Edward Steichen at Condé Nast

035_p38_w Emily Mitchell in The New Statesman:

Edward Steichen’s decision in 1923 to go to work for Condé Nast as principal photographer for Vanity Fair and Vogue was one of the most controversial and long-debated in the history of photography. Prior to then, Steichen had exemplified the photographer-as-artist, at a time when the medium was still struggling for acceptance as a legitimate art form. With Alfred Stieglitz, he had been a founding member of the Photo-Secession, which, like the Linked Ring group in Britain, championed the Pictorialist aesthetic of softened lines and contrasts that deliberately made photographs more like paintings. Steichen had also been a promoter of the avant-garde, bringing new works by French artists, including Henri Matisse and Auguste Rodin, to America for exhibition.

He therefore seemed an unlikely choice to enter the functional world of magazine photo graphy, with its emphasis on commerce and mass appeal. But in 1923 Steichen was, in his own words, “sick and tired of being poor”, and so, when he was offered this steady and well-paid work, he took it, declaring his intention to do it for just a few years and then return to being an art photographer and painter. In fact, he was to stay with Condé Nast for almost two decades.

Some saw Steichen’s decision to go commercial as the moment when he broke with his purist past and with Stieglitz, an absolute believer in art for art’s sake. Certainly, Steichen took flak at that time and subsequently for selling out. When he was appointed to be head of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1946, a number of his fellow photographers, including Ansel Adams and the previous director of MoMA’s photography department, Beaumont Newhall, protested against the choice because they viewed his work after the First World War as “illustrative” rather than artistic and aimed at “swaying large masses of people”.

Others argue that Steichen’s magazine photo graphs constitute an important aspect of his art, one that is as much a continuation of his earlier work as a departure from it.