Edward Steichen: A Curator’s View, William A. Ewing

To Be ‘Steichenized’

03_ Edward Steichen l Self-portrait with Photographic Paraphernalis, 1929

Edward Steichen, Self-portrait with Photographic Paraphernalia, 1929, (Vanity Fair, October 1, 1929), Courtesy of Condé Nast Archive, Condé Nast

“The making of beautiful objects and things of ornament, and even of utility, have practically been banished from the realm of art to the more active and more lucrative scope of commerce.”

– Edward Steichen, 1908

So great is the reputation of Edward Steichen (even to the extent of a quasi-mythical status), that it might come as a surprise to learn that Condé Nast, owner of two of the English-speaking world’s most chic magazines, took a real gamble when he engaged Steichen as chief photographer for Vanity Fair, with the hope he would also, from time to time, contribute to Vogue. How was this so?

In the early twenties Steichen was not doing so well, personally or professionally. True, he had enjoyed much pre-war success, and even laid legitimate claim to the label of teenage prodigy. But by the early 1920’s he could no longer benefit from being an enfant terrible; he was squarely middle-aged, he had recently returned from France (where postwar prospects were dismal), he was divorced (a most acrimonious experience) with small children to raise, and he was unemployed. He had also come to the painful decision to give up painting, with which he had had a considerable degree of commercial success before the war—it wasn’t that he lacked talent as a painter, but rather that he had come to realize he would never join the ranks of great artists, a certain number of whom he had come to know. If there were any hope for a successful career, he had decided, it would have to be in photography. But even here employment prospects were bleak. Steichen even considered giving up photography altogether, moving out of New York, and trying his hand at filmmaking. Leaving ‘the City of Ambition’ would have been a terrible blow to his career prospects, not to mention his self-esteem. “The future is not brilliant,” he wrote to his sister. Yet only a few months after penning this letter of despondency, he would be on an ocean liner to Paris, in first-class comfort, to cover the new season of Parisian fashions. How was such a turnaround (literally and figuratively– his earlier trip to New York had been in steerage) possible?

Looking back, one must also ask oneself why Nast would entrust such a responsibility to a ‘provincial American’, an immigrant boy brought up in Milwaukee. Wasn’t the whole aim of Vogue to instruct American women how to attain chic, Parisian chic? The magazine’s first chief photographer had been an aristocrat, Baron de Meyer, who led a glamorous lifestyle. Now there was all the ‘class’ ambitious American women craved! But a photographer from Milwaukee?

However, Condé Nast had a sharp eye for talent, and may have been following Steichen’s progress towards fashion unbeknownst to him for a number of years. In 1907 Steichen had been commissioned to take Mrs. Condé Nast’s portrait, and produced a masterful image in the Whistlerian style then in vogue. It stands to reason that this striking portrait would have put Steichen on Nast’s radar, just as some years later a portrait of Nast’s daughter would have amplified that signal. Nast would certainly have known that Steichen was a great portraitist – the proof is there in Vanity Fair itself, which in January 1923 heralded him as ‘the greatest of living portrait photographers’; in 1918 it had even inducted him into its Hall of Fame for his ‘great and well-deserved reputation’. Nast would also have known that Steichen had been commissioned to paint a cover for Vogue in May 1906, and may have seen his portrait series of ‘Great Men’, which included Richard Strauss, Auguste Rodin, George Bernard Shaw and J.P. Morgan. Perhaps more pertinent were Steichen’s brilliant portraits of women, like the socialite Mrs. Phillip Lydig, the dancer Isadora Duncan or the actress Elenora Duse. Nast clearly saw that Steichen knew to access the rich and the powerful, and moreover was not intimidated by them—prerequisites for any high-society photographer. So as far as Vanity Fair’s needs were concerned, Condé Nast was taking no risks whatsoever. And as far as Vogue’s needs were concerned, there was no shortage of elegantly portrayed dress in Steichen’s portrait portfolio.

As for being provincial, this was hardly a label which could stick. Steichen had flown the coop at the age of maturity, heading straight for Paris and immediately falling in love with the city and its culture. He had lived there, making a point of getting to know successful artists and their well-heeled patrons. Condé Nast would have known, too, that Steichen had acted as a scout for his partner and mentor, Alfred Stieglitz, finding artists of merit and bringing their works back to New York for showing at their gallery 291. Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin, Cézanne, as well as Matisse and Brancusi; not to mention fellow Americans like John Marin and Gertrude Käsebier. Condé Nast would not have known that back in Milwaukee the teenage Steichen had immersed himself in European art, soaking up all the magazines he could find in the well-stocked public library. He would also not have known about one of the hard lessons the boy had absorbed about the fashion world, albeit at its humbler levels: his mother, struggling to earn a living had opened a millinery shop, but not able to afford more than two or three hats at a time, had simply stocked her shelves with empty hat boxes. When a client asked for advice Mrs. Steichen would pretend to survey the entire stock, then reach for one box in which there actually was a hat! Steichen recalled this lesson later in life, as he began to see how many empty but attractive boxes there were in the fashion business.

Steichen is usually refereed to as chief photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair, and generally speaking this is true, but in fact he was hired first as chief for Vanity Fair, with Vogue happy to receive a contribution when he felt the urge. Nast, a little embarrassed at offering a celebrated ‘art photographer’ commercial work, volunteered that Steichen would not have to sign such pictures, but Steichen protested: if he took the job, he would most certainly sign the pictures. ‘Some of the best pictures ever made were commercial,’ he said many times when called upon to defend himself.

While portraits were an obvious thing for Steichen, fashion was less so. Then again, there were few precedents, the field barely existed. Baron de Meyer had made some masterpieces in the Pictorialist manner, but most of the photographs in the magazine were pedestrian, more documents that artful imaginings. But what made Condé Nast take a gamble? Partly, I think, he realized that those artful portraits might well have been fashion studies of a kind. It was dawning on publishers and art directors that photography was less about rendering a dress in detail than showing how it felt to wear it, or how it felt to be seen wearing it. Suggestion was to become the name of the game. The Pictorialist masters, of which Steichen was one, knew very well how to achieve this ‘lovely mood and sentiment’, to cite one of their Symbolist ideals. In fact, Steichen had already tried his hand years earlier at the game, and produced spectacular results, the first truly modern fashion photographs. In 1911 he had been commissioned by Art & Decoration, an important Parisian magazine, to showcase the sensational ‘Orientalist’ gowns of Paul Poiret. Steichen framed the gowns in interiors which showed them off to perfection. The women wore the robes with ease and panache, as if they had been born in them. The images had the casual authenticity of snapshots, yet a moment’s study shows they were painstakingly composed. It is not know whether Nast ever saw these pictures, but there is a good chance he did. A Francophile with the ambition to build up his magazines to preeminence, he must have subscribed in 1911 to any French art/fashion/lifestyle magazine of substance. But this remains conjecture; what was beyond doubt was Steichen’s competence, proven a decade before he would commit to the practice wholeheartedly.

The story of Nast’s offer to Steichen is the stuff of Hollywood film, and I am surprised that some scriptwriter hasn’t jumped at the opportunity. Steichen in 1923, gloomy and morose, happens to read in Vanity Fair that he is the greatest living portrait photographer, but sadly, has given up photography for painting! Alarmed at this upending of the facts, he contacts Condé Nast and is invited to lunch. And over it he is offered the exalted position, with a salary he could never have imagined possible (it is difficult to calculate precisely in today’s dollars, but more than half-a-million is a reasonable estimate) and a regular showcase of his work—every month, year after year. Not surprisingly he jumped at the chance. Within a few years his work would become so well known that certain sitters grumbled that he was more famous than they were. To be photographed by Steichen, wrote one critic, was to be ‘Steichenized’.

The subject of art and commerce in photography is a fraught one, too much of a minefield to go into here. Suffice it to say that Steichen would suffer for changing camps (Ansel Adams called him the ‘Antichrist of photography’!), and his reputation still suffers today, such is the lingering inferiority complex of art photography, petrified of being ‘contaminated’ by commerce. But given increasingly relaxed attitudes to the medium in our time, with fashion photography enjoying great popular success whenever it is shown, Steichen may well be having the last laugh.

There are still other factors that prepared Steichen well for the job: great experience with printing techniques, extensive magazine work, achievements in graphic design, early color experimentation, etc. Condé Nast, like all great publishers, knowing or sensing all this talent, probably thought that his choice of chief photographer wasn’t a leap of faith in the slightest. If anything, he was leaping at an opportunity.

– William A. Ewing