similar to the Uncanny works of Surrealist artists.

Along with being interested in Surrealist photography, he also associated with a few famous photographers of the time, including Lee Miller a fellow fashion photographer, which he photographed on several occasions. Though his works could be arguably Surrealist, he did not align himself with the Surrealist art movement. He struggled to make a career as an artist, but always had to supplement his artistic career with photographing high fashion. However the quality of Steichen’s fashion photography, seems to suggest that he tried to bring the artistic and avant-guarde elements that he was interested in, into the the fashion world. He bridged the gape between the fashion world and the art world through techniques that are completely commonplace in today’s high fashion advertising.

Steichen was known for his outstanding attentiveness to the overall composition and balance of his photographs. His use of elaborate sets and props turned his studio photography, into something of greater much depth. In artistic photography as well as fashion photography a great attention to detail can be found in his work. He composed his portraits like paintings, and used the photographic technologies to the best of their advantage, as seen in Dana Miller dans l’étang, 1954. In this image the ability of quicker shutter speeds to capture seconds is used to show a nude woman jumping into water. The abstraction that the splashing water makes, shows how Steichen’s work evolved through the prominent art movements. During the 1950s, abstract expressionism was at it’s height, and Steichen clearly seems to be alluding to the art movement through the use of photography.

His experiments with color photography, as early as 1904 made him a pioneer in the new technology. He was the first photographer to use the Autochrome Lumiere process in the United States. He was a pioneer in all aspects of photography, as well as influencing how fashion photography was used.

During his life he was the highest paid photographer, while working for Vanity Fair. He also broke a record in 2006, when one of his early photographs, The Pond-Moonlight, sold at auction for 2.9 million, the highest amount ever paid for a photograph. This photo was created in color by individual colored layers of light sensitive gum applied to the photo paper. Since this was so variable, the three copies of the photograph, all look different.

Steichen’s influence in commercial photography is not the only thing that made him famous. Steichen enlisted in the Army in WWI as an areal photographer, and reinstated his role in during World War II for the Navy, the experience left him with the need to photograph things other than fashion. His skills as a photographer were of use to him during the war, he documented the war conditions. On both occasions he exhibited his wartime photographs in exhibits at MoMA, and his patriotic fime, The Fighting Lady recieved an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1945. Despite the fact that these war photos were highly important, they are not as popular as his fashion photographs. His fashion photographs, and celebrity portraits are some of the most recognized images of the 1920s and 30s, and are as intriguing and glamourous today as they were when they were first created.

Steichen’s relationship with MoMA went further when he replaced the Director of Photography, Beaumont Newhall in 1947. He organized over 40 exhibitions at MoMA and attended MoMA’s traveling exhibitions. His final exhibition at MoMA a large collection of his work, both artistic and commercial, called Steichen the Photographer marked Steichen’s retirement from MoMA. Despite his retirement, Steichen was still creating photographs until his death in 1973, at the age of 93.

Works Cited,

HOPKINSON, R. (2009), EDWARD STEICHEN: IN HIGH FASHION THE CONDE NAST YEARS 1923–1937 BY WILLIAM A EWING & TODD BRANDOW. The Art Book, 16: 63–64. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8357.2009.01063_4.x




Related object
The Flatiron by Edward Steichen
The Flatiron by Edward Steichen