Edward Steichen – In High Fashion

May 28, 2010

I just finished Edward Steichen – In High Fashion (The Condé Nast Years 1923-1937) by William A. Ewing and Todd Brandow. It’s a collection of gorgeously large plates by the photographer widely regarded as most responsible for the look and style of today’s fashion photography.

In 1923 Edward Steichen was just about broke and was trying to reclaim his footing as an art photographer and considering giving up photography all together when he was approached to become the chief photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair. Initially he stayed close to the publications’ roots of a more classical, romantic, art nouveau style of photography, but began to put his own distinctive spin on it, setting his models up in more abstract backgrounds, ushering in a new era of fashion photography. He also was influential in the practice of using models to photograph rather than rich socialites and stars of stage and screen.

It’s quite striking how many of his images, flipping through the book could easily be viewed in fashion magazines today, and equally how many of them look old, tired, and dated. But considering that many of these photos are 60+ years old, that is quite the accomplishment!

Undoubtedly the most striking images to me were not so much his fashion portraits as his classic portraits of sitters like Charlie Chaplain, Joan Bennett, Jacob Epstein, Charles Laughton, and Winston Churchill, but some of his fashion work really struck me as well, like the cover portrait of Mary Heberden, a picture called “white” which featured a 3 models in white with a white horse against a white wall, but my absolute favorite is one simply called “Model Wearing Sandals” from 1934 which is just two legs sliding up into a gradient gray background. It’s just classic and wonderful without the cheese of pin-up.

For me this is a “borrow it” though because so much of the work feels so dated.

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