The 1920s and ’30s were a heady time of social change, both in Europe and the United States. The advents of the Jazz Age, Hollywood glamour, Freudian philosophy and radical new ideas in art and fashion marked the era as one of its century’s most compelling.
Helping to chronicle all of this societal giddiness was photographer Edward Steichen, whose work for fashion and society magazines Vogue and Vanity Fair is receiving a well-deserved showcase at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art here in Kansas City through the end of July.
Edward Steichen—In High Fashion: The Condé Nast Years, 1923-1937, showcases over 150 vintage prints drawn primarily from the Condé Nast archives, but also including works from the museum’s own Hallmark photography collection. There are also several cases displaying vintage issues of both Vogue and Vanity Fair and a silent black and white film snippet of Steichen working in studio, both of which provide illuminating glimpses into the artist and his milieu.
Edward Steichen led a rather fascinating life. Born in Luxembourg and raised in Milwaukee, Steichen had many careers in photography: He partnered with influential art world figure and fellow photographer Alfred Stieglitz to work on, among other projects, the groundbreaking quarterly Camera Work; he served as a military photographer in both World Wars; he was an early champion of photographer Ansel Adams’ work; and for Vogue and Vanity Fair, he photographed some of the twentieth century’s most famous figures, many of whose portraits are included in this exhibit.
Organized by the Foundation for the Exhibition in Photography and the Museé de l’Elysée, Lausanne, in collaboration with the Nelson-Atkins, the show has been overseen here by associate curator of photography April M. Watson, who seemed a great champion for Steichen’s work at a recent preview.
She pointed out how the exhibit celebrates a rather uncelebrated aspect of Steichen’s oeuvre. “Though he was heavily criticized for his commercial work, Steichen himself never drew a distinct line between art and commerce. Steichen believed ‘if you look good in a photograph, the art will take care of itself.’”
And those in the Steichen photographs hung on the Nelson-Atkins walls do indeed look good. Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Noel Coward, Jack Dempsey, George Gershwin, Martha Graham, Amelia Earhart, and Winston Churchill are just a few of the many famous subjects of Steichen’s lens.
And although he photographed many famous people, he never relied on one single artistic formula to portray his subjects. “In the studio,” Watson says, “he endlessly experimented with artificial light, geometric forms and props. He was well aware of modern art and design movements—Art Deco, Cubism and Surrealism—and consistently infused his photographs with those aesthetics.”
Indeed, Steichen is recognized for making a stylistic leap in fashion photography—his modernist style was perfectly adapted to the innovations of his era. And in many ways, Steichen and his gorgeous images themselves helped define that era.
The exhibit shows now through July 25 at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak Street, KCMO. Call (816) 561-4000 for more information.