Museum of Art|Fort Lauderdale Edward Steichen Exhibit Pairs with Richard Avedon Show

A friend of mine holds that there are no coincidences. But I’m hard-pressed to explain this otherwise: One week, the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach opens “Avedon Fashion 1944-2000.” Two and a half weeks later, the Museum of Art|Fort Lauderdale premieres “Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, the Condé Nast Years 1923-1937.” Both exhibitions stake out improbably similar territory, and both run roughly concurrently, although the Avedon will hang around almost a month longer than the Steichen.

The good news is that the shows complement rather than compete. I only wish I had been able to see the Steichen first, since the elder photographer laid the groundwork for the younger one’s more adventurous work. I’ll admit to a slight bias in favor of Avedon’s style, which was much more dynamic and kinetic than Steichen’s more conservative approach. But make no mistake, these are two fine photography exhibitions.

Coincidence also comes into play when you compare the two men’s lives and careers. Both went to Paris in their early 20s, and both had early experiences that put their photographic talents to work – Avedon in the Merchant Marine, Steichen in the U.S. Army during World War I and the Navy in World War II. Most significantly, both were employed by the Condé Nast empire of magazines. Steichen was at both Vogue and Vanity Fair from 1923 to 1938, and Avedon worked for Vogue from 1966 through most of the ’80s. Both men excelled at multiple genres of photography.

Steichen's striking 1932 shot of Marlene Dietrich.
Steichen's striking 1932 shot of Marlene Dietrich.
Steichen's shot of a dressy Gary Cooper from 1930 shows the movie star at age 29.
Steichen's shot of a dressy Gary Cooper from 1930 shows the movie star at age 29.

Details

“Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, the Condé Nast Years 1923-1937”

On display through April 11 at the Museum of Art/Fort Lauderdale, Nova Southeastern University, One E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; call 954-262-0200 or click here.

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Stylistically, however, the two photographers were quite different. Steichen was trained as a painter, and he brought a painterly formality to his work. As we see here, especially in the early images, he was a master of dramatic studio effects, manipulating light and shadows as deftly as if they were paint.

A wall-text panel explains that in 1911, when Steichen was 32, he created some of the earliest fashion photos for the French magazine Art et Décoration, working with the designs of Paul Poiret.

The exhibition features some 200 of Steichen’s works, drawn from the archives of Condé Nast. It starts in 1923, the year Steichen left Paris for New York and became chief photographer at Vanity Fair and Vogue. The images are grouped year by year through the mid-1930s. The earliest shots often feature dancers and actors in highly theatrical poses, and today such stylization is likely to feel a little mannered. Fortunately, Steichen loosens up over the years, and a greater naturalism creeps into his work.

Among the early photographs is a 1924 portrait that is one of Steichen’s most famous shots – the actress Gloria Swanson in close-up, peering through a black lace veil. It is an image that has been so widely seen that you’d think it would have lost its oomph by now, but it remains a vivid reminder of the photographer’s virtuosity.

One thing you’re bound to notice if you take in both the Avedon and the Steichen exhibitions is the abundance of famous faces. This is partly a practical matter: The rich, the famous, and the powerful have long been called upon to lend glamour and credibility to fashion. Perhaps even more than Avedon, Steichen took to his role of photographer to the stars with gusto, so much so that “In High Fashion” becomes a roll call of celebrities.

Power brokers like Winston Churchill and Herbert Hoover? Here! Literary luminaries like W.B. Yeats, H.G. Wells, Dorothy Parker, Luigi Pirandello, and Colette? Present and accounted for. Composers such as George Gershwin and dancers such as Martha Graham? Check! And so on.

But it was in Hollywood that Steichen found his most seductive subjects. From Al Jolson and Charlie Chaplin to Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, from Adolphe Menjou and Norma Shearer to Lillian Gish and Katharine Hepburn (whose name is misspelled in a text panel) – they’re all here, along with dozens of others. There’s a particularly striking 1932 shot of Marlene Dietrich, lounging in an ornate chair and projecting a come-hither look, as well as a dressy portrait of Gary Cooper from 1930, when, at age 29, he was surely one of the most beautiful men in the movies.

Perhaps fittingly for a man who captured movie personalities so memorably, Steichen won an Academy Award for the 1945 war documentary The Fighting Lady. It was Avedon, however, whose early career actually inspired a film, the 1957 musical Funny Face.

Ultimately, though, Steichen’s fashion photography, captivating as much of it is, tells only part of his story. It’s worth keeping in mind that Steichen ran the photography department at New York’s Museum of Modern Art from roughly the end of World War II until 1962. It was during this time, in 1955, that he curated the landmark The Family of Man show, which traveled widely to become one of the most successful exhibitions in history. It’s also notable that Steichen’s exquisite 1904 image The Pond – Moonlight sold in 2006 for a then-record $2.9 million, forever securing his place in photographic history. It’s in this context that his fashion photography should be situated.

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