Seeing is Believing

The fashions of Edward Steichen.

Before photography took over the pages of fashion magazines, they were filled with illustrations. American Edward Steichen, the subject of the recent exhibit, Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, the Condé Nast Years, 1923-1937 at the Musée des Beaux Arts de Québec, was one of the first to cross over from illustrator to photographer. Having bought his first camera as a student in 1895, it wasn’t until 1911, when he convinced the publisher of French magazine Art et Décoration that photographs rather than drawings would better show off the clothes, that he became one of the first fashion photographers.

After a stint in the army during the First World War, where he honed his camera skills taking shots on the front, he returned to the U.S. where he became the chief photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair. It’s this era that’s explored in the exhibit, starting with his cover illustrations and early photographs, and moving on to his Hollywood portraiture.

The fashion theatrics we’re so used to encountering—the bright, pop culture world of David Lachapelle or Juergen Teller’s intimate, blown-out shots—is nowhere to be found. Instead the images have a timeless theatricality of their own, one that works in great part because of our nostalgia for the interwar era. The images are stark, striking, highly graphic and make the clothes the focus. Unlike the editorials we see today, these black and white images offer little fantasy beyond the beauty of the clothes themselves. Everything is done to show the garments in the most flattering way, to the extent that the staging of a photograph often isn’t about telling a story, but rather showing off the design. A mirrored staircase, for example, is a clever way to draw attention to the open back of a dress.

In order to see the work—the prints were quite small—you had to get up nice and close. This gave the work an added intimacy and made you appreciate it for what it was. Steichen used dramatic lighting and effects to capture the intricacies of the garments he was photographing, and it’s this aspect that set his works apart. It also got me thinking about the evolution of fashion photography.

We live in an age where people are more aware of fashion brands than ever, but most fashion photography, especially what’s found in Steinchen’s old titles, puts the focus on the fantasy surrounding the clothes, rather than the clothes themselves. By contrast, the garments in these images draw a viewer in because they show just how wonderfully crafted these pieces are. (A series of accessory shots, in particular, were incredibly stunning in their simplicity.) The only drama here was conveyed by Joan Crawford’s moody expression, not some background set.

The artifice we’re so used to seeing today was almost all but missing. There was one image, however, that seemed to point to how fashion photography would develop. Taken in 1926, it showed two prettily dressed models posing demurely next to a tree, their faces covered in stiff, doll-like masks.

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