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A glimpse into Hollywood’s Golden Age

by Alex Ashe

‘ alexa@yesweekly.com

When you think about it, it’s mind-boggling to imagine a time when printed photographs were considered the medium of the moment. Today, among numerous forms of media, they’re taken for granted, lucky to grab one’s attention for more than five seconds. But in the 1920s and ’30s, before television and color films, black-and-white photography was the premier form of visual entertainment.

Reynolda House in Winston-Salem is hosting an exhibit featuring the work of Edward Steichen, widely considered the pioneer of fashion photography. The exhibit, called Star Power, consists of Steichen’s portraits of various celebrities while working for Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines from 1923 to 1938. He is regarded as most famous and highest-paid photographer in the world during this period.

Soon after moving from Paris to New York in early 1923, Steichen read a Vanity Fair article about photographers. A subject of the piece, Steichen noticed that the article claimed he was giving up photography for painting, when in fact, the opposite was true. When he called the magazine’s editor to correct the error, he was invited to a lunch with its founder and publisher, Condé Nast. There, Nast offered Steichen the position of chief of photography for both Vanity Fair and Vogue. Steichen accepted, becoming Nast’s go-to “society photographer” covering New York and Hollywood. In the process, Steichen, who was born in 1879 and almost lived to be 100, abandoned his old style as a pictorialist photographer for a more original, art-deco-inspired style that incorporated the booming fashion movement.

Steichen’s early photos often utilize darkness and shadows to convey haunting, ominous moods, while his later works tend to emphasize the period’s fashion trends. Almost all of his photos rely on his subjects’ expressions, giving credence to the adage that eyes are the window to the soul.

Upon entering, patrons are presented with a chronological tour through Steichen’s career at Vanity Fair and Vogue. Each year from 1923 to 1935 is represented by a group of photographs shot for the magazines. The exhibit also features original copies of Steichen’s magazine spreads accompanied by descriptions of how Steichen’s work was evolving at the time.

Steichen’s 1924 portrait of silent film actress Gloria Swanson is among his most famous. He captured Swanson’s intense, penetrative stare through a flowered veil, an expression he described as predatory. Many of the photos have been replicated in large prints on the walls and prints of the Swanson portrait and one of Steichen at work are the first pieces one sees as they enter the exhibit.

Boxer Jack Dempsey was photographed by Steichen in 1926, the final year of his heavyweight championship reign. Steichen photographed the dapper Dempsey under soft lighting to portray an unfamiliar, gentler side of the pugilist. The portrait wasn’t published until 1932, when it ran with a Vanity Fair profile discussing Dempsey’s potential comeback, which never materialized.

Many of Steichen’s photos, like his 1926 portrait of Charlie Chaplin, use lighting to project a larger shadow of the subject in the background. His early photos were mostly set in dark rooms, but he eventually used a wider variety of shooting locations. Several photos from the late ’20s depict models posing inside Nast’s decadent New York apartment. A few are set outdoors, but for the most part Steichen liked using stark black or white backgrounds.

Steichen photographed actress Greta Garbo for a Vanity Fair piece in 1929, a year before the starlet’s transition from silent films to talkies. Steichen was unpleased with Garbo’s hairstyle upon her arrival at the shoot. In response, Garbo took her hands, pushed back her hair to reveal her entire face while intently gazing into the camera. The result was a one of most iconic and natural portraits of the film star.

“At that moment, the woman came out, like the sun coming out from behind dark clouds,” Steichen said of the photo in his autobiography.

In the early ’30s, Steichen photographed iconic actresses Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich in portraits incorporating the fashion and furniture of the period. Steichen is considered by many the pioneer of fashion photography and credited with legitimizing it as an art form during a time when it was unheard of for art and commerce to intersect.

Star Power also features Steichen’s portraits of Amelia Earhart, George Gershwin, Walt Disney, Shirley Temple and Orson Welles.

Brilliant in its conception and execution, Steichen’s work has been hugely influential to the photography medium, while providing a glimpse into Hollywood’s Golden Age.

WANNA go?

Star Power: Edward Steichen’s Glamour Photography at Reynolda House Museum of American Art, located at 2250 Reynolda Road in Winston-Salem, runs through May 19. Call 336.758.5150 or visit Reynoldahouse.org for ticket information.

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