Advertising Put Photography at the Center of American Culture in the 20th Century | Arts
In this series, Lagniappe presents each week a different work from the collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art, with commentary by a curator.
Edward Steichen has led several lives in photography. Born in Luxembourg, Steichen demonstrated artistic aptitude as a youth in Milwaukee before studying art and living in Paris.
He collaborated with Alfred Steiglitz in the first decades of the 20th century, helping to legitimize photography as an art. At the time, Steichen practiced a style of pictorial photography characterized by elaborate printing methods and delicate retouching. During World War I, Steichen pioneered new uses of photography to aid the United States military (a role he took over in his sixties during World War II).
In New York in the 1920s, Steichen worked for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency and the Condé Nast magazines. Steichen used common elements of fine art and stage photography – such as elaborate studio lighting or high contrast – in his commercial work, stimulating consumption and making photography an increasingly ubiquitous element in culture. American.
His vibrant images of celebrities, fashion and consumer products made Steichen the highest paid photographer of the time. From 1947 to 1961, Steichen directed the photography program at the Museum of Modern Art, where he organized a number of exhibitions of global influence.
The Manhattan Eye, Ear, and Throat Hospital was founded in 1869 as a non-profit institution serving New Yorkers living in poverty. In 1931, Steichen made this promotional photograph.
By this time, Steichen had abandoned pictorialism in favor of a distinctly modernist approach (think clean lines and sharp focus). Theatrical and narrative, “On the Clinic Stairs” suggested the hospital’s need for resources and encouraged individual support for public health at the start of the Great Depression.
Vanity Fair published the photo in 1932 with the caption: “Hope on the Staircase”. Looking at the photograph, the eye of the spectator follows that of the patients upwards towards the door of the clinic, before the dramatic effect of chiaroscuro returns the gaze downwards, to start the circuit again from the steps. lower.
Steichen left a visible space at the end of the line where viewers could imagine joining the queue. Presumably, the viewer could shorten everyone’s metaphorical wait time by supporting the hospital and other real-world public health initiatives. In this vaccine and booster season, with so many making personal choices for our collective well-being, that sense of being together and looking to the future, while enduring a seemingly endless wait, seems remarkably familiar.
Brian Piper is the Assistant Curator of Photographs for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation at the New Orleans Museum of Art.