Relatively recent films and television shows like Pret á Porter, Ugly Betty, and The Devil Wears Prada offer extreme views of publishing in the fashion world. Fraught with danger, conflict, and misadventures, the stakes seem unnaturally high for each glossy issue. And yet, aspects of Edward Steichen’s influential take on modern fashion photography could be said to have originated in the very real, international conflict of World War I. Sharp, Clear Pictures: Edward Steichen’s World War I and Condé Nast Years, a fascinating show now open in the Art Institute's Galleries 1-4, maps the ways the artist's outlook on photography changed after becoming deeply involved in establishing an aerial photography program for the U.S. military during World War I.
Steichen started out the early twentieth century as an Alfred Stieglitz protégé, perhaps most memorably photographing Auguste Rodin in Paris in an evocatively lit haze, sitting in profile opposite his statue of The Thinker. This image is nonetheless a key opening to Sharp, Clear Pictures, as Rodin had a connection to the important album of aerial photographs Steichen assembled after the war, and which makes up about half of the exhibition. Indeed, Steichen inscribed this book of over 80 views of artillery-damaged European towns to a friend whose family included some of Rodin's major patrons.
The book has been disbound, so visitors can see all the album sheets with his handwritten captions in the order Steichen assembled them in 1919. This was just after he left his position as commander of the Photographic Section for the United States Army Expeditionary Forces Air Service. The approach varies, from comparisons between oblique and vertical shots of bombed-out locations with “practically not a roof left in the town,” to masked-out and collaged negatives honing in on specific enemy locations and airport installations. In several cases, the images have been juxtaposed and spliced together, often out of necessity to give the illusion that planes could fly high enough to take in larger expanses, with jagged edges rimmed with black borders. Although Steichen and his colleagues borrowed this technical approach from the French and British, he also seems to have utilized the same idea of image construction in publishing later on. In two intriguing instances in the show alone, he produced a double spread for a magazine by taking two separate pictures with a similar center, which allowed him to splice them together and crop the overall image to his liking. It also allowed him to reuse his favorite models on both sides of the page, or as in a fashion shoot from a biblical musical show, double the cast of singers by reorganizing them from the left to the right in the second half of the image. Interestingly, one of the few sheets in the album that is not aerial photography taken under his command is a fashion plate of sorts, involving a caricature of officers making fun of each others' uniforms. Its inclusion may have been arbitrary, or an attempt at comic relief, but it would be in fashion that Steichen found his next muse.
Similarly honing his skills, Steichen made several self-portraits over the years, including one from 1917 before heading to war-torn Europe. Although he probably did not in the end act as a photographer on live missions, here he posed himself with his camera in a self-assured and more matter-of-fact manner than an earlier one developed gradually in painterly strokes. The result is also more cinematic, even bearing a striking resemblance to a 1990s Aidan Quinn and so to modern eyes, suggestive of his future in celebrity portraiture.
Many of the actors and playwrights he would portray had enlisted in World War I, even if they had not necessarily seen live combat. Nöel Coward was one of those given an early honorable discharge. Steichen poses him here in gloriously modern attire and a feline grace within a sleekly abstract architectural interior in 1932 for Vanity Fair. Coward was by then the successful playwright, actor, and songwriter of the titillating Private Lives, which had already been turned into a Hollywood film. Oozing glamor with each puff of his cigarette, Steichen's evocation of Coward as the man of his age is absolutely seamless, just like his rethinking of photography.