Edward Steichen in the 1920s and 1930s: A Recent Acquisition @Whitney

JTF (just the facts): A total of 46 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space on the main floor of the museum. All of the works are vintage gelatin silver prints, from the 1920s and 1930s, obtained via a recent gift from Richard and Jackie Hollander. The exhibit also includes 4 magazine spreads (from Vogue and Vanity Fair, 1930 to 1938) in a single glass case. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: This show of recent acquisitions provides a mid career slice of Edward Steichen, drawn primarily from the time when he was chief photographer for Condé Nast. Gone are the tactile soft focus shadows of his early Pictorialist days, replaced by a crisper, more commercial approach, optimized for print media and advertising. This selection covers a broad range of subject matter, from celebrity, society, and artist portraits, to fashion shoots, product placements, and still lifes, showing Steichen adapting a more pared down aesthetic to the practicalities of mass markets.

Steichen’s portraits are zeroed in, drawing central attention to the penetrating stare of Marlene Dietrich or the stoic gaze of Eugene O’Neill, often using simple visual cues to provide context (the rough hewn plank wall behind Charles Sheeler or the dancing shadows behind Maurice Chevalier). His product ads are creatively indirect: a meticulous arrangement of Gorham silver cutlery, a sinuous nude for Cannon Towels, and a glamorous reflected and refracted portrait for Coty Lipstick, all tightly synthesized down and lacking in extraneous visual distraction. His up close still lifes of apples and foxgloves do the same, transforming them (apple becomes rock boulder) with a deft change of scale. Seen together, there is a remarkable consistency of vision on display here, each subject given more punch by an increase in clarity and contrast.

While this show lacks a curatorial point of view and the evidence of edited thinking, that doesn’t necessarily detract from a parade of welcome additions to the Whitney’s collection. Not only do these pictures fill in gaps in Steichen’s artistic arc, they further support a deep and nuanced understanding of the between the wars period in art/photography history. All in, this small exhibit may feel like a fly by on the way to somewhere else, but there are enough real highlights on display to merit a closer look.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are, of course, no posted prices. Steichen’s work is routinely available in the secondary markets, from later prints, photogravures, and broken up portfolios for a few thousand dollars, to vintage rarities like The Pond-Moonlight from 1904, which was for a short period of time the world’s most expensive photograph sold at auction at $2.9 million. Vintage works like the ones on view here would likely run in the five and low six figure range individually.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Vexer Verlag (here). Hardcover (33.3×24.5 cm), 264 pages, with 175 color reproductions. (Includes a short text by Trmasan Bruialesi. (Cover and spread ... Read on.

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