The coming of age of photography happened in the early 1900s, with a small but dynamic group of young photographers who set out to elevate the medium to an art form. Through state-of-the-art technology and experimentation with light and shade, they revealed that a photograph could be just as emotive as any fin-de-siècle painting. One of the most talented and inventive of these photographers was the American Edward Steichen.
Born in Luxembourg in 1879, Edward Steichen emigrated with his family to America when he was two years old. The young Edward showed a talent for drawing. On leaving high school he became an apprentice at a Milwaukee lithographing company, and it was while there that he bought his first camera. In 1900 he went to meet Alfred Stieglitz, America’s foremost photographer, and together they founded the Photo-Secession movement promoting photography as a fine art.
Few did more to promote that mystical glamour of the inter-war years than Steichen. His soft-focus portraits of flapper girls and society women encapsulated the shadowy romanticism of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and it is not surprising that many of his photographs are now used to illustrate that era. For much of that time he worked as a photographer at Vogue magazine, where he refused to distinguish between commercial and high-art photography, devising a mode of portraiture that still sets the template for style magazines today.
Steichen was also a favourite of Hollywood starlets, producing monthly celebrity portraits for Vanity Fair. Gloria Swanson, Lillian Gish and Clara Bow were depicted as cool, unattainable icons. By the time of his death in 1973, he was known as the father of fashion photography for his ability to merge popular culture, style and art, and he is still considered one of the most enduring photographic portraitists of the modern age.
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