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Dedicated follower of fashion

When he accepted a job at Condé Nast, Edward Steichen was criticised for "selling out" - but he turn

Edward Steichen's decision in 1923 to go to work for Condé Nast as principal photographer for Vanity Fair and Vogue was one of the most controversial and long-debated in the history of photography. Prior to then, Steichen had exemplified the photographer-as-artist, at a time when the medium was still struggling for acceptance as a legitimate art form. With Alfred Stieglitz, he had been a founding member of the Photo-Secession, which, like the Linked Ring group in Britain, championed the Pictorialist aesthetic of softened lines and contrasts that deliberately made photographs more like paintings. Steichen had also been a promoter of the avant-garde, bringing new works by French artists, including Henri Matisse and Auguste Rodin, to America for exhibition.

He therefore seemed an unlikely choice to enter the functional world of magazine photo graphy, with its emphasis on commerce and mass appeal. But in 1923 Steichen was, in his own words, "sick and tired of being poor", and so, when he was offered this steady and well-paid work, he took it, declaring his intention to do it for just a few years and then return to being an art photographer and painter. In fact, he was to stay with Condé Nast for almost two decades.

Some saw Steichen's decision to go commercial as the moment when he broke with his purist past and with Stieglitz, an absolute believer in art for art's sake. Certainly, Steichen took flak at that time and subsequently for selling out. When he was appointed to be head of photography at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1946, a number of his fellow photographers, including Ansel Adams and the previous director of MoMA's photography department, Beaumont Newhall, protested against the choice because they viewed his work after the First World War as "illustrative" rather than artistic and aimed at "swaying large masses of people".

Others argue that Steichen's magazine photo graphs constitute an important aspect of his art, one that is as much a continuation of his earlier work as a departure from it. This is the conten tion made by a new book of his photographs from the Condé Nast years in the 1920s and 1930s, Edward Steichen: In High Fashion. The book is a companion volume to the exhibition of the same name that has toured Europe and the United States since mid-2007. The works in it were previously archived at the Condé Nast company, and until now they have never been exhibited or collected in a single volume.

The director of the Musée de 'Élysée in Lausanne, William Ewing, points out in his introductory essay that Steichen had ample experience as a portrait photographer before arriving at Vanity Fair, having had luminaries as various as Theodore Roosevelt, Rodin, Isadora Duncan and J P Morgan sit for him in the early 1900s. In 1911, Steichen took some of the earliest fashion photographs: his pictures of designs by Paul Poiret are included in the volume and testify to his already developed ability to depict the clothed, posed body in compelling ways.

By 1923 Steichen had turned away from Pictorialism towards a more modernist aesthetic. During the First World War he was in charge of photographic reconnaissance for the US army; he then put himself through what he referred to as "a new apprenticeship" to learn "straight" photography - pictures that would show their subjects in clear, unadorned exposures. His work from the start of the 1920s shows Steichen focused on line and form, abstracting his subjects and working with stark tonal contrasts. A clear connection can be drawn from the "abstractions" of reconnaissance pictures, where the world is reduced to topography, through these abstract experiments, to the increasingly sleek and minimal aesthetic of his fashion shots later in the decade.

The case for Steichen's work being art is, of course, best made by the photographs themselves. They remain beautiful, immediate and strikingly modern. As Carol Squiers points out in her excellent accompanying essay, Steichen moved incrementally away from the romantic near-Pictorialism of his predecessor at Vanity Fair, Adolphe de Meyer, towards the clean lines for which he is known. Through the years, one can see the luxurious settings of his earlier photographs drop away (he shot often in Condé Nast's own New York apartment) as patterns and rich fabrics give way to hard-angled backgrounds, and softer greyscale tones are replaced by starkly contrasted black and white.

His portraits are arresting and varied; the contemporary critic Sadakichi Hartmann said Stei chen's portraits "give commentary on the sitter", and this collection shows us his poses in conversation with their subjects. Sometimes this happens in straightforward ways, as with his catlike inclined pose of Marlene Dietrich from 1932, or his picture of the Bronx Zoo curator Raymond Ditmars with a coiled snake on his desk. Sometimes the implicit commentary is more complex, as in the 1931 pictures in which Charlie Chaplin, clean-shaven and visibly greying, takes aim with a cane at his bowler hat, which occupies the foreground as though it had gained a life of its own.

The fashion photographs are evidence of Stei chen's extraordinary eye for composition and form, one that uses the models as elegant shapes first and foremost. The preface notes that 21st-century quadratone reproduction has rendered visible the extensive retouching of the originals; letting this show was a deliberate choice on the part of the curators. It is a reasonable decision, though that doesn't make the photo-doctoring look less strange: a photograph of Alice Brady, for example, shows part of the actress's blousy dress scribbled out and the side of her right leg, including her heel, appears to have been shaved away.

Such apparent alterations lead back to the question of the relationship between art and commerce. In the post-pop-art world, the romantic (and modernist) idea of the artist as bohemian outsider seems outmoded. In Paris of the 1900s, there was already a closer association between fine art and fashion than the Anglo-American world would allow for many more decades. The critic Tobia Bezzola argues that today's art world is deliberately using the ephemera of fashion and celebrity not just as vehicles for promotion but as its subject matter, too. Yet those who criticised Steichen's choice early last century did so out of anxiety about artistic freedom and a scepticism about photography's ability to encompass the full range of human experience in a commercial setting. If we are cutting chunks off women's legs to make them skinnier, is it art?

It may be possible to address this issue adequately for each individual artist only, rather than for photography as a whole. It seems that Steichen's art flourished within the boundaries of commerce. He was able to innovate and to create an original language of image and gesture that we still see in the work of his inheritors - Richard Avedon, Marion Ettlinger, Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin, to name a few. The evidence of his works taken together suggests that Steichen's sensibility was refined and specific, rather than all-encompassing. He disliked the harsher strains of modernism, Dada and surrealism - he called the former "cheap perfume" to cover the stench of the Great War - and indeed, throughout his life he kept the optimistic, liberal view of human nature that was for so many destroyed in that war.

Steichen's outlook remained, arguably, Edwardian; he was interested in loveliness, not in horror or desolation; his work offers no evidence that he saw a conflict between truth and beauty. So where another photographer might have been stifled and diverted from his or her true interests by entering the dreamworld of magazine glamour, Steichen could enlarge its scope enormously, thereby creating a genre with range, depth, playfulness and grace.

"Edward Steichen: In High Fashion - the Condé Nast Years (1923-1937)" by William A Ewing and Todd Brandow, is published by Thames & Hudson (£42)

Emily Mitchell's novel "The Last Summer of the World" (W W Norton, £8.99) is based on the life of Steichen

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The crash of 2008