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Edward Steichen is universally regarded as being the first 'modern' fashion photographer, with his earliest recorded fashion shots taken in 1911. But it is his prolific and accomplished work for Vogue and Vanity Fair in the golden age of haute couture during the twenties and thirties, that is the subject of a wonderful exhibition at The Photographers' Gallery in Central London.
In this the UK premiere of his work,’Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, The Conde Nast Years 1923–37’, over 200 vintage prints, many on public display for the first time, have been brought together especially for this exhibition and are a glamorous record of the period.
He produced thousands of images during these years, photographing the creations of all the major couturiers: Worth, Poiret, Lelong, Lanvin, Chanel, Vionnet, Schiaparelli, Augusta Bernard, Molyneux, and Patou. When he felt constrained by the studio he took his models on location, to the racetrack, a chic hotel, on board a yacht, or to Conde Nast's own Fifth Avenue apartment. Models, actresses, and society women all posed for him.
Steichenwas already an internationally celebrated painter and photographer when in 1923, at the age of 44, he was hired by Conde Nast as chief photographer of their two most prestigious publications, Vanity Fair and Vogue. Initially appointed to take the society portraits for Vanity Fair, seeing the effect these images had on the readers he was soon persuaded to shootVogue fashion, the magazine keen to add a touch of French taste to their pages.
Over the next 15 years he captured iconic figures from the arts, politics, and haute couture, and the portraits displayed alongside his fashion images represent a key period in photographic history and offer an insight into his pioneering approach towards fashion and portraiture photography.
Born in Luxembourg in 1879, Steichen immigrated to the USA aged two and settled with his family in Milwaukee. He trained as a painter then as a photographer and worked in New York (where he launched the trail-blazing Camera Work magazine with fellow photographer Alfred Steiglitz) and Paris, before joining Conde Nast.
His 'painterly' background is evident in his photography: he borrowed from a range of aesthetic movements including Impressionism, Art Nouveau and Symbolism to create a characteristic Art Deco style in shape, form, texture, light and shade. His fashion images and portraits show his meticulous compositions from the elegant designs of Chanel to the beauty of Greta Garbo, further illustrated in the rare copies of Vogue and Vanity Fair showing his photographs in their original context.