Focusing on the aesthetic innovation of Edward Steichen during his tenure at Condé Nast, a conference hosted by the V&A, substantiated Steichen’s progressive image of fashion photography and portraiture that was at all times corresponding to a particularly American brand of identity. The collaborative conference was organised and held in light of recent exhibitions at the Photographers’ Gallery, In High Fashion: The Condé Nast Years 1923-1937 and Inventing Elegance – Fashion and Photography 1910-1945 at the V&A. Speaker and co-curator of the Photographers’ Gallery exhibition William A. Ewing provided the best summation of Steichen’s vision as distinguished from the trajectory of other contemporary photographers such as Cecil Beaton, Martin Munkasci, Gerge Hoyningen-Huene and Horst P. Horst. By establishing the ‘metaphoric bridge between old and new’, Steichen facilitated the pivotal shift that allowed photography to escape the confines of documentation and broach the new frontier of the crossing between art and commerce.
The photographer’s role in becoming both the ‘maker and producer of art’ is particularly evident in the Vogue photographs throughout the ‘High Fashion’ exhibition, at once uniting the medium that casts a modern spotlight on refined simplicity and clarity, with the literal spotlight on the designs themselves, such as those by Poiret, Lanvin, Vionnet and Schiaparelli. The imbued value system that negotiates the space between fashion image as art, and fashion image as function, attests to what Alistaire O’Neill terms a ‘buttonhole complex’, in order that the consumer is clearly able to see each and every detail of the garment that is not corrupted or enhanced by photographic embelishment. In this light, the prominence placed on the reassurance of craftsmanship is symptomatic of the social insecurity intangible with new deal America, whilst at the same time responds to a conscious call for quality and truth, which the photographs stand to demonstrate exist in America. As a result, the total fashion image constructs an outlet that transforms ideals into reality, therefore strengthening, if not re-constructing a modern identity.
As has been explored, a dominant theme throughout both the High Fashion exhibition and Inventing Elegance conference, is the way in which Steichen’s photography functions under the duality of an explicitely ‘American’ and ‘Fashion’ framework. The exhibition presents photographs from Vogue alongside those from Vanity fair, clearly distingushing the image of both publications via their respective preoccupations, thus fashion imagery and portraiture. It could be argued therefore, that the role of the consumer that the fashion image relies upon is perhaps not as instrumental to the role of portraiture, as the commercial value is not intrinsic to it’s existence as art.
The portraits of Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong and Mexican-American actress Armida Vendrell however call into question the commercial value of identity. In a room full of sportswear signalling the ‘American woman’, both subjects are presented in attire emblematic of their heritage, that even though born and raised in America, assume the identity of ‘other’. It is for this reason questionable whether the presentation of exoticism is itself a function of commerce that much like their roles as actresses invariably sells a foreign identity to an American audience, thus replicating the role of fashion imagery, or whether the photographer is relying on such social understanding of foreigners, in order that those who do not immediately fit the confines of an American look are deemed viable subjects of beauty befitting a public portrait.