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THINKING ABOUT EDWARD STEICHEN – the architectonic use of light

December 12, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

I was shocked on one occasion to read Edward Steichen described as a ‘street photographer’. It is hard to imagine a photographer for whom this label is less appropriate and probably says more about the confusion which currently surrounds the term. Even to call him a ‘photographer’ would be to underestimate his artistic and practical contributions, which embraced painting, graphic designs, horticulture, printing, curating, a spell in the military and as a writer-cum- propagandist. 

Steichen was one of the most influential early photographic modernists. Initially within the ambit of Alfred Steiglitz’s pictorialism, he came to understand better than many others the primacy which artistic modernism accorded the medium – that is, photographs which exploit the distinctive technical and optical characteristics of the camera as sui generis. His contribution was skillfully to develop and hone those features of photography inherent to the etymology of the word – painting with light.

We have had an opportunity over the last month to see Steichen’s photography in the London Photographers’ Gallery current exhibition. Showing work between 1923-37, when he was chief photographer for Condé Nast’s Vanity Fair and Vogue, this superb exhibition reminds us not only how consummate an artist he was in even the relatively restricted field of commercial fashion and celebrity portraiture but also how that achievement was built on integrating light as an architectonic element into his compositions.

Steichen’s career was a long and varied. Born in1879 in Luxembourg, his family emigrated to the United States settling eventually in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Seemingly never constrained by mid-west provincialism, he absorbed advanced artistic ideas from an early age. Steichen made his first photographs well before the turn of the century and continued photographing until his death in 1973. Over nearly seven decades his intelligent and tasteful images covered the gamut of practices and styles from high art to commercial assignments, late-nineteenth century romanticism to twentieth century modernism to fashion and celebrity portraiture, and even two spells as a war photographer. 


His photographic styles evolved over time, shaped by changing social and artistic trends and a personal quest to realise the inherent qualities in photography itself, particularly to capture and harness the effects of light. Initially under the influence of the artists he met in Paris as a young man and Alfred Steiglitz’s pictorialism and the Photo-Secession, he later described himself at the time as an ‘impressionist without knowing it’.  He travelled widely in Europe, met many artists and arranged exhibitions on their behalf and contributed articles and photographs of haunting urban scenes, elegant women, nudes, flowers and mystical landscapes to Steiglitz’s magazine Camera Work.


His service during the first world war in the US Air Service Photographic Section however caused him radically to rethink his practice. He broke with the dreamy pictorialism of his early work and became chief photographer at Vanity Fair, in which his cubist and constructivist-influenced images perfectly suited the modernist couturiers of the 1920s. This is the period which the Photographers’ Gallery illustrates so vividly.


Steichen went on to become a much sought-after society portraitist and his theatrical style and careful use of accessories attracted many lucrative advertising contracts and portrait commissions from actors and (particularly) actresses. He never saw any conflict between his commercial and artistic work; co-curator of the exhibition William Ewing recounts in an article accompanying the exhibition how Condé Nast assumed that Steichen would not want such obviously commercial output to be credited - only to be informed by the photographer that he saw no difference between fashion and celebrity portraiture and ‘fine art’. 


Early photographers employed elaborately naturalistic or classical backdrops to their portraits. Stripping this away, Steichen’s genius was to create a form of unladened mis-en scène – minimal yet fully capable of arresting the attention of the viewer. Using props sparingly (this might have been partly due to limited availability in the Condé Nast studios although he did have access to other company locations) Steichen often deployed only one element – a chair perhaps. Far from detracting from the subject as so much early portraiture had done, so integrated was his staging that the human figures and their costumes were inevitably enhanced. Lighting was the most important element in this modernist mis-en-scène and was employed by Steichen as a structuring element in place of in place of physical props. In his hands light  - often complemented by the use of vertical or horizontal divides – becomes an architectonic element in the composition and he combined this with the radical realization that backlighting was more important than figure lighting.

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 15.10.11Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 15.10.11 In his photograph ‘Black’, which appeared in Vogue in 1935, the sleek figure of Margaret Horan is framed off-centre by silhouetted black horizontal and vertical divides while backlighting creates a triangular frame for the models upper body. The curves of the silhouetted piano lid echo those of the figure although a weaker front light throws a shadow from the keyboard to complete the frame around the figure. Half-turned, Maraget Horan’s face is lit from the rear.  The 1932 portrait of Noel Coward employs only two physical props – a chair and the silhouetted cat. The figure of Coward and the props are linked by the sinuous shadow which snakes up from bottom left. The shadow frames the figure and traces the line of his posture and even the smoke from his cigarette. It is not too much to read evocations of Coward’s witty lyrics and plots from the way in which Steichen has chosen to structure light. In both photographs, the mysterious figures top left form a counterpoint to the human subjects as well as gazing down on the scenes. They are again linked by the lighting. Steichen’s quest for timeless messages in the abstract symbols of images emerged clearly during the phase of his career on display at the Photographers’ Gallery, which is well worth at least one visit.


   (1) William A. Ewing, ‘Edward Steichen: A Curator’s View’ available at http://thephotographersgalleryblog.org.uk/2014/10/30/edward-steichen-a-curators-view-william-a-ewing/


Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, The Condé Nast Years 1923 – 1937

The Photographers’ Gallery, Ramilles Street, London

until 18 January 2015.


Date 12.12.2014

Copyright   © All text and photography (other than where indicated) Alan Ainsworth Photography 2014.

Cite   Alan Ainsworth, 'THINKING ABOUT EDWARD STEICHEN – the architectonic use of light', 3.12.2014 available at  http://www.alanainsworthphotography.com/blog/2014/12/thinking-about-edward-steichen-light-as-architectonic-element

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