In 1923, Edward Steichen was struggling with what would today be termed a "mid-life crisis." Living in near penury in France, the photographer had grown disillusioned in his career as an artist. He was then in his mid-forties and had long ago left behind the exuberance with which he had first traveled to Europe. In Paris, he had succeeded in meeting the twentieth century's foremost artists, many of whose works he had enthusiastically shipped back to Stieglitz to be shown in the latter's 291 Gallery in New York City. In so doing, though, he had had to face the painful realization that his own paintings would never reach the heights of genius shown by those artists, such as Picasso and Matisse, among whom he had moved so easily. His discontent had only been exacerbated by the horrors of World War I, which he witnessed first hand, as well as the failure of his marriage. It was no surprise then that he had no qualms in giving up the life of an artist and returning to New York City where he eagerly accepted a position at Condé Nast and quickly became the world's most highly remunerated photographer.
Edward Steichen: In High Fashion by William A. Ewing and Todd Brandow is a through documentation of the photographic work that Steichen created over a fifteen year period for both Vogue and Vanity Fair. While it might be assumed that the photographer left behind him the art photography he had practiced so assiduously in Europe upon joining Condé Nast, this is not the case. Although Steichen's portraits had even in his days with the Photo Secession shown a tendency towards unadorned naturalism (witness his famous 1903 photo of J.P. Morgan), he maintained the use of pictorialist techniques in his fashion photography for quite some time. Indeed, it was only when Mehemed Fehmy Agha was hired as art director of Vogue that Steichen fully embraced straight photography in depicting fashion. No matter what his style, however, Steichen's mastery of technique and lighting never wavered. One has only to look at White (plate 221) from 1935 to begin to comprehend the extent of his ability. The photo is a study of three models all dressed in white standing with a white horse against a white tiled wall. To anyone who has ever attempted a photo in which each element is pure white without losing any detail and all the while preserving a full range of tonal values, this deceptively simple image is a tour de force.
Looking at the photos themselves, one has the sense of having stumbled across a lost world. Here are the most newsworthy actors, writers and society figures of the 1920's and 1930's, the celebrities whose extensive fame was the primary cause of their appearance in such magazines as Vogue and Vanity Fair in the first place. And yet so thoroughly forgotten have the majority of these once renowned personages become that it has been necessary for the authors to add a "Who's Who" as an appendix to the book. In a way this is fitting, for Steichen himself has suffered a somewhat similar fate. Though at one time he was, along with Stieglitz, America's preeminent photographer, his reputation has been so eclipsed in recent decades that he is little remembered today. This is a great injustice and one that this book will hopefully help correct.
The book itself is an extremely handsome and well designed volume. The photographic reproductions are all uniformly excellent and are generally shown in full page format. There are three essays by William A. Ewing, Carol Squiers and Tobia Bezzola respectively that are all intelligently written and not only provide a great deal of information and insight regarding Steichen's tenure at Condé Nast but also display a deep respect and sympathy for Steichen's work and the creative processes he brought to bear upon it.