Actors, writers, dancers, and politicians all dressed to the nines – cane in hand, bobbed cut, slicked hair, bow ties – have shown up at the Flagler Museum for the ultimate after-party. Missing from this one is the duck pouts, the flashing cameras and the red carpet. Those prone to platonic love or being starstruck, guard your hearts.
Everybody looks deliciously attractive in Star Power: Edward Steichen’s Glamour Photography, the latest exhibit to grace the walls of the museum’s second-floor galleries. The glamorous dignitaries date back to the 1920s and 1930s, but their presence has never felt stronger. Even the less conventional beauties among the 81 black-and-white vintage prints exude an irresistible confidence. Not bad for an amateur photographer from Milwaukee who sold photographs for less than 50 cents at one point and mastered many hats: portraitist, colorist, illustrator, painter, curator and chief coordinator of combat/aerial photography units during both world wars.
In a 1932 gelatin silver print, witty writer Sinclair Lewis reclines in an armchair and rests his thumb on his lips, but he is not entirely relaxed. His head, lifted from the leather, looks straight at the camera. His white-collar shirt crippled with wrinkles offers a beautiful reading of his recent labor. The smoke emanating from the tucked-away fingers reveals the reward. Two years after this shot, Lewis becomes the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. His unpretentious pose and straightforward glance, however, suggest pride has already settled in. Some form of recognition must have occurred. As we come to find out, Lewis already had received and declined the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith in 1926.
William Butler Yeats, also a Nobel Prize winner, appears not far away in a photograph from the same year. It is a wider shot depicting the great Irish poet and founder of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in a single-breasted light suit. The dramatic lighting descends upon his undone white hair, as if enunciating the big contrast with his otherwise immaculate appearance. The shadow covering his eyes makes it impossible to tell whether he is making eye contact, and we don’t dare take a guess.
The gravitational pull of these and other prints, such as those depicting Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi (ca. 1922), Gloria Swanson (1924) and Greta Garbo (1928), is a bit surprising considering the soft quality Steichen employs to deliver them. That strong hook is partially the result of intense poses that awake the sitters’ personality like a calm, rehearsed exorcism. His private notes allude to a secret formula: “Look at the subject, think about it before photographing, look until it becomes alive and looks back at you.”
Then there is the documented trajectory of drama, affairs, and scandals associated with those portrayed. But we are not here to judge. Besides, these icons have already been through the ultimate test: the photographer trapping their allure had nothing further to prove. Decades earlier, Steichen had had the nerve to ask J.P. Morgan to pose for three minutes; an eternity to the busy banker. Being “Steichenized” meant having one’s portrait made by him.
Indeed, Steichen was already considered la crème de la crème in the world of photography and close friends with Auguste Rodin and Alfred Stieglitz by 1923, when he became chief photographer for Condé Nast’s Vogue and Vanity Fair. This was a long way from the days of Camera Work, a quarterly journal that went on to feature more than 65 of his photographs in 15 issues. The readership drawn to his advertising and fashion works –some of which are housed in the back gallery– was far greater than the exclusive crowd devoted to his early, painterly fine-art photographs.
One striking inclusion not to be missed in the show running through Jan. 6 is a 1928 portrait of conductor Leopold Stokowski. The legendary British maestro, known for skipping the baton while conducting, here is portrayed as a mythological God. His tall figure, golden hair and handsome profile, appear bathed in light and convey the profound self-awareness enjoyed by the 46-year-old man. Stokowski, who lived to 95 and appears shaking hands with Mickey in Disney’s Fantasia, served as music director for the New York Philharmonic among various other orchestras.
At certain points during the show, a profound sadness imposes on us. After all, the splendid tap-dancing of Fred Astaire and Louise Brooks’ shiny black hair are no longer so. Charlie Chaplin will never attempt another hat trick again and naughty Marlene Dietrich might have literally turned into a blue angel.
As if the afterlife had unlocked a special wisdom, the famous faces featured in Star Power seem to understand not only the attraction to self-restraint and secrecy but also the need to practice both. They evoke a time when enemies could disagree and still shake hands; when two could walk away from an argument unashamed. The classy air shared by Steichen’s stars stems from a sense of dignity, self-composure and mutual respect.
Death cannot stop us from admiring them. Wherever they ended up, wherever they went, it won’t be getting crowded.
Star Power: Edward Steichen’s Glamour Photography, runs through Jan. 6 at the Flagler Museum, Palm Beach. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 Sundays. Closed Mondays and holidays. Admission: $18. Call 655-2833 or visit flaglermuseum.us.