Friday, May 22, 2009


You probably know Edward Steichen for his painting and fine art photography, but did you know that he also helped to create the modern concept of fashion photography?  That's his cover above, one of the most well-known in the history of magazine publishing.

Before Steichen fashion pictures looked mostly like this (above). The idea was to highlight the dress. The woman in it was little more than a mannequin.

Steichen had the revolutionary idea that the women wearing the dresses should look interesting, even if sometimes they almost overshadowed the clothes. They should look like they were having fun and like they had lots of friends. The idea was to make the women reading the magazine envy the models. 

Steichen was a painter before he was a photographer. The influence of Matisse on the two pictures above is obvious. 

Some believe that Steichen was the greatest photographer of women who ever lived. That's Gertrude Lawrence above. 

He made women (above) look mysterious and seductive.

He was no slouch with men, either. What do you think of the pictures above? The picture immediately above is of Conrad Veidt, who played Major Strassner in "Casablanca."

When Veidt was young he played horrific parts in films like "Dr. Caligari."

Nice poster, eh? But I digress....

What happened to Steichen you ask? Well, he dropped out of fashion photography when Borodsky introduced Beaten and Horst to Harper's Bazaar. I put up a blog about these guys a couple of weeks ago. Borodsky introduced humorous surrealism to women's magazines and poor Steichen, who was a serious kind of a guy, just couldn't keep up. That's Steichen's attempt at surrealism above. It just wasn't his thing.  

Why should men be interested in what happened in womens' magazines in the 20s and 30s? Because those magazines, operating beneath the radar of formal critics, helped to shape the attitudes of modern women, and of the whole world we live in today.  That and the fact that these magazines continued the revolution in art that critics supposed had died after WWll.


Lester Hunt said...

Fascinating! I had not seen most of these pictures. What strikes me most about them overall is Steichen's penchant for relatively simple designs. The biggest problem for the art-photographer is the flood of details that come through the lens -- too much to allow the impression that the artist is fully in control of them. What we feel we see is nature, not art. (It's no coincidence that"art" sounds like "artificial.") Steichen's solution is, through lighting and other means, to drastically reduce the quantity of busy detail in the image, bringing it down to something that looks fully intentional and controlled.

Once again, Eddy, I've learned something!

Hans Flagon said...

Really that shot of Conrad Veidt needs to be getting royalty checks from DCs The Joker. I seriously doubt there would be that Batman villian if not for this image.

I.D.R.C. said...

The genius of the Emperor Jones shot is how Robeson is completely dominated and eclipsed by the uniform. Incredible.

Trevor Thompson said...

It shouldn't go without mentioning that 'The Man Who Laughs' was the impetus for The Joker, and not until Heath Ledger's final performance is Conrad Veidt's original look paid an accurate homage.

Especially the eye make-up.

- trevor.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for showing this amazing stuff to all us uncultured slobs!

lastangelman said...

I know of Steichen because of the famous iconic photograph of Greta Garbo, and also that he was the brother-in-law of Carl Sandburg. Steichen has a style that is truly sigh-worthy. He only faltered when he attempted to imitate then current commercial trends. He knew how to either capture the right natural light or use stage lighting when photographing his subjects. It is almost like he knew how to sculpt shadows and hues with his camera.

Trivia: Conrad Veidt's portrayals of weird smiling villains was the basis for The Joker in the original Batman comic books.

Clarity said...

I was thinking how his photographs were Beatonesque.

I'm a woman. These magazines don't shape our thoughts. They are like snacks, we can take them or leave them. Some people have addictions to snacks, others have allergies. The myth of "opinion shaping" is something a few of them shove down our throats in the hope that we'll swallow.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Clarity: I was a bit vague about exactly how women and history were influenced by these magazines, and I wondered if anybody would call me on it. I have an answer but I'd have to devote a whole blog to it. I'll try to do that sometime soon.

Lester: True, so true!

pappy d said...

What amazing art! Seeing Steichen's portraits side by side, you can see that all his technique is in service of the unique personality of his subject.

The idea of selling a dress by just showing a picture of a dress reminds me of the grim Protestant aceticism of my relatives from that generation (no smiling, now). The young ladies just below have friends, independence, leisure & Torches of Freedom. That's what the customer really wants & she'll pay for just the promise of those things.

Before Einstein, Freud was the most famous scientist in the world, in some part due to his publicist, Eddie Bernays. They blazed a new trail into the soft underbelly of the mind.

Steichen did it, too (the woman between the sensual curves of the baby grand & the African fetish.) Photographers with less taste used unsubtle suggestions of sexuality or quoted Dali or de Chirico in their dreamscapes.

Surrealism had tried to bring the subconscious to light. These guys had the opposite aim of trying to jam the client's conscious intent into our collective subconscious.

Jenny Lerew said...

"Some believe that Steichen was the greatest photographer of women who ever lived. "

That's some statement. Who said it? Sources? One or two?
I've heard that claim bandied about other portrait and fashion photographers, like Hurrell and Horst and Weston-even Beaton-but never Steichen.

Don't get me wrong-he's a seminal and much lauded artist, I just never heard anything about women being his particular speciality at all.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Jenny: I've heard it before, but the person I had in mind when I said that was the author of the book I got the pictures from. I can't remember the title and it's back on the library shelf now. It was a new book; maybe "Steichen's Portraits," or something like that.

Pappy: Eddie Bernays? I'll have to look that up!

Zoran Taylor said...

Okay Eddie, you seem to be a google master and expert finder of amazing things, so I need your help: Steichen took a series of photographs of the silent actress Bessie Love dancing the charleston. All five of them are currently on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Only one of them is reprinted in "Edward Steichen: In High Fashion". Not a single one is available on google's image search.

Something is profoundly wrong with the universe.

These are quite possibly the most purely appealing photographs I have ever seen in my life. They are literally nothing but pure fun, exuberance, charm and sex appeal. And they're cartoony. I'm not even kidding, the way she stands and rolls her eyes in one of them makes her look like a Milt Gross drawing. I am in LOVE with these images. And yet they are completely overlooked by EVER SINGLE SOURCE FOR STEICHEN'S WORK I HAVE YET FOUND ON THE WEB.

If you have ever seen these photographs or are in posession of digital files of them, PLEASE upload them. The fact that they are not represented is a CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY.