New York Photo Review
Volume 2 Issue 37 October 25 to 31, 2011

Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat
The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino
Soho Photo Gallery
Central Booking Magazine

Bright Lights
Edward Steichen
The Last Printing
Gary Cooper by Edward Steichen. Source: danzigerprojects.com
Edward Steichen, "Noel Coward"

One of the dominant figures in American photography between the Wars, Edward Steichen had an extraordinary and varied career during his long life. Yet his reputation, like Marguerite Bourke-White’s, went into decline during the reign of John Szarkowski, his successor at MOMA. Perhaps, in his case, it was the fall-out from his blockbuster show, Family of Man, whose optimistic and somewhat naive all-men-are-brothers theme was scoffed at in more cynical times. During the Penn-Avedon era of the 60’s and 70’s his commercial style, too, went hopelessly out of fashion; but now Penn and Avedon are beginning to look old fashioned, or perhaps merely mannered, as a more flamboyant and theatrical photography once more is in the ascendant. Moreover old notions about the relative status of commercial photography versus art photography have broken down, allowing us to view the photographic canon as a whole – particularly important when evaluating someone like Edward Steichen who whole-heartedly embraced what he perceived as the utilitarian nature of the medium.

So now is a good moment to look at the excellent selection of Steichen’s commercial work currently on view at Danziger Projects. Printed by George Tice, these small, exquisite prints are a testament to the eloquence of black and white, especially in the hands of a master such as Steichen. In this pre-strobe era, complex arrangements of fills and spots, of cookies and scrims were commonplace, much of the style adapted from film noir and German Expressionist theatre. His use of the technique in celebrity portraiture made each of his pictures theatrical miniatures, little playlets of personality that went beyond a mere likeness to present a dramatic take on his sitter. His photograph of Noel Coward is a good example. The picture is divided into fourths vertically, the far left section showing the statue of a black cat against white ground, while the rest has Coward lit dramatically from the side, cigarette dangling as the light crosses the background in a clear diagonal. It’s almost a study in doubleness; the inferences are there: here is someone with a secret life, a hidden side, occult, nocturnal, possibly gay. Yet, the feeling in his portrait of Loretta Young couldn’t be more different. She is seen bathed in bright light coming from below, her eyes luminous and wary, her dress casual and out-doorsy; yet she sits hunched at the top of the stairs, hugging herself, almost cringing. Open and revealing though it is, Steichen’s light indicates menace. We may luxuriate in its gorgeousness, but we sense something more.

 by Edward Steichen. Source: danzigerprojects.com
Edward Steichen, “Loretta Young”

One could dissect picture after picture in the show to demonstrate how emotional and psychological insight (subtlety conveyed through light and composition rather than dramatic poses and exaggerated expressions) went hand in hand for Steichen with an esthetic mastery of the medium. That he did it through such purely photographic means as composition and light is perhaps the reason he was able to be both perceptive and elegant at the same time. How different from his close contemporary Cecil Beaton whose theatricality relied more heavily on props, rendering it studied and often silly. And how wonderful that Edward Steichen has resumed his place in the pantheon of twentieth century greats.

Edward Steichen
The Last Printing


Danziger Projects
527 W 23rd St. Ground Floor
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danzigerprojects.com

Thursday, September 15 to
Saturday, October 29, 2011
Hours: Tues-Sat, 11 to 6
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The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino
Making Caribbean Dance by Susanna Sloat
Central Booking Magazine
Soho Photo Gallery