New York Photo Review
Volume 5 Issue 6 February 11 to 17, 2014

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

A Type of Elegance
Edward Steichen
In the 1920s and 1930s: A Recent Acquisition
Christopher Stromee

Photo by Edward Steichen . Source: whitney.org Edward Steichen, " Paul Robeson (as Brutus Jones in The Emperor Jones, for Vanity Fair)" 1933

Working in the prevailing painterly and atmospheric pictorialist style, Edward Steichen made his debut as a photographer in the 1890s; by the late teens he began using modernist approaches to light and shadow in a more abstract manner; and by 1923 he was chief photographer for Conde Nast where he created his famous celebrity and society photographs.

The Whitney show, Edward Steichen in the 1920s and 1930s, is comprised of 46 gelatin silver prints, mostly portraits from Vogue and Vanity Fair, along with commercial fashion for advertising campaigns.

Definitive images of Winston Churchill, Paul Robeson, Marlene Dietrich, Eugene O’Neill, Harold Nicholson and Vita Sackville-West, and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney create a gallery of luminaries from the period between the wars. For many, these images may attract the most attention since, in addition to the modernist compositional aesthetic, they provide a glimpse of his famous subjects’ personalities.

Positioning and setting are especially significant for these subjects. Mrs. James H. Van Allan, 1929, presents the proud and stylish equestrian standing against her horse. The image is cropped just above the horse’s head while below there is an area of open lawn. With the subject’s dark riding coat and hat, the upper two-thirds of the photo is dense and darkened. The viewer is left with the impression that the rider is protected by the horse, or by the implied social status, as much as commanding it.

Photo by Edward Steichen . Source: whitney.org Edward Steichen, "Marlene Dietrich" 1931

In Marlene Dietrich, 1931, the actress is shown leaning into the center, her hands grasping an unfurled umbrella with an index finger pointing to the upper edge of the photo. She stares with intensity at the camera and her head is tilted slightly forward so that the forehead is prominent. As in a number of Steichen portraits, the darkened area below seems to anchor the open lighter area at eye level and above. With her dynamic stance, ready to unfurl, Dietrich looks determined to capitalize on her recent success.

Photo by Edward Steichen . Source: whitney.org Edward Steichen, " Foxgloves, France" 1925

An Apple, a Boulder, a Mountain, France, c. 1921, is one of the few photographs in the show that make an object the subject of an abstract composition. An apple sits on a flat surface adjacent to the convex edge of another object and is photographed from above. The lighting emphasizes its textured volume, its brightened curvature surrounded by a dark penumbra.

Photo by Edward Steichen . Source: whitney.org Edward Steichen, " Advertisement for Coty Lipstick" 1935

In Advertisement for Coty Lipstick, c. 1935, several compositional devices enhance the glamour and sex appeal. A man and a woman look at each other across a faceted-mirrored stand, their hands linked and their faces reflected in the mirrors. The woman is posed against soft light diagonally separated from a triangle of shadow behind the man. A gleaming vase with a drooping spray of flowers reinforces the sensuality of this scene. Included as well are several nature images that employ the same formal methods.

One the most influential American photographers of the first half of the twentieth century, Steichen ended his career as Director of the Department of Photography at MoMA where he curated over 40 exhibitions, including the famous Family of Man (1955).

Edward Steichen
In the 1920s and 1930s: A Recent Acquisition
Curator: Carrie Springer

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