The Art Institute sets its sights on photographer Edward Steichen.
Mention photographer Edward Steichen, and what will likely come up is the roster of celebrities he shot. Noel Coward, sleek as a monolith, the spiraling smoke from his cigarette accentuating his stature. Famously coupled stars Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, she staring down the camera, he with eyes for nothing but her. But it’s more than the fame of the faces that makes these images memorable. A lesser photographer would be outshone by these subjects, but Steichen’s skill was such that they practically play second fiddle to his mastery of light and shadow. With “Sharp, Clear Pictures: Edward Steichen’s World War I and Condé Nast Years,” the Art Institute of Chicago offers another look at how he came to create the pictures he did.
Like many photographers who emerged in the early 20th century, Steichen’s first efforts echoed the soft-edged, atmospheric effects of mainstream painting. But living in France, he fell under the influence of modernism and began to embrace a new way of interpreting the world. Then, while overseeing training and darkroom operations as head of the U.S. Air Services Photographic Section during World War I (which generated aerial photographs for intelligence purposes), Steichen had something of an epiphany. Although he didn’t shoot in the sky himself, the informative documents his team produced made an impression. “The wartime problem of making sharp, clear pictures from a vibrating, speeding airplane 10 to 20 thousand feet in the air had brought me a new kind of technical interest in photography,” he later wrote. “Now I wanted to know all that could be expected from photography.”
Stateside, Steichen went to work for publisher Condé Nast, where he reinvented celebrity photography at Vogue and Vanity Fair. “He relied heavily on dramatic lighting, geometric backgrounds and meticulous compositions,” notes Art Institute Assistant Curator Michal Raz-Russo. “By the 1930s, he began making frequent use of props, such as modernist furniture and white, gray and black panels that were arranged into abstract or geometric shapes. These tools enabled him to promote photography as a mass-media tool while still maintaining his fierce dedication to craft.”
Far from mere flattery, Steichen’s images captured the professional identity of individuals in singularly striking ways: an almost Constructivist shot of Charlie Chaplin contemplating his signature bowler; multiple shadows expressing the dynamic essence of a stock-still Fred Astaire. Sure, these folks were stars. But Steichen made them shine in a whole new way.
“GRETA GARBO AND JOHN GILBERT” ARE TWO OF EDWARD STEICCHEN’S MOST FAMOUS CELEBRITY PHOTOGRAPHS, BOTH SHOWN IN THE “SHARP, CLEAR PICTURES” EXHIBIT.
‘Sharp, Clear Pictures: Edward Steichen’s World War I and Condé Nast Years’