Art and War

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In the centenary year of World War I, the Art Institute of Chicago is marking this important milestone by celebrating the work of American pioneering photographer Edward Steichen. Currently on show across four of the Art Institute’s galleries is a selection of aerial war photography attributed to Steichen, and his later fashion and glamour portraiture for Condé Nast publications.

Featuring photographic material from the Art Institute’s collection, the exhibition was inspired by a single album of more than eighty aerial photographs belonging to the museum.


“I came across this album and became curious about it,” Michal Raz-Russo, assistant curator in the department of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, tells BJP in a telephone conversation. “Steichen had annotated and captioned almost every page in the album, and I wanted to learn more about what it was and where it came from. The deeper I dug, the more fascinating it became, and that’s when the question emerged – how does a photographer go from being a champion of fine art photography to making aerial photographs in World War I and then become the highest paid, best known commercial and celebrity photographer [of his day]? This question is at the centre of the exhibition.”

A champion of pictorialist photography in the early twentieth century, Steichen achieved fame through his work with the Photo Secessionists – a group that promoted photography as art – and as co-founder (with Alfred Stieglitz) of the magazine, Camera Work, which was published between 1903 and 1917.

But gradually Steichen began to move away from producing soft-focus landscapes and portraits, and started to produce more ‘realist’ photographs. He became interested in photography’s potential to be used as a tool, its function in the world – what we might call ‘applied photography’ or photographs with a purpose – taking the role as head of the Photographic Section of the American Expeditionary Forces from 1917 to 1919. Working primarily with aerial photography in a managerial capacity, Steichen was instrumental in adapting this area of photography for intelligence purposes, and implementing surveillance programs that would have a lasting impact on modern warfare.

Inspired by the challenges involved in making clear, in-focus photographs from a vibrating aircraft, Steichen later said that his involvement working for the military “had brought me a new kind of technical interest in photography… Now I wanted to know all that could be expected from photography.”

Steichen embarked on what would be a fruitful career working as a photographer for magazines including Vogue and Vanity Fair from 1923 to 1937, creating cutting-edge fashion and celebrity portraits that are recognised today as some of the most iconic of their genre. “Steichen’s real genius was to borrow techniques from modernism, which he had been exploring before the war, from advertising, and glamour portraiture, which he blended together to create a new kind of image for the printed page,” says Raz-Russo. “The idea that a photograph of fashion could be about more than the dress and could convey a mood, or that models could be celebrities, were new. These ideas are very much tied to the bigger notion of photography as being ‘out in the world’ that you sense Steichen became aware of after the war… what sets this exhibition apart is our focus on the World War I work leading up to Steichen’s fashion and celebrity photographs, and looking at this later work through that lens.”

Sharp, Clear Pictures: Edward Steichen’s World War I and Condé Nast Years runs until 28 September [please note, this article was amended on 24 September to reflect the correct date]. For more information visit The Art Institute of Chicago.

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