Pre and Post 50s portrait photographers Edward Steichen & Jimmy nelson

Edward Steichen

Who is he?

Edward Steichen was an American painter and photographer. He is known for his portrait photography in the early 20s to the late 30s. He began his photography career at the age of 16 after buying his first camera, which was a secondhand Kodak box.

Where did he work?

'Camera Work' and the Photo-secession

Steichen's photography career first took off in 1903 after he was recognised by American photographer and photography pioneer Alfred Stieglitz. Steichen became the most featured photographer in Stieglitz's innovative photographic journal, 'Camera Work' which was a magazine that promoted photography as an art form which ran for 15 years. The photography journal would also promote Stieglitz's photographic organisation called the 'Photo-Secession' which was an intimate group in which Steichen was a part of. Steichen' s approach to photography during this time was pictorialism, a way that focuses only on the the beauty of the subject in the eyes of the photographer as apposed to the documentation use of a photograph. The purpose of Steichen's photography at this time was to help people recognise photography as an art medium.

The 1906 front cover for 'Camera Work' taken by Edward Steichen
Cyclamen - Mrs. Philip Lydig

Conde Nast and the fashion photography industry

In 1911 Steichen was given the opportunity to use photography to promote fashion as a fine art. This photo shoot is now thought to be the first ever of its kind. These images were then published in the 1911 April issue of 'Art et Decoration' by using these techniques Steichen was able to show the garments in their formal appearance and physical quality as apposed to just illustrating the object on its own.

From 1923 to 1938, after the Photo-Secession movement, Steichen decided to go down the commercial path and worked for Conde Nast Publications, a mass media founded in 1909. He became the chief photographer and created photographs for esteemed fashion magazines Vogue and Vanity Fair he would also produce photographs for advertising agency, J. Walter Thomson.

During this time Steichen would gain fame and recognition for his innovative portraits of celebrities and using fine art photography as a way of publicizing fashion.

Portrait of actress Loretta Young taken by Steichen for Vogue

Steichen would take photographs of celebrities including Gary Cooper, Gloria Swanson and Marlene Dietrich. Many of these portraits helped to define the 20s and 30s eras.

Iconic portrait of actress Gloria Swanson taken for Vanity Fair in 1924

Steichen's fashion photography was very different to his previous soft focus pictorialism approach as he would shoot his images with high detail and sharpness which is still seen in many fashion magazines to this day.

Jimmy Nelson

Who is he?

Jimmy Nelson is a British photojournalist known for his idealistic take and aesthetically beautiful native tribal and cultural portraits. Nelson's photojournalism career first took off a year after taking a small camera recording his one year trip hiking through Tibet where he became interested in the thought of capturing the beauty of indigenous people.

Where did he work?

After his trip he was employed to take photos of many wars and poverty, including the Yugoslav wars although he did not see himself as a journalist. In 1994, Nelson was commissioned by Shell Oil to produce the book 'Literary Portraits of China' which became a two year project alongside his wife whom he later became business partners with, his work for this project eventually exhibited worldwide. After this project Nelson started working in commercial advertising.

'Before they Pass Away'

In 2009 Nelson started working on his biggest personal project titled 'Before they Pass Away', a coffee table book with images and facts on the people he met on his journey. Nelson travelled for 3 years across the world to capture photographs of these very scarce indigenous tribes who's cultures and lifestyles are still strong today. Nelson would take many weeks in order to learn and understand the rituals of these tribes before taking any photographs of them. He took pride in getting to know and forming a bond with these people. Nelson's main reason for creating this project was to show the world how "beautiful" he thought these people were. He wanted to simply capture the aesthetic of the tribes and the landscapes in which they live. Nelson captured these images on a 50 year old 4x5 inch camera.

A Nenet photographed by Nelson in Siberia, March 2011. Now a very recognised image around the world
Taken in Mongolia, March 2011
Caro children from Etheopia, July 2011. This is one of my favourite images from the series.


There is controversy that comes along with Nelsons project 'Before they Pass Away'. He has been criticised for being too idealistic and that he is trying to glamourise the way that these indigenous tribes. 'actually' look. He has also been criticized on the name of his book and that the meaning behind the title is more violent that what seems to be. Although Nelson's work may not be completely natural, I still believe it shows the true culture, dress and rituals of these tribes and communities. I also think that the photographer has been able to capture the aesthetic he was aiming to achieve.

Nelson is currently working on a second part of his project with the help of the 'Jimmy Nelson Foundation', this organisation was created to allow him to give something back to the people he had met on his previous journey. Nelson's work can also be followed via his YouTube channel where small clips of his encounters with the tribes and people are uploaded.


Created By
Miriam Ali

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