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Photo Synthesis

Sylvia Sidney, Hollywood (1931)

January 07, 2007|Colin Westerbeck

Edward Steichen's career was a play in three acts. Act 1, The Artiste, lasted until World War I; Act 2, The Professional, was between the wars; and Act 3, The Curator, came after World War II. The second act was the most creative because commerce was best suited to his temperament.

"When I first became interested in photography . . . my idea was to have it recognized as one of the fine arts," he once said. "Today I don't give a hoot in hell about that." He said the same thing, more politely, in an essay titled "Commercial Photography" published the year he made this portrait of Sylvia Sidney for Vanity Fair. When I asked cinematographer John Bailey to choose a favorite photograph from his collection, this was the one he picked.

Sidney's assessment of her career was as blunt as Steichen's. As she remembered it, "I'd be the girl of the gangster . . . then the sister who was bringing up the gangster, then later, the mother of the gangster. And they always had me ironing somebody's shirt." She doesn't look like such a tough tootsy here, though. Steichen made her into a delicate little California flower blooming in the sunshine.

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