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Photo Credit :: Edward Steichen
Arts & Entertainment
Edward Steichen: In High Fashion at the ICP
By Mark Thompson & Robert Doyle
January 16 – May 3, 2009 
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What a world!  That would be the world of Edward Steichen, the subject of a recent fashion retrospective at the International Center of Photography.  Subtitled In High Fashion, The Conde Nast Years 1923-1937, the exhibition of 175 of Steichen’s fashion photographs for Vogue and Vanity Fair was a testament to a Jazz-era world of hedonism and extravagance poised on the cusp of exhaustion.  Sound familiar?  Oh, but while the party was raging, what a party it was!  A partial guest list of Steichen’s subjects conjures up an entire world of madcap heiresses, playboys, literary luminaries, and stars of stage and screen: Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Princess Youssoupoff, HL Mencken, Greta Garbo, Gary Cooper, Al Jolson, WC Fields, Clara Bow, Jack Dempsey, Paul Robeson, Joan Crawford and Douglas Fairbanks.  More stars than in the heavens as MGM used to proclaim.  Steichen photographed them at work and at play, on the SS Lurline to Hawaii, backstage and in their dressing rooms, and on George Baher’s yacht—and always impeccably dressed, and particularly the models such as the stunning Lee Miller.  To see these black-and-white photographs anew—and some of them are so iconic as to have entered the collective subconscious—is to realize again Steichen’s influence on photographers such as Avedon, Mapplethorpe, and Bruce Weber.

And then to move from the Steichen exhibition to an upstairs anteroom off the first floor gallery where Vince Aletti had curated a collection of photographs from the ICP archives was to reconsider how interwoven and interdependent are the worlds of fashion photography and photojournalism. Aletti collected approximately seventy photographs from 1888 to the present, including work from such disparate art photographers and documentarians as Weegee, Lisette Model, Larry Clark, Bruce Davidson, Walker Evans, Andrea Modica, Jacob Riis, Ben Shahn, Ernest J. Bellocq, Leon Levinstein, Helen Levitt, Carrie Mae Weems, Robert Capa, and Berenice Abbott—and in so doing revealed the ways in which fashion, and its photographic representations, consistently draw inspiration from multiple sources in the quotidian world.  To ask the question “What is a fashion photograph?” is to ask “What is fashion?”—and as these exhibitions attest, fashion is everywhere—when we open our eyes.