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ART AND PROPAGANDA

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You've probably seen those arresting images around town of Leslie Howard and Gloria Swanson in ads for the Whitney Museum of American Art's Edward Steichen retrospective.

Howard is debonair in a top hat and tux, while Swanson appears mysterious, her face veiled by a piece of lace.

But Steichen's oeuvre is not limited to celebrity portraits. Besides producing still lifes and fashion photography, he also was a freelance photographer for the J. Walter Thompson Co., starting in 1923. He shot ads for agency clients that included Steinway grand pianos, Matson Cruise Line and Cannon Mills towels.

In a campaign for Jergens Lotion, he photo-graphed the wife of the shop's president peeling potatoes. Other work Steichen did, for Pond's cold cream and Simmons mattresses, featured well-known society matrons touting the products.

"He became the leading spokesperson for photography as a replacement for illustration in advertising," said show organizer Barbara Haskell, curator of prewar art at the New York-based museum. He promoted "photography as a tool of persuasion," she added.

The exhibition runs through Feb. 4.

© JOANNA T. STEICHEN