Archive for Edward Steichen

A History of Lace in Seven Portraits: Gloria Swanson

Posted in Fashion, Fine & Decorative Arts, Lace, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2009. All Rights Reserved.

Editor’s Note: This is the eighth and last installment in VR series on lace in portraiture. Other chapters include: Prologue, Beatrice d’Este, Elizabeth I, Nicholas Tulp, Louis XIV, Clement XIII, and the Duchess of Alba; or click here for all posts in the series.

Edward Steichen—Gloria Swanson, 1924Edward Steichen, Gloria Swanson, 1924
Silver platinum? print
(Museum of Modern Art, NY)

Steichen and the Starlet

Edward Steichen already enjoyed an international reputation as an artist/photographer, when, in early 1923, he was offered the most prestigious and lucrative position in photography’s commercial domain, that of chief photographer for Condé Nast’s flagship magazines, Vogue and Vanity Fair.

Over the course of the next 15 years, on assignment with Vogue, Steichen established the look of fashion photography that still influences the way fashion is shot today.  (Consider what the work of George Hoyningen-HueneHorst P. HorstRichard AvedonRobert Mapplethorpe and Bruce Weber would have been without Steichen’s trailblazing.) In the process, he swept away the pre-War fussy and fuzzy style of fashion photography replacing it with a crisp, detailed and highly-theatrical presentation that would better serve the emerging modernist couturiers. Unlike Man Ray or Erwin Blumenfeld, the two other art photographers of the period who lent their talents to the fashion and glamour industry, Steichen eschewed high-art stylistic features in his commercial photography, preferring a pragmatical approach that wasn’t overly high-art.

Steichen—Cartier earringsEdward Steichen, Kendall Lee, Cartier Earrings, 1925
©Condé Nast

In many respects Steichen’s images of “Hollywood” for Vanity Fair are not altogether different from his work as a fashion photographer. And why wouldn’t they be? Celebrities, like haute couture, function on some level like luxury goods, visually consumed at least by lovers of fantasy. Steichen’s approach to celebrities was also detached and slick, not unlike Art Deco, the reigning style of the time.

Edward Steichen—Poiret fashions, 1911Edward Steichen, Poiret Fashions, 1911
from Art et Décoration

Vogue was not Steichen’s first foray into fashion. In 1911, he had produced what may have been the first series of fashion shots—gauzy images of Paul Poiret couture for an article in the French magazine Art et Décoration. They are pure Steichen of the period, perfectly in keeping with the Pictorialist style, for which he was then famous. But Vogue propelled him to a an entirely new stylistic pinnacle as the first truly-effective communicator of the essential (and largely unattainable) glamour embodied by haute couture.

In the wake of WW1, the integration of industrialization into all aspects of life was profound. With mechanization came high-rises and urbanization, consumerism and mass market advertising. The glorification of the machine had ramifications throughout the fine and decorative arts; most underwent radical transformation. The stylized floral motifs of Art Nouveau became the hard-edged and pseudo-erotic Art Deco. Cubism, Futurism, de Stijl, and the Bauhaus were all inspired by notions afloat in the “Machine Age. “ Steichen was at the forefront of the transformation in photography.

By 1914, when he was commissioned as first lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps, Steichen had already abandoned the Pictorialist style so emblematic of the pre-War era. Throughout his war career, he would favor greater realism, which he expressed through strong light-dark contrasts, attention to detail, and sharply-focused effects. When he resumed his own photography after the war, he pursued this new direction.

Edward Steichen—Pastoral Moonlight, 1907Edward Steichen, Pastoral Moonlight, 1907
photogravure, from Camera Work.

By the time of his appointment to the Condé Nast publications, Steichen had come to believe that photography was the modern means of communication, even though this belief meant a break with his mentorAlfred Stieglitz (and the Photo-Succession group), who clung to the view that photography should strive to attain fine art status.  For Steichen, the consummate promoter, the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair provided an irresistible platform to fully realize his artistic goals.

Edward Steichen, Across the Salt Marshes, Huntington, 1905
oil on canvas
(Toledo Museum of Art)

In regard to his fashion work Steichen recognized the need for greater realism: “My first contribution to the fashion photograph was to make it as realistic as possible…I felt that, when a great dressmaker like Vionnet created a gown, it was entitled to a presentation as dignified as the gown itself, and I selected models with that in view.” (Edward Steichen—A Life in Photography) Given the studio circumstances under which he shot and the constraints inherent in reproduction at the time, this meant a move to artificial lighting, which required large assisting crews. Steichen was no longer a single artist, he was an enterprise.

In a break from existing norms of fashion photography which featured the couture in the limelight,  Steichen staged his models in elaborate scenarios. Their fictional personalities took center stage;  the lines and contours of their bodies artfully set off by pieces of furniture or accentuated by the backdrops. The actual costumes were often treated as a secondary detail.

Edward Steichen—White, 1935Edward Steichen, White, 1935
(Museum of Modern Art, NY)

Steichen had always recognized the value of networking. He started his Great Men series in the early 1900s and continued making portraits of well-placed people—business- and statesmen—for much of his life. His assignments for Vanity Fair in Hollywood opened a different, and in many ways, a more important door for his career. In the early years of his contract, Steichen traveled annually to Hollywood, where he networked with an entirely new group of celebrities, stars who were recognized by millions of people. Steichen was already well-known as a fine-art photographer; Vanity Fair would introduce his work to the masses.

Edward Steichen—Fred Astaire, 1927Edward Steichen, Fred Astaire—Top Hat in “Funny Face,” 1927
(Museum of Modern Art, NY)

In these portraits, Steichen established the visual language of glamour that is fused to this day with celebrity. Not surprisingly, he utilized the very same techniques that he had developed to so effectively sell fashion. The theatricality of dramatic lighting and poses reinforced the fantasy that was emblematic of Hollywood—men were dashing; women liberated. Here too his legacy lingers. Consider Annie Liebovitz.

Edward Steichen—Ah Wilderness, 1933Edward Steichen, Eugene O’Neill and George M. Cohan—”Ah Wilderness,” 1933
(Museum of Modern Art, NY)

By 1924, Gloria Swanson was a leading screen actress. On screen, Swanson cultivated the image of an exotic, mysterious, and, at times, slightly dangerous, woman. Off-screen she was stunningly frank, outrageous, and a shrewd business women. In all her worlds, Swanson was the embodiment of the modern, liberated woman. Though “different,” Swanson always connected emotionally with her audience, a key reasons for her long run in Hollywood.

Gloria SwansonGloria Swanson in her monkey fur cape.

The actress was Hollywood’s first “clothes horse,” and audiences flocked to her films to view her wardrobe as much as her performance.  Her fashion ensembles, hair styles, and jewels were legendary (her annual budget for jewels was reported to be $500,000). The actress had been oft-photographed, mostly in full costume for studio publicity shots.  Steichen’s was not the the first formal portrait of the actress. But it must surely be the most provocative.

Gloria Swanson in the 1920s.

The session that produced this portrait was a long one, with numerous changes in costumes and lighting. At the end of the session, Steichen seized a piece of a black lace and hung it playfully in front of Swanson’s face. The actress grasped the concept immediately. She instantly dilated her eyes and became the leopard camouflaged by leafy shrubbery, watching her prey.

With its dark foliage perfectly aligned against the triangle of Swanson’s eyes and forehead, the lace veil is central to the provocative effect of the portrait.  One can’t imagine that such an arresting effect —the mysterious, the lethal, the glamorous and the savage—would have emanated from a portrait without the veil.  Was the portrait a covert statement about what Steichen really saw in Swanson—in Hollywood?  (Curiously, though the one aspect of all his other portraits missing here is overt glamour, though perhaps this is exactly why the picture, among Steichen’s many celebrity shots, connects so well with the viewer.)

The Lace

Quaker LaceQuaker Lace (machine-made) inspiration for Demakersvan chain link fence below.

Given the date of the portrait, unless the piece of lace Edward Steichen held up in front of Gloria Swanson’s face  was antique, it was most-likely machine-made, perhaps by a company such as Quaker Lace (now defunct).  And in this, the Swanson portrait is emblematic of the final chapter in our history of lace—mechanization.

Lace making machines existed as early as 1805, when Joseph Jacquard (of mechanized loom fame) made important adjustments to the “lever machine.” Jacquard paved the way for full-scale mechanization of lace production. The actual death knell was sounded in 1841, when further improvements allowed lace—both gimp and motifs—to be made entirely by machine. The market was soon flooded with inexpensive lace, which was well-within the purchasing range of the middle-class. Drawing widely on the fine and decorative arts of past ages, some of the better machine lace producers replicated hand-made laces exceptionally well.

Demakersvan, Chain link fenceDemarkersvan Studio, Chain Link fence inspired by Quaker Lace Company design.

The advent of machine-made lace at first pushed hand lace-makers to come up with more complicated designs beyond the capabilities of early machines. Eventually, however, it pushed them out of business almost entirely. Further, on the consumption side, by the 1920s, the traditional cultures that still made lace by hand were disappearing in the wake of increasing urbanization. As the demand for handmade lace ornamentation on traditional costumes and haute couture died out, the textile was relegated to household goods, such as napkins, table cloths, and curtains.  And even then machines provided the bulk of the production.

Though nearly extinct by the early decades of 20th century, today hand-made lace endures in small pockets largely in Europe. With the exception of a tiny amount of high-end couture, the customer base for hand-made lace is predominantly the curious tourist, purchasing a tablecloth or set of napkins.

Though a decorative ornament, lace has left an indelible mark in the world of fine art. As this delicate textile has jockeyed its way through the annals of fashion, its use has been captured and preserved by many a prestigious artist. From its origins as a luxury good, enjoyed by the privileged few, through the mechanization of its production and resulting dissemination to a mass consumer market, lace is inextricably intertwined with the march of human civilization. A just legacy for a textile made by the intricate twisting of threads.

Tord Boontje—Grass Hair pieceTord Boontje, Grass Hair piece inspired by Quaker Lace Company pattern (©Tord Boontje studio).

Wider Connections

Edward Steichen: High Fashion
Lace in Transition (contemporary designers interpret Quaker Lace Company patterns)
Patricia Johnston—Real Fantasies: Edward Steichen’s Advertising Photography
Decorating with Lace
Pat Earnshaw—How to Recognize Machine Laces

The Dreamy Images of Heinrich Kühn

Posted in Female Artists, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , on February 22, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

heinrich-kuhne28094miss-mary-and-edeltrude-lying-in-the-grass-ca-1910

Heinrich Kühn, Miss Mary and Edeltrude Lying in the Grass, ca. 1910, autochrome (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art).

In July 1907 inveterate scientific tinkerer and photographer Heinrich Kühn (1866-1944) rendezvoused with Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Frank Eugene in Bavaria, where the four of them tested a new process called autochrome. Commercially introduced by the Lumière Brothers in 1906, autochrome is an additive color plate process, whereby a glass slide is coated with starch and silver halide granules, exposed to light, and processed into a coloured transparency on glass, which can be viewed by holding up to light or projecting onto a screen.

Through continued experimentation with the autochrome process, Kühn created some of his most striking images—the dreamy, romantic photographs of his family and friends.  Like other Pictorialists, Kühn believed in manipulation of the photographic negative to achieve painterly ends. While others chose to manipulate the image through the negative, no hand is overtly present in Kühn’s photographs. With their soft-blur focus and steep compositional angles, these images of Miss Mary (Mary Warner?) and Edeltrude (his daughter) are as beautifully rendered as any painting. Kühn has imbued the scenes with idyllic charm; absent the distraction of details around them, the two women exist in a reverie all their own. Further, were it not for the clues provided by their costumes, these photographs with their large abstracted shapes might be mistaken for more contemporary works.

Largely as a result of these works from the period between 1907-1910,  Kühn has become known as the foremost representative of the Pictorialismus (photographic pictorial) movement  in Austria.

heinrich-kuhne28094miss-mary-and-lotte-at-the-hill-crest-ca-1910

Heinrich Kühn, Miss Mary and Edeltrude at the Hill Crest, ca. 1910, autochrome (courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Not too long after 1910, however, Kühn abandoned the Pictorial style for a straight-forward approach that would show off the medium’s strength for capturing the “real world.”   By the end of World War I, Stieglitz and Steichen too had moved on. The movement officially died when Stieglitz dissolved the Photo-Succession and his Camera Work magazine.

Wider Connections

Elizabeth Pollock—Heinrich Kühn: An Exhibition of 100 Photographs

Heinrich Kühn in the Art Institute of Chicago

Anzenberger Gallery—Heinrich Kühl portfolio, images ca. 1910

Imagon lens, a Heinrich Kühn invention

20th century autochromes

Your Holiday Gift Has Arrived

Posted in Contemporary Art, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , on December 21, 2008 by Liz Hager

lightenin-carlos-gutierrez

Lightning bolts appear above and around the Chaiten volcano as seen from Chana, some 30 kms (19 miles) north of the volcano, as it began its first eruption in thousands of years, in southern Chile May 2, 2008. Cases of electrical storms breaking out directly above erupting volcanoes are well documented, although scientists differ on what causes them.

 

Alan Taylor of the Boston Globe has culled an exquisite group of 187 images from the tens of thousands taken by photojournalists during 2008. These photographs will provoke laughter, anger, tears, wonderment, and outrage. Be forewarned—some of the war photographs are difficult to look at. Look we must, however for these photographs provide a stellar means of grasping the eternal paradox of being human.  There is not one photograph in this collection that isn’t beautiful and poignant in its own way; as an ensemble they function much like a contemporary update of the seminal and enormously popular Family of Man collection, first mounted as an exhibition in 1955 by photographer Edward Steichen.  

 

emilio-morenatti-pakistani-donkey1

Pakistani men try to rescue a donkey buried during an earthquake in Ziarat, about 130 kilometers (81 miles) south of Quetta, Pakistan on October 30th, 2008. Rescue workers searched through the rubble of villages destroyed by a powerful earthquake in southwestern Pakistan that killed at least 215 people. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti/FILE)


sigit-pamungkas-muslim-women

Muslim women attend prayers on the eve of the first day of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan at a mosque in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia on August 31, 2008. (REUTERS/Sigit Pamungkas)


paula-bronstein-sichuan-earthquake-5-15-08

The hand of a dead body lies on the ground amongst the rubble of the earthquake ravaged town May 15, 2008 in Beichuan, Sichuan province, China. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)


ed-wray-ubud-sarcophagus

A bull sarcophagus in which a member of the Ubud royal family was cremated burns during the funeral ceremony Tuesday July 15, 2008 in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. (AP Photo/Ed Wray)


Connections

2008 The Year in Photos: Part 1

2008 The Year in Photos: Part 2

2008 The Year in Photos:Part 3

2008 The Year in Photos: Greek Riots

family-of-man  Family of Man catalog

“The Possibilities of Expression”—Stieglitz and the Birth of Photographic Pictorialism

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography with tags , , , , , , , , on November 8, 2008 by Liz Hager

Note: This is the first in a two-part series, which continues with Paul Strand and the Birth of Modernism.

By LIZ HAGER

The arts equally have distinct departments, and unless photography has its own possibilities of expression, separate from those of the other arts, it is merely a process, not an art.

—Alfred Stieglitz

stieglitz-gossip-1905

Alfred Stieglitz, Gossip—Katwyk, 1894 (published in Camera Work 1905)
half-tone reproduction, approximately 5 x 8.”

Photographs are widely viewed as a veritable record of reality, if only a brief moment of reality. This view conveniently dismisses the contradiction inherent in the photographic act: that an agent with editorial inclinations operates a mechanical instrument without editing aptitude.  Thus, at the most basic level, a photographer composes the reality a viewer sees.  Beyond that, technical manipulation has existed since the photographic medium was invented.  And yet, photographic doctoring, when outed, is still denounced as deceit. In any other medium, it would be accepted as artistic license.

There was a time when photographers eschewed objective or “straight” photography and actively sought artistic expression. The “pictorialism” movement came into vogue beginning around 1885 following the widespread introduction of the dry-plate process. It reached its apogee in the early years of the 20th century under Alfred Stieglitz and his colleagues in the Photo-Secession movement.

No one person was more instrumental in establishing photography as a medium of fine art than Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946).  His body of photographic work might have accomplished this on its own, but Stieglitz also tirelessly promoted the artistic attributes of the photographic medium through a range of activities, including gallery exhibitions and two journals. Curiously, the eventual acceptance of photography as a fine art medium played a large part in pushing painting beyond its representational boundaries.

steichen-portrait-1903

Edward Steichen,Portrait, published in Camera Work 1903,
half-tone reproduction, approximately  6 2/3 x 5 1/5″

Breaking away from the established New York Camera Club in 1902,  Alfred Stieglitz organized the exhibition, “American Photography arranged by the Photo-Secession,”  which brought together like-minded photographers, including Eduard (later Edward) Steichen, Gertrude Käsebier, Clarence H. White. They would soon formally establish the Photo-Secession movement. With an objective to free their medium from its status as the “handmaiden of science and commerce,”   it’s not a surprise that they turned to emulation of the painting and print-making styles of the day—primarily the Impressionists.  The “painterly” photograph was achieved through several means—laborious hand coating of papers with metals and chemicals to enhance the gauzy and stipple effects, as well as by manipulation of the negative or print through double exposure, softening of the focus, and over drawing. The Photo-Secessionists chose to work within the thematic categories already staked out by painters—portraits, landscapes, nudes, mythical/historical scenes, and everyday activities.

In 1903 Stieglitz launched his journal Camera Work, the vehicle through which he showcased the work of the Photo-Secessionists (including new members like Alvin Langdon Condon), as well as European colleagues, such as Baron Adolf de Meyer (both of whom formally joined the group later).  From the body of work that was presented on the pages of the magazine, the photographers’ debt to painting is well-illustrated. How closely Stieglitz’s “Gossip” above resembles certain Impressionists in composition and theme. Steichen’s portrait below bears a striking similarity to Matisse and Degas portraits.

Incredible as it seems, Camera Work, published quarterly from 1903-1917, was the first photographic journal to be visual in focus; it featured multiple reproductions per page, although the scale of the originals was obliterated by the identical sizing of the reproductions.  Stieglitz was a renowned perfectionist and the magazine was printed according to exacting standards—wherever possible photographs were reproduced from negatives using the photogravure technique (an intaglio process used to reproduce photographs); the photogravures were printed on fragile, translucent Japanese tissue, then mounted on high-quality art paper in a shade complimentary to the tonal variations of the images.

de-meyer-still-life-19081

Baron Adolf de Meyer, Still Life, 1908,
photogravure, approximately 6.45 x 8.8″

Stieglitz would continue to publish Camera Work until 1917. The final issue featured the thoroughly modernist work of photographer Paul Strand.

Wider Connections

Camera Work

The Art of the Photogravure

Baron de Meyer / Portrait Gallery

Stieglitz at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Alfred Stieglitz: The Key Set Collection

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