When Edward Steichen (1879-1973) accepted the job as Chief Photographer for Condé Nast publications in 1923 it was taken for granted he would work under a pseudonym. Already known as both a famous art photographer and a painter, his employer realised Steichen would probably not wish to be associated with the purely commercial work he would be doing for Vogue and Vanity Fair.
Steichen surprised everyone by insisting on the authorship of all of his magazine photography. He declared: “I also said if I made a photograph I would stand by it with my name; otherwise I wouldn’t make it.”
Today, confronted with the exhibition, Edward Steichen and Art Deco Fashion at the National Gallery of Victoria, it’s not easy to appreciate the boldness of this gesture. It has been a long time since fashion and celebrity photographers needed to defend their artistic credentials. Indeed, for photographers such as Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon and Annie Leibowitz, the pages of the glossies have prised opened the doors of the museums.
It was different in the early 1920s when Pictorialism dominated art photography. The trademark of this loosely-defined, international style, was a soft focus that made an image seem dream-like or poetic. It was a way of insisting that photography was an artform, not merely a mechanism for recording visual facts. Despite its many achievements the style had its limitations. Because the vocabulary of Pictorialism was borrowed wholesale from painting its practitioners placed themselves in a secondary role, even as they argued for the aesthetic significance of their medium.
Pictorialism began to wane when photographers realised they had been denying themselves the very quality that painting couldn’t match: the ability to capture an image in the blink of an eye, with the most exacting realism.
From the early years of the century Steichen had been an enthusiastic Pictorialist, working closely with Alfred Stieglitz on the pioneering journal, Camera Work, and with Gallery 291, the venue that did so much to raise the artistic status of photography to the same plane as painting and sculpture. In comparison, the Condé Nast work seemed to be lacking in artistic ambition.
His former colleagues, whom Steichen referred to as “the art for art’s sake boys”, had no doubts: shooting fashion and celebrities was a way of selling-out.
Despite the quality of Steichen’s images the perception lingered that these pictures represented an unfortunate episode in a distinguished artist’s career, brought about by financial considerations. It’s taken more than fifty years to overcome the idea that Steichen was acting not as a prostitute or a mercenary, but as an artist.
Nowadays nobody is so easily offended by the smell of money or the company of celebrities. On the contrary: Andy Warhol made it seem as if money and fame were the only worthwhile goals for an artist. With figures such as Damien Hirst, or even Anish Kapoor, there are more articles about their personal wealth than their work. During the 80s Robert Mapplethorpe’s frigid studio portraits were hailed as cutting edge photography.
Over the same time the world’s art museums have enjoyed some of their biggest successes with haute couture exhibitions. As recently as the 1970s it was rare to find fashion given any traction in the public galleries, now it is central to every institution’s business plan.
The National Gallery of Victoria has hosted a succession of fashion-oriented exhibitions, with the homegrown summer blockbuster, Melbourne Now, having sections devoted to fashion and design. The chaotic energy of this survey has its appeal, but the Steichen show is a master class by one of the great photographers of all time. This collection of more than 200 images from the Condé Nast archives was organised by institutions in Minneapolis and Lausanne, and has been touring since October 2007, under the title Edward Steichen: In High Fashion.
The NGV has changed the game a little by adding a selection of garments of the Art Deco era, drawn from its permanent holdings. It’s an inspired idea, making good use of a rarely-seen part of the collection, and providing actual examples of the fashions celebrated in so many of Steichen’s photos.
Art Deco took its name from the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, where it became apparent that a new wave of design had arrived. Appropriately, for an age that the French called les années folles (the crazy years), Art Deco drew on a broad range of unrelated influences and unusual materials, combining the experiments of Modern Art with a love of ancient or exotic cultures. In its first phase Art Deco was a luxury style that employed rich and delicate materials. After the Great Depression it would take on a popular aspect, with designers creating both decorative and utilitarian objects out of Bakelite.
Most of the garments in this display belong to the flamboyant first phase of Art Deco, when the goal was to make a striking impression. An Evening coat (c. 1924) by the Callots soeurs in “acid green lamé and silk satin” takes its inspiration from the kimono, but it is pure science fiction. An orange-toned Evening dress (1924) by Madeleine Vionnet is covered in stylised rose motifs made from metallic thread. A relatively late piece from 1935, by an uncredited designer, uses monkey fur dyed a sickly turquoise.
Although these garments are distinguished by bright colours; elaborate beading or embroidery; sharp angles and rich fabrics, there is a sense in which even the most fabulous dress needs to be ‘completed’ by its wearer. This addition of the human element is what makes Steichen’s photos so much more vivid than any stand-alone item of clothing. His breakthrough was to treat each fashion shoot as a portrait, often using celebrities as models.
Steichen has claims to having invented fashion photography with a series of pictures he took in Paris in 1911, for couturier, Paul Poiret; but the genre had found its first true professional in Baron Adolphe de Meyer, who left Vogue for Harper’s Bazaar, opening the door for Steichen’s appointment. De Meyer was an incurable mannerist who remained true to the Pictorialist aesthetic, but his successor would prove himself an innovator.
Steichen told an audience in 1936 that it was “quite impossible to make what is called a real portrait of a person.” As laughter and tragedy could not be accommodated in one image the photographer was obliged to seek out “a single instant of reality” to sum up a sitter’s personality. Steichen had to have the confidence and experience to make quick judgements about his subjects, and the imagination to photograph them in a way that brought out these characteristics.
This could be a highly theatrical process, as in his famous photo of Gloria Swanson’s face in close-up, shot through a heavily patterned veil. The actress stares at us in an alarming way – a predatory femme fatale concealing her ambitions behind a mask of beauty. By contrast, a double portrait of Greta Garbo and John Garfield reads like a scene from a play in which a man seems to be imploring a sullen, introverted woman whose gaze denotes a mixture of emotions, from determination to smoldering anger.
As opposed to these two strong characters, actress Loretta Young is portrayed as a wide-eyed innocent, crouching in the corner of a staircase. Aviator, Amelia Earheart, is the epitome of the fresh-faced all-American girl; while dancer Martha Graham resembles the high priestess of a mystery cult. Gary Cooper could only be an icon of clean-cut masculinity, but Conrad Veidt, known for his role as the somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), is a vampire in a business suit.
Steichen uses every trick at his disposal to convey a particular kind of image. His use of studio lighting grows increasingly complex and atmospheric, but he would also explore unusual locations, such as Condé Nast’s private apartment on Park Avenue. From year to year he progressed in his understanding of the dynamic effects of cropping and editing. Cecil B. DeMille looks like a master of the dark arts, while W.B.Yeats, with his disorderly hair, is everybody’s idea of a poet. Winston Churchill is a picture of bulldog determination.
Steichen brought the same personality-based approach to bear in his fashion photos, choosing models with a certain spark that complemented the clothing. His favourite was Marion Morehouse, whose expressive face radiates intelligence and wry humour. Morehouse was an actor and photographer in her own right, and is sometimes referred to as the first supermodel. She didn’t belie her clever looks, going on to marry E.E. Cummings, the smartest and sexiest voice in modern American poetry.
Although he claimed, somewhat romantically, that he got his effects by “the complete merging of myself in the personality of my subject, a complete loss of my own identity,” Steichen’s genius lay in his ability to distance himself from a subject, analysing his or her foibles with a cool, practiced eye. He combined this talent with a feeling for composition that owed a debt to the Old Masters he studied in museums. His greatest revelation was that in fashion and celebrity photography the clothes and settings were important, but it was the character of the model that made the seduction complete.
Edward Steichen & Art Deco Fashion
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne,
until 2 March
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 1 February, 2014