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 ones more adventurous work. Ill admit to a slight bias in favor of Avedons style, which was much more dynamic and kinetic than Steichens more conservative approach. But make no mistake, these are two fine photography exhibitions.
Coincidence also comes into play when you compare the two mens 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.
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 Steichens 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 Steichens 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 youd think it would have lost its oomph by now, but it remains a vivid reminder of the photographers virtuosity.
One thing youre 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) theyre all here, along with dozens of others. Theres 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, Steichens fashion photography, captivating as much of it is, tells only part of his story. Its worth keeping in mind that Steichen ran the photography department at New Yorks 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. Its also notable that Steichens exquisite 1904 image The Pond Moonlight sold in 2006 for a then-record $2.9 million, forever securing his place in photographic history. Its in this context that his fashion photography should be situated.
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