Lusha Nelson, born 1900, was a promising young staff photographer who worked for Condé Nast Publications from 1932-1938 and ran in prominent photography circles with the likes of Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz. Best-remembered for striking, modern portraits of American celebrities and elegant fashion photography, Nelson also pursued documentary photography before his untimely death in 1938.
"Among photography buffs, the enigmatic and multi-talented Lusha Nelson is the Forgotten Modernist. In the 1930s, he shot portraits for Vanity Fair, fashion spreads for Vogue, as well as still lifes, street scenes, and glossy ads with equal aplomb. A Latvian émigré, he had come to New York as a teenager with artistic aspirations, only to knock around doing odd jobs (including a stint as a sous-chef in the Catskills) before mirroring his mentor, Edward Steichen, and choosing the camera over the canvas. Though virtually unknown, Nelson quickly became a favorite of Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz, the reigning photography kingmakers, for his bold, sharp-edged style and authentic approach. (Nelson abhorred retouching.)
Steichen, then the chief photographer of Condé Nast Publications, took Nelson under his wing, and the young artist was soon shooting striking portraits of Hollywood stars like Katharine Hepburn and Fay Wray, and elite athletes such as heavyweight boxer Joe Louis and the sprinter Jesse Owens before he embarrassed Hitler at the Berlin Olympics. Then, in 1938—just 6 years into a promising career—Nelson, aged 38, died from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, consigning his legacy to a photographic footnote.
Reading Recommendations & Content Considerations
Celebrity, the Forgotten Man, and 1930s America