Marlene Dietrich, Hollywood, Edward Steichen’s 1931 portrait of the star, is one of his many celebrity and fashion images on display at the Whitney.
On December 6, nearly 50 photos by Edward Steichen—a serial innovator in fashion photography and portraiture—go on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art. This will be the Whitney’s first public showing of these important works, all printed by Steichen himself, since they were donated earlier this year by Richard and Jackie Hollander of Los Angeles. (The Hollanders, known for their photo collection, purchased more than 500 photos from Steichen’s estate in 2005.) The gelatin silver prints all date to the 1920s and 1930s. “Most are photos Steichen took when he was chief photographer for Condé Nast,” explains Carrie Springer, the show’s curator. They are commercial, she says, and at the same time incredibly artlike.
When Steichen took these, he was in his 40s and already well respected. His friend Alfred Stieglitz had started a gallery in 1905 promoting photography as an art form, which featured Steichen’s work. During World War I, Steichen had been in charge of aerial photography for the US Army, and when he came back, his approach to photography completely changed. He started as a pictorialist, but then began to explore many “different aspects of photography,” says Springer, noting that the photographs fall into four categories: portraits, fashion, advertising, and nature. “He experimented on ways to depict volume and scale, which led to an abstract quality in all his works.”
Condé Nast, publisher of Vanity Fair and Vogue, was also ready for a change. Baron Adolph de Meyer, the previous chief photographer, had used soft focus, props, and painted backdrops for what he called his “artistic” photography. Steichen replaced all this with unadorned settings and clean geometries created by dramatic lighting. “He was a crucially important figure in establishing an art-influenced, modernist style of fashion photography,” says Carol Squiers, who co-curated a show of Steichen’s work at the International Center of Photography in 2009. He brought sharp focus to bear and had a tremendous effect on the field. In some ways, Squiers suggests, “His portraits for Vanity Fair are even more radical.” His influence can be felt to this day: Richard Avedon, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Bruce Weber are among his stylistic successors.
“His pictures of actors, writers, artists, and statesmen are very specific to the time, and yet they have a timeless quality,” Springer observes. To give a vitality to the portrait, Steichen would elicit responses from his subjects: He shot Maurice Chevalier, hat in hand, doing a song and dance. Theater actress Katharine Cornell told him she’d never done a Greek tragedy. “He gave her a piece of fabric, and she immediately took on the role!” Springer says. “Edward Steichen in the 1920s and 1930s: A Recent Acquisition” will be on display from December 6 through February 23 at the Whitney, 945 Madison Ave., 212-570-3600