Edward Steichen (1879-1973) was already a famed Pictorialist photographer and painter in the United States and abroad when he was offered the position of chief photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair by Condé Nast. Upon assuming the job, the forty-four year old artist began one of the most lucrative and controversial careers in photography. To Alfred Stieglitz and his followers, Steichen was seen as damaging the cause of photography as a fine art by agreeing to do commercial editorial work. Nevertheless, Steichen’s years at Condé Nast magazines were extraordinarily prolific and inspired.
He began by applying the soft focus style he had helped create to the photography of fashion. But soon he revolutionized the field, banishing the gauzy light of the Pictorialist era and replacing it with the clean, crisp lines of Modernism. In the process he changed the presentation of the fashionable woman from that of a distant, romantic creature to that of a much more direct, appealing, independent figure. At the same time he created lasting portraits of hundreds of leading personalities in movies, theatre, literature, politics, music, and sports, including Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Colette, Winston Churchill, Amelia Earhart, Jack Dempsey, Noel Coward, Greta Garbo, Dorothy Parker, and Cecil B. De Mille.”
Steichen’s portrait of Gloria Swanson has taken on iconic masterpiece status overtime. Created in 1924, just as the first feature-length sound movies were emerging—effectively truncating the actress’s brilliant silent-film career—this image caught the essential Gloria Swanson: haunting and inscrutable, forever veiled in the whisper of a distant era.* Steichen’s photograph has elements of turn-of-the-century pictorialism (moody and delicate, the subject seeming to peer from the darkness, as if from jungle foliage), yet it also projects modernist boldness, with its pin-sharp precision and graphic severity.
* Swanson would depict a similarly aloof and tragic actress whose time had past in Sunset Boulevard a decade later and would win widespread acclaim.