From 1923 to 1926 Edward Steichen became the most influential theatrical portraitist and fashion photographer in the world. In the wake of his divorce from Clara Steichen, his return from France, and his final rejection of painting as a medium for expression, Steichen, aged forty-two, returned to New York. There he read Frank Crownenshield's article in Vanity Fair about the ten most important portrait photographers of the age. Steichen found himself named the preeminent master of that company, and read that he had abandoned photography for the easel. Steichen contacted Crowninshield to inform him that he had abandoned the easel for photography. Crowninshield invited him to lunch with Conde Nast, publisher of Vogue, Vanity Fair, and other magazines. Nast offered Steichen the post of chief photographer of Nast publications. Steichen accepted, securing an unprecedented salary among magazine artists of $35,000 annually.
Steichen immediately set to work, learning to use artificial light for the first time, jettisoning painted flats as backdrops, and embracing a straight aesthetic. He experimented with poses, lighting, exposure times, and angles. Shooting in the Beaux Arts Studios at 80 W. 40th Street, and making a yearly trek to Hollywood, Steichen worked so intensely that the Nast publications no longer needed to make use of the large number of free lance photos that had graced its pages when Adolph De Meyer was chief photographer. Steichen took portrait commissions on top of his assignments and soon determined to become a commercial photographer for the J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency, which paid him $20,000 annually for work. He married Dana Desboro Glover, an actress, had a daughter, Mary, who aspired to act.
As the 1920s progressed Steichen's interest was drawn increasingly from Broadway to Hollywood, perhaps under the influence of his cousin Carl Sanburg who, since 1920, had written movie criticism in Chicago. Steichen celebrated the disciplines of commercial portrait photography and reveled in the mass reproduction of his imagery in the popular magazines. One reason that he had rejected painting was its mandarin elitism, the fact that it ornamented a wall and had few viewers. A photograph could project a new image of beauty to a multitude. Steichen's zeal for commercial imagery made him the target of left-wing critics in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash. But Steichen dismissed the anti-commercial diatribes as a rehash of the art for art's sake ballyhoo of the old amateur pictorial photographers.
The suspension of publication of Vanity Fair in the Depression and Steichen's growing involvement in photojournalist imagery brought an end to his productive era as a chronicler of the stage and screen in 1936. David S. Shields/ALS
Steichen's theatrical and celebrity portraiture departed from his earlier pictorialist style in its clear focus, its employment of artificial light, and its concern for a figure in an artificially arranged environment. Steichen's usual sensitivity to the disposition of objects in a pictorial field remained constant, but his willingness to arrange those objects increased substantially. This imposition of will on the visual environment was the psychological precondition for Steichen's commercial work which he commenced shortly after 1923.