Monday, May 11, 2009

Edward Steichen: In High Fashion

The most recent acquisition to my photography book collection is Edward Steichen: In High Fashion (The Conde Nast Years 1923-1937). Physically, the book is a hefty 12.3 x 10.4 x 1.3 inches , with 4 lengthy essays and 242 quad-tone images. The print quality is uniformly excellent, which prompts a disclaimer in the introduction that certain retouch-marks may be visible in this edition that would not have been seen in the original printings of these images due to the poorer print quality. The essays are solidly written in a style accessible to the layperson without an MFA in art history. They are generally celebratory, but provide useful context in which to place the collection of images.

Steichen is a fascinating character: in the early 1920's he stood at the pinnacle of the fine art photography world when he was approached by Conde Nast to be chief photographer for their fashion and society magazines, most notably Vogue and Vanity Fair. Steichen's fine arts colleagues urged him to decline the job offer, as fashion and commercial photography were not considered fertile ground for a true artist. Steichen was broadly derided as a sell-out for accepting the position. However, Steichen anticipated the immense power of images in print publications, and blazed a trail for a new era of dynamic imagery that blurred the lines between art and commerce. Indeed, subsequent photographers such as Penn, Avedon, Demarchelier, and Leibovitz all owe a debt to Steichen for being among the first to blend fine art and mass media.

There are two things that really stand out to me in Steichen's work for Conde Nast: his ability to infuse fashion photographs with the personality of the subjects (this was completely revolutionary at the time), and his willingness to apply unconventional "fine art" compositions and lighting to fashion images. Many of the images in the book seem downright abstracted by commercial standards, yet they remain accessable.

If you have any interest at all in classic photography, I'd definitely put this book on your shopping list. Its certainly having an influence on my work.

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