Edward Steichen and the Birth of Modern Fashion Photography

Edward Steichen was one of the twentieth century’s most dynamic and significant photographic figures. Beginning as a key member of the Pictorialist movement and the Photosecession in the early 1900s, he moved on to become an innovator in both Modernism and then fashion photography, before becoming a Captain of a Naval aerial photography in the Second World War and then the first Director of the department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. This portrait of the model, Marion Morehouse was taken in 1929, six years after Steichen had assumed the title of chief photographer for Condé Nast Publications.

During the 1920s and 1930s Morehouse became the favourite model of numerous Vogue and Vanity Fair photographers such as Cecil Beaton and Baron George Hoyningen-Huene, with Steichen referring to her as “the greatest fashion model I ever photographed.” Steichen took several photographs of Morehouse throughout his time as a fashion photographer, and this portrait, commissioned for Vogue, shows Morehouse modelling the latest fashions. Steichen ensures that the model remains the focal point of the image as he centres the light onto her figure and keeps the backdrop in relative obscurity. Steichen’s Pictorialist roots are evident in the print’s tonal richness and his control of the light to emphasise the shimmer and texture of the dress’ fabric. Though Steichen did not invent fashion photography, the images he produced in his years at Condé Nast are often cited as templates for modern fashion photography.

Unlike his early collaborator, Alfred Stieglitz, Steichen did not come from wealth, and so it was out of a necessity that Steichen took on the commercial work that he produced for magazines, bringing his artistic sensibilities to the role. In many ways, Steichen’s career follows two parallel paths, one in which he pursued artistic interests and one in which he gained financial stability. His ability to network and create social contacts worked effectively in both fields and made him arguably the most influential figure in photography by the mid-twentieth century.

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