A Celebration of Edward Steichen, the World’s First Fashion Photographer

A recent gift to the Whitney Museum of American Art brings a collection of Edward Steichen’s early fashion work for Condé Nast to New York City.

Permission of the Estate of Edward Steichen

It all began as a dare between two friends.

In 1911, Lucien Vogel, an influential French magazine publisher, proposed that photographer Edward Steichen promote fashion photography as fine art … or so the story goes.

Vogel’s dare resulted in photos of gowns by couturier Paul Poiret for Art et Décoration in what became known as the first modern fashion photographs ever published. In turn, Steichen was propelled to further prominence in the world of photography.

Steichen’s diverse portfolio of landscapes, architecture, portraiture, and war photos had already proved his excellence. He had commanded the photographic division of the U.S. Army during WWI, and one of his closest friends and early supporters was Alfred Stieglitz, founder of the infamous 291 Gallery, which was responsible for helping introduce European artists like Matisse, Picasso, and Brancusi to the U.S. But his fashion photographs, with their theatrical lighting and design, were revolutionary in both style and format.

By 1923, Steichen had become one of the most recognizable photographers in the world, and Condé Nast named him their chief photographer. During his fifteen years shooting for Vanity Fair and Vogue, Steichen captured creative types and social figures while focusing on contemporary fashion and cultural events. His celebrity portraits and fashion photographs included international icons Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill as well as actress and model Marlene Dietrich and Alden Gay.

With the recent acquisition of over forty-seven prints gifted by Richard and Jackie Hollander, the Whitney Museum of American Art has debuted a new exhibit Edward Steichen in the 1920s and 1930s. The exhibition presents a wide range of his work, from still life and portraiture to advertising, but the primarily focus is on Steichen’s storied tenure at Vanity Fair and Vogue.

‘Edward Steichen in the 1920s and 1930s: A Recent Acquisition’ will be on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through February 23, 2014.