It’s All in the Lighting
Fred Astaire—Top Hat in Funny Face, 1927. Photo: Edward Steichen (MOMA)
The celebrity portraitures of famed photographer Edward Steichen have been enjoying a resurgence of late thanks to exhibits, reissued publications and a grudging admiration for his unparalleled talent in creating a visual language of glamor that is fused to this day with celebrity. What’s of particular interest was his habit of utilizing the very techniques for the domain of Hollywood that he had previously developed so effectively in selling fashion. (See Edward Steichen: In High Fashion)
Witness the momentous flair in making use of dramatic lighting to enhance the theatricality of his subject, in this case Fred Astaire, silhouetting him against a neutral backdrop to create an alternate shadow that’s “larger than life.” Steichen relied on artificial illumination for dramatic oppositions of light and dark to lend a look of modernity and elegance in accordance with Hollywood glamor and the streamlined art deco design aesthetic of the late 1920s and 1930s.
The staging of the Astaire photo was faithfully detailed to include the accoutrements of luxurious living — top hat, tuxedo, cigarette holder, polished walking (in Fred’s case, dancing) cane, boutonniere, pocket square and the heedless stance of a man without care or concern in the world. Note, too, how the pose reinforces the fantasy that was emblematic of Hollywood at the time—men were dashing; women unimaginably glamorous.
Steichen eschewed avant-garde touches in his commercial photography, preferring instead to develop a pragmatically professional visual aesthetic that never looks “arty” and never seeks to impress. His way with Hollywood “glamor shots,” with film stills and eroticised portraits of Broadway stars was similarly aloof. His style is that of a man of the world, the elegantly chilly eroticism of art deco.
So assured was his style, he had the confidence to demand that Condé Nast publish his work exclusively under his name, with his signature as its “auteur”.
Edward Steichen, photographed by Fred Holland Da