His work depicting models dressed in creations by French couturier Paul Poiret which appeared on Art et Décoration have been regarded as the very first modern fashion photographs. Today, we commemorate the 135th birth anniversary of renowned photographer Edward Steichen.
Originally from Bivange, Luxembourg, the Steichens immigrated to the United States shortly after their son’s birth, beginning with his father Jean-Pierre and followed by his mother Marie with the infant Steichen in tow. Although known mainly for his work in photography, Edward Steichen initially dabbled in painting, lithography, and drawing.
At 16, Steichen bought his first camera, a secondhand Kodak Detective box camera. His initial foray into this medium is perhaps a familiar scenario for some of us: as Vogue recalled, “Of the 50-exposure roll, only an image of his sister Lilian at the piano comes out.” Later he would use a 4×5 Primo Folding View camera, with which he began taking photos “of pigs and other products for the firm’s designers to copy for advertisements,” referring to the lithographic firm American Fine Art Company where he accomplished a four-year apprenticeship program. At 17, Steichen began to try his hand at nature and landscape photography. By 1899, he was already working for an advertising firm.
In 1900, Steichen met photographer Alfred Stieglitz. The two would later work closely together first through Steiglitz’ journal Camera Work and later on also through the 291, or the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession. Stieglitz would later deem the younger photographer as “the greatest photographer… that ever lived.”
Steichen has been credited to have conducted “the first ever modern fashion photography shoot” – in April 1911, his photos of models wearing clothes by French couturier Paul Poiret appeared in the magazine Art et Décoration. Between 1923 and 1938, Steichen worked as a photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines, both under Condé Nast, as well as for advertising agencies such a J. Walter Thompson. It was at this point that Steichen became the best known and highest paid photographer in the world. Aside from fashion and fine art photography, Steichen’s work also included portraiture, landscape, still life, and many others.
Steichen’s work went beyond the borders of art and fashion. During the First World War, he joined the Army Signal Corps Photographic Section in the Air Service. He attempted to have himself re-enlisted during the Second World War but was rejected; however, he received a “special medical waiver to oversee a unit of naval aviation photographers” and did “documentary and public relations photography work” then. Steichen was named director of the Navy Photographic Institute.
Apart from photography and painting, Steichen was also at the helm of the Academy Award-winning 1945 war documentary, “The Fighting Lady.” He also tended to delphiniums and even became the president of the American Delphinium Society in 1936. After the war, he became the director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Arts. From his humble beginnings, Steichen had definitely come a long way, showing a strong dedication for his craft until his death in March 1973.