You never know what’s going to happen in New York. Last week, photographic gold was struck in Times Square in the deep cavernous archives inside the Conde Nast building. Two thousand prints shot by Edward Steichen, one of 20th Century’s most influential photographers, were found after lying hidden for over eighty years. The story behind them, and of Steichen’s rise to photographic fame and acclaim, are almost too unbelievable to be true.
Thank goodness for Todd Brandow’s tenacity. Todd is a photography curator, and somehow managed to secure access to the Conde Nast archives in New York, where he discovered Steichen’s prints.
"There was a rumor that there were archives in the Condé Nast offices in New York that nobody had known about. It was difficult to get access, but when I finally got in, they told me that it had all been sold and nothing was left. But then the archivist rolled out these boxes of 2,000 prints."
It was one of those great 'Oh my God!' moments.
The subjects of the photographs are like a who’s who of the 20th century – Churchill, HG Wells, Hepburn, Dietrich, Garbo, Astaire, and others.
This discovery of the never-before-published, long forgotten prints by one of the masters of portrait and fashion photography, is almost a grand enough story in and of itself. But understanding how the photographs came into existence in the first place, of how Steichen achieved his fame and recognition, is possibly even more of an incredible tale.
After going through an emotionally and financially painful divorce in the 1920s in Paris, Steichen hopped a boat to New York on the steerage (cargo) deck along with other impoverished immigrants coming to try and make it in America. He had thrown himself into his portrait work and had been photographing from a young age, but had no idea how to earn money from the type of portraits he was taking at the time.
In New York he stumbled on what surely must be one of the most astounding moments of any photographer's career, ever – a Vanity Fair article naming him “America’s Greatest Portrait Photographer”. I have no idea what he must have felt at that moment, but I'd love to have seen his reaction!
Needless to say he contacted Vanity Fair, was offered a job and was soon sold on pursing fashion by none other than Conde Montrose Nast himself. Steichen was soon on his way to creating some of the most enchanting, innovative and genre-defining images of all time and was earning the equivalent in today’s money of $1million a year from editorial work and the same amount for commercial work, sums that were almost completely unheard of at the time.
William Ewing, one of the co-curators of the new Steichen prints at the London Photographers Gallery explains why Steichen was so influential:
He turned fashion photography into portraiture. He looked first and foremost at a woman wearing a dress, not the dress for its own sake. That's what connected so powerfully with the viewers.
Those were the days before professional models. People used to photograph society women. But Condé Nast went to Broadway and hired actors and dancers, who knew how to get into character for the camera.
Ewing spends a few minutes outlining some of the magic behind Steichen’s work, and the 2000 prints that were found in the archive, in this fascinating video interview:
Like Avedon, Penn, Bailey, Watson and other greats who also successfully navigated the waters between portraiture and fashion, Steichen successfully worked the two together seamlessly to create a style and sensibility in his images over 80 years ago that is just as beautiful and relevant today.
If you happen to be in London, the exhibition is on through January 18th 2015 at the London Photographer’s Gallery