Treasure Chest Of Unpublished, Eighty Year Old Edward Steichen Portraits Unearthed

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.

Churchill poses in 1932
Actress Mary Heberden poses in 1935

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.

Actress Anna May Wong, 1935

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.

 

Greta Garbo 1935
This portrait of Gloria Swanson is almost 100 years old and just as beautiful and relevant today. Shot in 1925, Steichen used lace to achieve an in-camera overlay.
A self portrait Steichen took of himself at work in the studio

If you happen to be in London, the exhibition is on through January 18th 2015 at the London Photographer’s Gallery

Via [CNN]

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9 Comments

Kristi Woody's picture

Fascinating!

Spy Black's picture

Great stuff. That's Gloria Swanson, not Swandon, and a gorgeous shot at that. Easy when you have a face like that to shoot tho. ;-)

David Geffin's picture

Thanks, typo :) That's one of my favorite shots, it's mesmerizing.

gabe s's picture

Holy crap. This lighting is incredible.

tim ludwig's picture

Your writer needs to do his homework. First of all, of the images posted with this article, only three do not already appear in "Steichen: A Life in Photography", his autobiography. Beyond that, he was not an immigrant and in fact traveled from his native Minnesota (?) to Europe several years before WWI where he studied art and went back to his photographic roots, creating incredible portraits of Rodin and many other of the great European artists, writers,, and philosophers of that era.

When he returned to the US, he was indeed given the accolade as the greatest living photographer and advanced magnificently through his career. He writes of not being familiar with artificial studio lighting when he accepted to job with Conde Nast and giving himself an internship with first one and then additional hot lights while teaching himself to create the incredible portrait lighting for which he is noted.

His career also included extensive work in the Army Air corps in WWI where he established the aerial reconnaissance service and with the US Navy in WWII during which time he supervised the Navy's photography services and created many incredible shipboard images, especially aboard aircraft carriers. His later career included designing and curating the fabulous "Family of Man" exhibition and directing the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art. If this trove of images is truly unpublished, it will indeed be an incredible addition to the lexicon of one of the world's most brilliant
portraitists.

David Geffin's picture

hi Tim thanks for sharing the additional info on Steichen. The images are what was used from the original CNN source i think so i would assume they are posting images not solely from the new prints but other famous Steichen works too.

I have been meaning to get hold of Steichen: A Life In Photography for some time - your post has reminded me to do that, thank you.

Dudley Didereaux's picture

You too are wrong, he was an IMMIGRANT...albeit a young one. "Steichen was born Éduard Jean Steichen in Bivange, Luxembourg, the son of Jean-Pierre and Marie Kemp Steichen.[1] Jean-Pierre Steichen initially immigrated to the United States in 1880.[1] Marie Steichen brought the infant Eduard along once Jean-Pierre had settled in Chicago, in 1881.[2] The family, with the addition of Eduard's younger sister Lilian, moved to Milwaukee in 1889, when Steichen was 10."