Edward Steichen: On George Baher’s yacht, 1928
Claimed to be the creator of modern fashion photography, Edward Steichen was born in 1879 in Luxembourg. He came to the United States with his family in 1881. Steichen learned photography at the age of 16 at the American Fine Art Company in Milwaukee, while the technology was still relatively new. Steichen created unique and avant-guard photographs that were widely accepted with fashion magazines including Vogue and Vanity Fair, as well as praised by his contemporaries. Steichen works seem to be inspired by surrealist ideas, such as the uncanny, and freudian themes of fetishizing women. His work is included in the Smithsonian, The Metropolitan Museum of Arts, MoMA, The Whitney and many other influential museums and galleries.
Before Steichen influence in the photography world, fashion models were often stiff and mannequin like, usually white, blond and “immaculately preened.” Steichen created ornate compositions with his dancer-like models. The women and celebrities alike were not doll like, they were evocative and erotic. He also used these tactics on inanimate objects, like shoes, or lighters, arranging them and photographing them in artistic ways that were completely new at the time, and are still used today. He used repetition, lighting, commodity, unique and elaborate setting, and sex, to sell high fashion
Steichen is noted for changing the portraiture of celebrities. His portraits of Greta Garbo, 1928, and Marlene Dietrich, 1934 are some his most famous. He depicts celebrities as well as his models, in very modern and theatrical poses. Dramatic lighting, unique compositions and exquisite fashion are three of the most common themes found in Steichen’s work.
Though Steichen is most known for his fashion and celebrity portraits during the 1920s-1940s, he strove to make a living as an artistic photographer, rather than a fashion photographer. He created many still life photographs that resembled Surrealist photographer Brassaï’s, Sculptures Involontaires. Which were highly close up photographs of objects, to decontextualize the object from how viewers commonly perceive it. Steichen’s involuntary sculptural photographs like, The Spiral Shell, 1921 and Foxgloves, 1925, usually depicted natural elements including fresh and wilted flowers, shells and fruit. Often these photographs created seemingly erotic compositions that could be taken to represent breasts or female genitalia. He is also known for fetishizing and the woman’s body and accessories, like shoes and gloves, similar to Surrealist artists, an example of this can be found in his Portrait of Princess Nathalie Paley, 1934 and Model Wearing Sandals, 1934.
Steichen’s artistic photography uses dramatic lighting, vast spaces, and a foggy focus to evict uncanny elements that the Surrealists were interested in. These works are visually similar to Tonalist painting, as seen in Steichen’s photographs, Lilac Buds, 1909 and Brooklyn Bridge, 1903. Throughout Steichen’s career he changed and modified his artistic style according to the reigning art movements and influenced generations of photographers.